The Inequality of Labor Legislation
NOVEMBER 01, 1988 by DEBORAH WALKER
Dr. Walker is an assistant professor of economics at Loyola University in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Joe is a blue collar worker. He has worked hard all his life, saving and skimping, holding on to the dream that some day he would have his own business. Joe has always been in favor of all kinds of labor legislation designed to “protect” himself and his fellow workers. For example, he knew that minimum wage laws were designed to help the relatively unskilled workers by taking from relatively wealthy employers and giving to workers like himself. Joe did notice, however, that when these laws became effective the employers were not the only ones who had to “give.” His best friend, Sam, who had just started with the firm, was soon laid off.
When this happened, Joe began to analyze the moral principle underlying labor legislation. The “regulators,” he concluded, had made the decision that the rights of workers were more important than the rights of employers. The employers should be forced to pay workers like Joe a minimum amount. And, furthermore, it also seemed that the rights of the workers who kept their jobs were also more important than the rights of the workers who had to be laid off because of the increased labor costs to the firm. This was about as far as Joe’s analysis went. He could not really determine the moral principle underlying the decision that some people’s rights are more important than other people’s rights, if there were one; but since he was a worker and not an employer, he didn’t mind.
Joe eventually became a member of a union. The union leaders were always complaining about competition from workers who worked at home, who weren’t members of the union. The union leaders began claiming that those who worked at home weren’t keeping adequate records about the wages they received and about their working conditions. If people continued to work at home, the union claimed, employers could easily exploit workers by paying them less than the minimum wage and by not abiding by all the other terms of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The only to be sure this act was being upheld was to make a new regulation against working at home. The union had convinced Joe that this new regulation would benefit him. After all, those people who worked at home were “unfairly” competing with Joe and his fellow union members.
Again Joe noticed that it was not just employers who paid a price for this legislation. Joe’s Aunt Betty, who had arthritis in her hips, could not leave her home without undergoing a considerable amount of pain. Despite this handicap, Aunt Betty had been a productive, self-sufficient member of the community, until she was told she could no longer work at home.
Joe realized that his rights as a union member seemed to override the rights of the home workers (including Aunt Betty) and the rights of the entrepreneurs who employed them. But again Joe thought it was fine, as long as he benefited.
Joe had always been in favor of affirmative action—who wouldn’t be? He knew that his employer deliberately hired minorities and women who would not have been hired had his employer not been afraid of an affirmative action lawsuit. It was only fair, thought Joe, that the rights of these people be considered more important than the right of his employer to hire whoever he felt would be the most productive. And it also seemed only fair that the fights of minorities and women be considered more important than the fights of those individuals who would have been hired if it were not for affirmative action.
The day finally arrived when Joe felt he was financially able to quit his job and open his own restaurant. In his efforts to begin operation, however, he found himself lost in a maze of bureaucratic regulations. He could not sell liquor without a license. He could not open his doors until he met the specifications of the Public Health Administration. He could not use his neon sign because of zoning laws. And the list went on and on. Joe managed to deal with all the regulations and specifications and finally opened his doors.
Financially strained, Joe thought he could still make money by cutting costs. But Joe soon discovered that, again, regulations made it difficult for him to cut costs. He now had to pay at least the minimum wage to all of his em-ployees-even the ones he didn’t fred worth the wage rate. Now he had to make sure he was hiring minorities and women to avoid a lawsuit. Now he had to meet the requirements of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Within a few months, Joe had to close. His life-long dream was dead. The people for whom he had provided jobs were once again unemployed.
Is there a moral principle behind the idea that some individuals’ rights are more important than other individuals’ rights? What is this moral principle? Equality of opportunity?
All Joe ever wanted was the opportunity to advance from employee to employer. But he was denied that opportunity in the name of “equality of opportunity.” Somehow, to Joe, none of it made sense. When he was an employee—lucky enough to stay employed—his rights were always “protected” at the expense of others. But what rights are these? The right to a job? But these regulations destroyed jobs. The right to a minimum income? But these regulations caused some workers to find themselves earning nothing at all.
Joe felt deeply violated. He had worked hard all his life to earn enough money to open his business. It was his money, his hard work, his time, his life! Now, within a few short months, it was gone. The very regulations which had “protected” him through the years had taken away his life-long dream.
There is no moral principle behind what happened to Joe. Regulations are not passed into law in order to protect a “universal right”such as the right to own oneself. Regulations are passed into law in order to benefit some at the expense of others. Those most politically powerful decide what and whose “rights” are most important. Indeed, it is at theft discretion to decide what is or is not a “fight.”
When the Founding Fathers wrote that all of us are created equal, they meant equal in the eyes of the law. Every individual should be subject to the same laws, the same “rights,” at all times, under all circumstances. Joe objected when his right to his own life—his property—was violated, yet he supported the same violation of the fights of others, as long as he benefited. Unfortunately, the political process promotes such hypocritical behavior.
There is a moral justification for the right of a man to own himself, including his time and effort and the property he honestly accumulates through that time and effort. The moral principle is equality—but equality in the true sense. For one individual to have coercive power over another is to have drastic inequality—some are owners, while others are owned. The forced redistribution of income, whether through minimum wage laws, home work laws, or affirmative action legislation, is the very essence of this inequality.