Browsing through the Huffington Post website, past a Democrat winning in Massachusetts, past the Supreme Court deciding whether the right to vote is a racial preference, past the waning glorification of Edward (la Twerp) Snowden, past the Republican candidate for Virginia Governor taking anti-Sodomy sexual regulation to the Supreme Court, to this:
WASHINGTON -- Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the ranking Republican on the Senate's labor committee, said in a hearing Tuesday that he would prefer to see the minimum wage abolished.
Senator Alexander's reasoning was a little different from the sort of argument that has been around before my great-great grandfather's time. Lamar Alexander thinks interference with the free market is warranted, but he prefers other alternatives to what he sees as punitive action against employers. He would like to expand the earned income tax credit.
It is not a new idea.
When I was a fairly new voter, the earned income credit was considered the conservative alternative. It was the program of choice for conservatives. Chuck Connors would appear in television ads saying that "Republicans are people, too" and conservative alternatives to poverty were quite the thing.
Liberals were a bit suspicious, having grown used to the Potterville form of conservatism. But finally, the logic of whatever-gets-the-job-done prevailed.
Compassionate conservatives still exist. They are affectionately known by their friends as RINOs. For the most part, conservatives simply dislike those struggling to get out of poverty. That, along with a desire to tilt elections, forms the basis of voter suppression efforts to make it prohibitively difficult for those who ride buses to work to participate in fair elections. The Earned Income Credit has lost favor except among those who do not despise the poor.
The argument most often heard about minimum wage is the older one, the one most often called "Freedom of Contract." Freedom of Contract holds that, like water seeking its own level, standards of employer conduct will find a level of stability if individual workers and large corporations negotiate without interference from government.
It has been supported by a long lineage of distinguished advocates.
It was a central tenet of Ronald Reagan before he entered politics. As a spokesperson for General Electric, in the 1950s, he advocated freedom of contracts. Individual workers and potential employers should negotiate one-on-one for wages and benefits and working conditions.
More recently, Rand Paul ran a successful campaign for the United States Senate in 2010, based in part on the same advocacy. When coal miners in West Virginia protested safety conditions after several died in a preventable explosion, Paul pointed out that worker deaths were bad for business - bad enough to provide incentive for coal mines to adopt safe conditions. If employees were hesitant to sign on for deadly work, employers would be forced by the marketplace to improve so they could continue to operate with a workforce.
A counter argument has been recognized for a long time. John Stuart Mill pointed out in the 1840s that the relationship between employers and employees was asymmetrical. On one side of each negotiating table, as envisioned by conservatives in those days, would be corporations who might have to recruit an additional worker. On the other side was a worker who, along with his family, might have a hard time avoiding starvation. This is not hyperbole. Families in those days did die of hunger during times of unemployment.
The asymmetrical nature of employment led to labor unions and to such government imposed standards as worker safety, minimum wage, unemployment insurance, prohibitions against certain labor practices, and regulation against some forms of child labor. Some parts of Freedom of Contract had to be moderated.
Anyone who had experienced the traditional company town, where most employment was in the hands of a single corporation, know the casual way power in a one-way relationship could flow.
I was thinking about the temptations inherent in a powerful vs powerless relationship as I read an argument by my friend T. Paine. My friend is outraged that Obamacare might require an anti-choice employer to provide, even indirectly, healthcare that could include contraception and abortion.
Common sense would seem to suggest to me that if you don’t want to abide by the morals or conscientious choices made by an employer, then don’t accept a job working for them.
- T. Paine, writing for Fair and UNbalanced, June 24, 2013
Although we might have hoped the anger of T. Paine and others might have been mollified by gratuitous steps taken at the insistence of President Obama - requiring separate coverage by health care providers rather than employers, exemptions for religious organizations, etc - it was not to be.
One conservative proposed legislation that would allow an employer to require each employee to obtain individual permission from the boss before contraceptives or abortions could be pursued by that employee or family members.
As T. Paine and a host of distinguished colleagues have said: If you don't like it, hit the road and look for another job. After all, that's freedom.
I understand the argument. I do wish conservatives could understand the lack of appeal to non-conservatives of the laissez-faire model of freedom.
Although conservatives would not phrase it this way, I don't think I do that view violence. They include in their vision of freedom, the freedom of an employer to impose any condition of employment that market forces allow, no matter how outrageous they may seem.
In the past, this vision has sent small children to worm their way into heavy machinery to affect dangerous repairs. It has sent coal miners to operate in underground conditions with only the ventilation that wind would afford. It has put women in the position of tolerating unwelcomed sexual advances. Low wages, unhealthy conditions, extreme hours, always regarded as immoral, were none-the-less legal.
If you don't like it, there's the door.
My own vision of freedom includes the more modern ability of any man or woman to work for a reasonable wage, during reasonable hours, under reasonable working conditions.
And, if a boss demands an accounting of private, personal medical decisions, to be able without fear to say:
It's none of your business, Mr. Paine.
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They say if you don't like the job conditions, get another job. I say if you don't like the profit, get another business.
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