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Milton Friedman on the minimum wage

All too often, the policy debates of today are simply refights of the battles of yesteryear. As a result, old arguments often retain a striking relevance.

In February 1973, economist Milton Friedman gave an interview to Playboy magazine. It was a wide ranging interview, covering topics from monetary policy to political philosophy. Friedman was an economist with a rare gift for translating technical arguments into clear prose (as you will find in his books Capitalism and Freedom and Free to Choose). His remarks on the minimum wage, as given in that interview, are startlingly contemporary.

PLAYBOY: But you prefer the laissez-faire—free-enterprise—approach.
FRIEDMAN: Generally. Because I think the government solution to a problem is usually as bad as the problem and very often makes the problem worse. Take, for example, the minimum wage, which has the effect of making the poor people at the bottom of the wage scale—those it was designed to help—worse off than before.

PLAYBOY: How so?
FRIEDMAN: If you really want to get a feeling about the minimum wage, there’s nothing more instructive than going to the Congressional documents to read the proposals to raise the minimum wage and see who testifies. You very seldom find poor people testifying in favor of the minimum wage. The people who do are those who receive or pay wages much higher than the minimum. Frequently Northern textile manufacturers. John F. Kennedy, when he was in Congress, said explicitly that he was testifying in favor of a rise in the minimum wage because he wanted protection for the New England textile industry against competition from the so-called cheap labor of the South. But now look at it from the point of that cheap labor. If a high minimum wage makes unfeasible an otherwise feasible venture in the South, are people in the South benefited or harmed? Clearly harmed, because jobs otherwise available for them are no longer available. A minimum-wage law is, in reality, a law that makes it illegal for an employer to hire a person with limited skills.

PLAYBOY: Isn’t it, rather, a law that requires employers to pay a fair and livable wage?
FRIEDMAN: How is a person better off unemployed at a dollar sixty an hour than employed at a dollar fifty? No hours a week at a dollar sixty comes to nothing. Let’s suppose there’s a teenager whom you as an employer would be perfectly willing to hire for a dollar fifty an hour. But the law says, no, it’s illegal for you to hire him at a dollar fifty an hour. You must hire him at a dollar sixty. Now, if you hire him at a dollar sixty, you’re really engaging in an act of charity. You’re paying a dollar fifty for his services and you’re giving him a gift of 10 cents. That’s something few employers, quite naturally, are willing to do or can afford to do without being put out of business by less generous competitors. As a result, the effect of a minimum-wage law is to produce unemployment among people with low skills. And who are the people with low skills? In the main, they tend to be teenagers and blacks, and women who have no special skills or have been out of the labor force and are coming back. This is why there are abnormally high unemployment rates among these groups.

PLAYBOY: How can you be sure that the minimum-wage law is the cause?
FRIEDMAN: In 1956, I think, the minimum was raised from seventy-five cents to a dollar—a very substantial rise. In the early Fifties, the unemployment rate among male teenagers was about the same for blacks as for whites. Both were about eight percent when the over-all unemployment rate was about four percent. In the late Fifties, after the minimum-wage rate was raised from seventy-five cents to a dollar, the unemployment rate of black teenagers shot up from eight percent to something like 20 to 25 percent. For white teenagers, it shot up to something like 13 percent. From that day to this, the rates for both black and white teenagers have been higher than before 1956. When they start to decline, a new rise in the minimum-wage rate comes along and pushes them up again. The black teenage rate has been very much higher than the white teenage rate, for reasons that are highly regrettable and that we ought to be doing something about: Blacks get less schooling and are less skilled than whites. Therefore, the minimum-wage rate hits them particularly hard. I’ve often said the minimum-wage rate is the most anti-Negro law on the books.

PLAYBOY: Couldn’t those who are hurt by minimum-wage legislation be trained for more skilled jobs at better wages?
FRIEDMAN: The minimum wage destroys the best kind of training programs we’ve ever had: on-the-job training. The main way people have risen in the labor force is by getting unskilled jobs and learning things. Not merely technical skills: They learn such things as being at a job on time, spending eight hours a day at a job rather than standing around on street corners, having a certain element of responsibility, letting their employer know when they’re not going to come in. All of those traits are very important. In an attempt to repair the damage that the minimum wage has done to traditional on-the-job training, you now have a whole collection of programs designed to take up the slack. The great proliferation of governmental programs in which employers are subsidized to provide on-the-job training gives employers an incentive to hire people and then fire them in order to get other people for whom they can get more subsidies.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment. 

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