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Imposing Altruism

We’re quite accomplished at that here in the United States. I wonder, do you actually feel good when you have to impose force in order to get people to do something? Is it really altruism, when for example, if tax dollars are collected to provide food for the hungry? It may be morally correct, from a broad perspective, but I am asking the question of whether and why folks think such things count as “charity.”

Unless freely chosen, an act has no individual moral component. None.

Which brings me to my point today. When we are in the business of imposing altruism via policy, why do we do it in the forms that we do. For example, take the Endangered Species Act – an act that in principle I suspect many people across the political spectrum agree with. The way it works in practice however is that nearly the entire burden of species protection is forced upon a single or small group of people who have interaction with the Endangered Species. But, if “we” all benefit from such protections, then why are we exempted from the rules and costs of the ESA?

Or take policy that more of you are familiar with: kidney donations. We have it is a matter of religion that people should be forced to give away, for free, a piece of their body in order to help someone in need of a kidney. Keep in mind that the kidney itself is nowhere near the most scarce and most expensive part of the entire procedure. The hospital space and time is far more scarce. The nurses, doctors, anesthesiologists, etc. are far more scarce. Yet, I’ve NEVER seen a serious argument that doctors should be forced to perform kidney transplant surgeries for free. I tell you what, I’ll get off my “free-markets in organs” high horse when I see anti-market people pass legislation that requires every kidney operation to be done pro-bono by ALL parties involved. We know why that will never happen.

Or take social justice labor market legislation like the minimum wage. Why is it that the entire burden of supporting low-skilled workers is being foisted upon entrepreneurs? Those entrepreneurs are of course about the only people actually doing anything for low wage workers. Indeed, when an entrepreneur pays a worker even below some desired minimum wage, that is far more than I am currently doing. But heck, any entrepreneur that hires anyone is doing more good than the rest of us – by raising the demand for labor generally, they help keep wages higher than they otherwise would be. Why do they get singled out for special “treatment?” Indeed, I will support increases in the minimum wage when they come along with legislation that requires that x% of the people currently working MUST quit their jobs AND not accept government assistance. Why? In a short-term, zero-sum (i.e. not realistic) view of the world, when I choose to work, I am supplying additional labor, and allowing greedy firms to keep wages lower. So, just as wages at Burger King skyrocketed in New Orleans after Katrina due to the scarcity of workers, let’s create that scarcity by law – why shouldn’t current workers who are already “responsible” for “forcing” the wages of the low-skilled down to unacceptable levels, be responsible for this social policy? At the very least, why shouldn’t current workers, if you don’t want to fire them, be required to pay an extra tax on their wages that goes into the “minimum wage” pool? Let’s go further, let’s have all unions have a levy added to their annual union dues in order to support the plight of low-wage workers. Again, we know why this will never happen.


9 Responses to “Imposing Altruism”

  1. Harry says:

    A couple of weeks ago Senator Tom Harkin spoke on the floor of the Senate praising Cuban medicine, saying that doctors work for low compensation out of compassion for their sick comrades, implying that U.S. doctors do the same.

    In addition, the doctor is supposed to ask you whether you ever smoked tobacco, and soon whether you own a pistol and put that into the federal database, for your protection.

  2. Harry says:

    To your entrepreneur point: often the employees make more than the person who has started the business during the early years, once the business moves out of the garage. Not only does one borrow to raise capital to buy inventory and equipment, the first sales person you hire is going to be way above minimum wage, and the owner gets whatever is left after the bills are paid, which in fact be zero or below and has to be financed somehow.

    Nothing about this has to be altruistic. The entrepreneur eats day-old bread and lives in a trailer because he is sacrificing comfort for future reward, which might include the satisfaction that comes from making other people successful.

    One of the more offensive ads that pops up on the Weather Channel and elsewhere is the ad that says, “Obama passes HARP” to lower your underwater mortgage, as if he will open his wallet and pass out his own money or get Jack Lew to print some.

  3. Greg says:

    Entrepreneurs–and indeed all minimum wage employers, most of whom are not “entrepreneurs” in a reasonable sense–are free to pass along the costs of a minimum wage increase in the form of prices.

    • chuck martel says:

      If they’re “free” to pass along the costs of a minimum wage increase in the form of prices, why can’t they be free to engage in a voluntary contract with employees?

    • wintercow20 says:

      This is really aside from the point of my question. After all, the other people that I am invoking would be “free” to shift costs onto others too. But as an economic point, if entrepreneurs are free to shift these costs in the form of higher prices, it sort of leads us to question whether these profit hungry enterpreneurs are too stupid to raise prices NOW even before the minimum wage is enacted. That they do not is evidence that they cannot do so, within any reasonable amount, to make it worth their while. And once we recognize this, we realize that firms CAN indeed raise prices in response to higher mandated wages, but they will sell less, and even if they don’t, consumers spending more on these goods have less disposable income to spend on other goods – leading to worse opportunities for workers in other sectors. So, either the supposition above means, “firms aren’t greedy profit seekers” or “we should have other workers bear the burden of the minimum wage increase.”

      There are simple models we can write down to predict when firms or consumers will eat the increase … but this is not able to be gleaned from the comment above.

      And of course, if we want to argue that businesses have some additional responsibility to pay higher wages because they CAN charge their customers more, then I think that opens a big moral can of worms, no? Why not make all taxpayers give more to charity or low wage workers? After all, we are all free to work longer hours or live in smaller houses and so on.

      • Greg says:

        “we should have other workers bear the burden of the minimum wage increase.”

        This is just income redistribution (“imposing altruism” if you want), it was exactly what I was going for, and in general I don’t think it’s a bad thing. You ask not why, but why specifically burden innocent entrepreneurs like Wal-Mart. All I’m saying is that just because Wal-Mart pays the increased wages up front doesn’t mean they bear any burden at all. But again this only applies to the case where consumer demand is very inelastic.

        • wintercow20 says:

          Right – then that was my point – why go through the charade of “making Walmart” pay? Just assess larger taxes on workers directly? We know why, of course.

    • Scott says:

      How do you figure minimum wage employers are not entrepreneurs in a reasonable sense?

      • Greg says:

        It was hyperbolic but I was trying to ground my point in the actual issues rather than hypotheticals. How many startups are minimum wage employers? Not to be the “Wal-mart guy” but do you really think a Wal Mart store counts as an entrepreneur? A McDonalds franchise owner, maybe, but in that case I have no sympathy and it doesn’t change my point.

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