In his State of the Union address, President Obama proposed to increase the federal minimum wage, from its current $7.25 per hour to $9.00 per hour. So, in the words of the old union organizing song, “Which Side Are You On?”
It is an easy call if you are either (a) a strict libertarian or (b) an enthusiastic advocate of the less fortunate with limited concern about the scarcity of resources. (If you belong to both of those groups, there is little advice that I can offer.) However, in between those poles of opinion, things become rather murky, rather quickly.
In fact, the opening question emphasizes that policy analysis is hard to convey using spirit-rousing songs. The reflex thought of what music would characterize analysis of this issue led me to Béla Bartók’s “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta,” which is typically played with two small string orchestras – divided by the percussion instruments – sitting on the opposite sides of the stage, spending about half of the piece shouting back and forth at one another. (This is not to put you off if you have not heard the piece. I enjoy it – which may be a predisposition, in that Bartók attended high school in the town where all of my grandparents were born and grew up, and at about the same time.) As in the minimum wage debate, there are arguments on both sides, and the argument often becomes quite intense.
To start with the philosophical debate, but postponing the empirical question of results: Libertarians tend to oppose restraints on voluntary agreements among responsible persons. If a prospective worker finds it advantageous to offer labor at a low wage, and a prospective employer is willing to accept that offer, there is no reason for government to interfere. Those who take the other side argue that such agreements are the result of unequal power, and facilitate injustice and abuse.