Thursday, February 6, 2014

That Fair Wage

Fair. Oh what they've done to you, poor little word, treated so lovingly by The Bard,

Fair encounter / Of two most rare affections! (Prospero)

and by Keats,

Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave (Ode on a Grecian Urn)


Or if you'd rather, have me young and fair, (The Wife of Bath)

and Wodehouse,

Ever since their first meeting she had wanted a fair chance at those ankles (Piccadilly Jim)

For what crime are you so scurrilously appended to that stern word wage. Now the fair adjective sports a happy plethora of meanings: just, legal, ample, moderate, unobstructed, even, free from imperfection, clear, light, pleasing, and civil. Surely among these none fit the bill but just. When people clamor for a just wage they want a wage which is existing in justice. What could this mean in the absence of a philosophical system weighing virtue and distinguishing among proportion, rectification, reciprocity, and equity. (See V.5 of the Nichomachean Ethics.)

We can further chastise the sloppy use of fair, and their weaseling out the work of philosophy, but let us charitably presume well-intending simply mean that no one should unduly suffer by lack of essentials. What does this have to do with a wage? How can a wage be unjust? It's neither just nor unjust freely to exchange your services for any particular good. If you make the exchange, then it was valuable to you. Your wage is part of an exchange of services, not a measure of what you are worth or deserve as a person.

Similarly we may ask why a wage must be the sole means to security. Outside of a feudal economy of lords and serfs such socio-economic thinking is incredible. In a free economy and society in which no one is granted a legal monopoly, it's incumbent on the employer only to pay the agreed wage. In contrast, it may be incumbent upon everyone equally, if anyone, or perhaps especially family or friends or neighbors, to protect the weak from deathly lack. Yet why should the employer suffer the burden?

Of course the employer might not shoulder the burden but raise the cost of his goods if he hires the employee at the "fair wage" at all. In this case, the customers shoulder the burden of the employee. Why should they, purchasers of this particular good, support the employee? It's not self-evident, to say the least. In times past, friends, family, fraternal societies, and the like cared for the downtrodden. Professionals, such as doctors, treated the poor gratis as custom, not by bureaucratically managed legislative fiat.

It's curious, though, how often and many people are persuaded by the allure of the "fair wage." It just sounds so rosy. They don't seem to translate fair wage into more plain terms:

a demand from an employee to be paid a particular wage, regardless of how much he serves others, how well he does so, regardless of the demand in his locale and that demand over time, regardless of what other skills he might use more profitably, and regardless of, in fact, all variables save his own entitlement. Not quite so fair, by any of its meanings.

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