Increased productivity is a communal good.

Somehow, despite ample reason for civic disappointment, I find I’m becoming less cynical as I get older, not more.  Even now, when I come across reasoning like that expressed by young progressive Democrat Representative David Morales, I can’t help but feel hope that we can salvage reason from the flames of ideology:

Here’s the reality: if wages had kept up with worker productivity, the Minimum Wage would be over $23

Specifically, in Rhode Island, a single parent working full-time needs to earn $37 an hour to cover their family’s basic needs.

A $20 Minimum Wage isn’t radical!

The cynical voice of my younger self insists that Morales doesn’t actually care if he’s correct.  He’s got marching orders for a particular policy (an ever-higher minimum wage) and will articulate any points he thinks will move it forward.  Meanwhile, practical experience has taught me that points about economics and unintended consequences are discouragingly weak.

Arguments that the government is pricing many people right out of their jobs will fall to disbelief, reinforced with (questionable, in my view) progressive research, coupled with an underlying expectation that such consequences will only make the next stage of “progress” toward socialism easier.  Suggesting that minimum wage jobs aren’t meant to be family-supporting — let alone hinting that we should also give some attention to the problem of single parenthood — smashes against non-judgmentalism about others’ expectations.

Nonetheless, I find hope in Morales’s attempt to bring productivity into the equation, because it indicates an area that he hasn’t thought through, and seeds of reason might grow in fallow ground.

A worker should absolutely make more money as he or she becomes more productive, because his or her work becomes more valuable per hour.  However, when “workers” become more productive as a group because some technique or technology created efficiencies, it is a communal good whose benefit should be shared by all.  If you discovered that a new, inexpensive, and easy-to-use tool enables your local car mechanic to finish an expensive repair in one-quarter the time, will you be happy that he’s kept his price for the job the same?  No.  You’ll look for another mechanic who has reduced the price.  Then, competition between mechanics will divide up the benefits between the business owners, the employees, and the consumers.

Reality is complex and messy, but in a free system, the owners’ administration and investments would balance against the workers’ skill and the consumers’ wealth and access to other options.  In the ideal situation, the owner would receive a proportional reward that encourages continued innovation; the workers’ reward would come in the value of their new skill and their ability to more-easily become managers and owners, themselves; and consumers would save money on this good or service and redirect that pool of wealth to the next area in which society places value and wants innovation.

When government gets involved — whether, in a given case, it is engaged in protectionism for the owners, redistribution for the workers, or socialism for the consumers — it is not working from economic incentives, but political incentives.  Government introduces another group, politicians, who seek to take some of the benefit for their own gain in a way completely divorced from the actual transaction.  They aren’t pure, and they aren’t guided by what’s fair and just.  They profit by giving one or the other constituency more than it would receive if the balance were found naturally.  It makes an economic transaction a measure of raw power.

Ultimately, those who share Morales’s view have lost sight not only of the individuals they imagine they support, but also the prioritization of the common good they claim to desire.  They break us into warring factions of workers and bosses when in reality we’re a cooperative community, in which each of us usually plays all roles at different times and in different circumstances.

I believe the common good is an area of shared priority, and I hope our culture is still open-minded enough for progressives to remember that as they surge in power.


Featured image by Justin Katz using Dall-E 3.

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