The eugenic effects of minimum wage laws

By Paul Walker 24/03/2015


I came across a bit of the history of the minimum wage that I didn’t know today. A 2005 article by Thomas C. Leonard in the Journal of Economic Perspectives (Vol. 19 No. 4 Fall 2005) discusses Eugenics and Economics in the Progressive Era. Leonard opens the article by noting,

American economics transformed itself during the Progressive Era. In the three to four decades after 1890, American economics became an expert policy science and academic economists played a leading role in bringing about a vastly more expansive state role in the American economy. By World War I, the U.S. government amended the Constitution to institute a personal income tax, created the Federal Reserve, applied antitrust laws, restricted immigration and began regulation of food and drug safety. State governments, where the reform impulse was stronger still, regulated working conditions, banned child labor, instituted “mothers’ pensions,” capped working hours and set minimum wages.

Less well known is that a crude eugenic sorting of groups into deserving and undeserving classes crucially informed the labor and immigration reform that is the hallmark of the Progressive Era (Leonard, 2003). Reform-minded economists of the Progressive Era defended exclusionary labor and immigration legislation on grounds that the labor force should be rid of unfit workers, whom they labeled “parasites,” “the unemployable,” “low-wage races” and the “industrial residuum.” Removing the unfit, went the argument, would uplift superior, deserving workers.

He goes on in the article to write about “The eugenic effects of minimum wage laws”.

During the second half of the Progressive Era, beginning roughly in 1908, progressive economists and their reform allies achieved many statutory victories, including state laws that regulated working conditions, banned child labor, instituted “mothers’ pensions,” capped working hours and, the sine qua non, fixed minimum wages. In using eugenics to justify exclusionary immigration legislation, the race-suicide theorists offered a model to economists advocating labor reforms, notably those affiliated with the American Association for Labor Legislation, the organization of academic economists that Orloff and Skocpol (1984, p. 726) call the “leading association of U.S. social reform advocates in the Progressive Era.”

Progressive economists, like their neoclassical critics, believed that binding minimum wages would cause job losses. However, the progressive economists also believed that the job loss induced by minimum wages was a social benefit, as it performed the eugenic service ridding the labor force of the “unemployable.” Sidney and Beatrice Webb (1897 [1920], p. 785) put it plainly: “With regard to certain sections of the population [the “unemployable”], this unemployment is not a mark of social disease, but actually of social health.” “[O]f all ways of dealing with these unfortunate parasites,” Sidney Webb (1912, p. 992) opined in the Journal of Political Economy, “the most ruinous to the community is to allow them to unrestrainedly compete as wage earners.” A minimum wage was seen to operate eugenically through two channels: by deterring prospective immigrants (Henderson, 1900) and also by removing from employment the “unemployable,” who, thus identified, could be, for example, segregated in rural communities or sterilized.

While both progressive economists and their neoclassical critics believed that a minimum wage caused unemployment, it was the neoclassical economists of the time, like Alfred Marshall, Philip Wicksteed, A. C. Pigou in the U.K. and John Bates Clark in the U.S, who regarded the job losses as a social cost of minimum wages, not as a putative social benefit as the progressives saw them.

Leonard continues,

Columbia’s Henry Rogers Seager, a leading progressive economist who served as president of the AEA in 1922, provides an example. Worthy wage-earners, Seager (1913a, p. 12) argued, need protection from the “wearing competition of the casual worker and the drifter” and from the other “unemployable” who unfairly drag down the wages of more deserving workers (1913b, pp. 82–83). The minimum wage protects deserving workers from the competition of the unfit by making it illegal to work for less. Seager (1913a, p. 9) wrote: “The operation of the minimum wage requirement would merely extend the definition of defectives to embrace all individuals, who even after having received special training, remain incapable of adequate self-support.” Seager (p. 10) made clear what should happen to those who, even after remedial training, could not earn the legal minimum: “If we are to maintain a race that is to be made of up of capable, efficient and independent individuals and family groups we must courageously cut off lines of heredity that have been proved to be undesirable by isolation or sterilization … .”

The unemployable were thus those workers who earned less than some measure of an adequate standard of living, a standard the British called a “decent maintenance” and Americans referred to as a “living wage.” For labor reformers, firms that paid workers less than the living wage to which they were entitled were deemed parasitic, as were the workers who accepted such wages—on grounds that someone (charity, state, other members of the household) would need to make up the difference.

For progressives, a legal minimum wage had the useful property of sorting the unfit, who would lose their jobs, from the deserving workers, who would retain their jobs. Royal Meeker, a Princeton economist who served as Woodrow Wilson’s U.S. Commissioner of Labor, opposed a proposal to subsidize the wages of poor workers for this reason. Meeker preferred a wage floor because it would disemploy unfit workers and thereby enable their culling from the work force. “It is much better to enact a minimum-wage law even if it deprives these unfortunates of work,” argued Meeker (1910, p. 554). “Better that the state should support the inefficient wholly and prevent the multiplication of the breed than subsidize incompetence and unthrift, enabling them to bring forth more of their kind.” A. B. Wolfe (1917, p. 278), an American progressive economist who would later become president of the AEA in 1943, also argued for the eugenic virtues of removing from employment those who “are a burden on society.”

Frank Taussig, one of the leading economists of the time, asked the question “how to deal with the unemployable?” in his book Principles of Economics (Taussig 1921, pp. 332–333)

Taussig identified two classes of unemployable worker, distinguishing the aged, infirm and disabled from the “feebleminded . . . those saturated with alcohol or tainted with hereditary disease . . . [and] the irretrievable criminals and tramps. . . .” The latter class, Taussig proposed, “should simply be stamped out.” “We have not reached the stage,” Taussig allowed, “where we can proceed to chloroform them once and for all; but at least they can be segregated, shut up in refuges and asylums, and prevented from propagating their kind.”

The idea held by progressive economists that the unemployable could not earn a living wage was bound up with the progressive view of wage determination.

Unlike the economists who pioneered the still-novel marginal productivity theory, most progressives agreed that wages should be determined by the amount that was necessary to provide a reasonable standard of living, not by productivity, and that the cost of this entitlement should fall on firms.

But how should a living wage be determined? Were workers with more dependents, and thus higher living expenses, thereby entitled to higher wages? Arguing that wages should be a matter of an appropriate standard of living opened the door, in this era of eugenics, to theories of wage determination that were grounded in biology, in particular to the idea that “low-wage races” were biologically predisposed to low wages, or “under-living.” 7 Edward A. Ross (1936, p. 70), the proponent of race-suicide theory, argued that “the Coolie cannot outdo the American, but he can underlive him.” “Native” workers have higher productivity, claimed Ross, but because Chinese immigrants are racially disposed to work for lower wages, they displace the native workers.

John R. Commons, one of the leading (old) institutional economists (the new institutional economics follows from the work of Ronald Coase) argued that wage competition not only lowers wages, it also selects for the unfit races.

“The competition has no respect for the superior races,” said Commons (1907, p. 151), “the race with lowest necessities displaces others.” Because race rather than productivity determined living standards, Commons could populate his low-wage-races category with the industrious and lazy alike. African Americans were, for Commons (p. 136), “indolent and fickle,” which explained why, Commons argued, slavery was required: “The negro could not possibly have found a place in American industry had he come as a free man . . . [I]f such races are to adopt that industrious life which is second nature to races of the temperate zones, it is only through some form of compulsion.” Similarly, Wharton School reformer Scott Nearing (1915, p. 22), volunteered that if “an employer has a Scotchman working for him at $3 a day [and] an equally efficient Lithuanian offers to the same work for $2 . . . the work is given to the low bidder.”

Leonard continues by looking at the reaction of the progressives to the situation in other countries,

When U.S. labor reformers reported on labor legislation in countries more precocious with respect to labor reform, they favorably commented on the eugenic efficacy of minimum wages in excluding the “low-wage races” from work. Harvard’s Arthur Holcombe (1912, p. 21), a member of the Massachusetts Minimum Wage Commission, referred approvingly to the intent of Australia’s minimum wage law to “protect the white Australian’s standard of living from the invidious competition of the colored races, particularly of the Chinese.” Florence Kelley (1911, p. 304), perhaps the most influential U.S. labor reformer of the day, also endorsed the Australian minimum-wage law as “redeeming the sweated trades” by preventing the “unbridled competition” of the unemployable, the “women, children, and Chinese [who] were reducing all the employees to starvation . . .”

For these progressives, race determined the standard of living, and the standard of living determined the wage. Thus were immigration restriction and labor legislation, especially minimum wages, justified for their eugenic effects. Invidious distinction, whether founded on the putatively greater fertility of the unfit, or upon their putatively greater predisposition to low wages, lay at the heart of the reforms we today see as the hallmark of the Progressive Era.

As an aside, Austria wasn’t the only place down-under which tried to protect the white workers standard of living against competition from the Chinese. New Zealand however used a taxes rather than labour regulation. The 1881 Chinese Immigrants Act has imposed a 10 pound poll tax on Chinese immigrants. There were also steep custom duties on opium.

So the history of the minimum wage isn’t, unfortunately, just about making the worst-off better-off.