Liberal doublespeak on the minimum wage has a long history. According to a fascinating article in the fall 2005 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, early advocates of the minimum wage knew perfectly well that it would lead to job losses. Not only that, the loss of jobs was actually a prime reason why they supported the minimum wage.
As Princeton University economist Thomas Leonard recounts the story, liberals of a century ago were strong supporters of eugenics -- the idea that the quality of the human race could be improved by weeding out, even killing, those deemed to be unfit. The great novelist D.H. Lawrence expressed an appalling but typical view. Said Lawrence on one occasion, "If I had my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace ... and then I'd go out in the back streets and main streets and bring them all in, all the sick, the halt and the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile at me."
Even President Theodore Roosevelt shared this philosophy. "I wish very much that the wrong people could be prevented entirely from breeding," he wrote in 1914. Criminals should be sterilized, he said, and the feebleminded should be forbidden to leave offspring.
Sadly, many states enacted laws imposing forced sterilization on such people, a practice even approved by the Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell (1927).
The minimum wage fit in with this philosophy, according to Leonard, because its advocates thought that inferior races and ethnic groups would be priced out of the labor market and become unemployed, thus reducing immigration and reproduction by such people. "This unemployment is not a mark of social disease," wrote famous socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb, "but actually of social health."
Interestingly, minimum wage supporters of the Progressive Era also believed that it would price women out of the labor market, forcing them to marry and have children. Eugenicists were obsessed with reproduction because they feared that whites of Northern European stock were not having enough children and would eventually be overwhelmed by faster-reproducing groups in what we now call the Third World.
Today, we rightly condemn eugenics as racist. But many people still support policies such as the minimum wage that were originally planted in its soil.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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