Different visions, different policy

Walter E. Williams

3/5/2003 12:00:00 AM - Walter E. Williams
We're often confronted by the enigma of decent people professing identical goals but advocating polar opposite policies. Sometimes the political alignment is seen as conservative versus liberal where, for example, conservatives fight against minimum wage increases and liberals support those increases. The enigma is: Why is it that two groups of people, professing concern for low-skilled workers, advocate vastly differing means to help them? I think that part of the answer lies in differing visions of how the world works; but that answer only applies to honest people who don't have a self-interested hidden agenda. Consider what might have been an argument between two Spaniards in A.D. 1300. One person's initial premise is that the earth is flat, while the other's initial premise is that the earth is round. The person with the flat-earth premise would argue that it's impossible to sail west from Spain and reach India. The person with the round-earth premise would argue the opposite -- while the voyage would be long, one can sail west from Spain and reach India. The internal logic underlying both arguments, given the initial premises, are flawless. After all, if the world is flat, and India lies to the east of Spain, sailing west from Spain means that somewhere along the way you're going to fall off the earth. By contrast, with the premise that the earth is round, of course one could sail west and reach India. Here's the point: Given the initial premises, both arguments are flawless, internally consistent and believable to their adherents. Let's apply this reasoning to the minimum wage debate to see how it might explain how two groups of decent and honest people can reach polar opposite conclusions. If one's initial premise is that employers must employ certain amount of labor, say 10 workers, to get a job done, the logic that higher minimum wage laws would help low-skilled workers is flawless. It simply means higher wages for those 10 workers coming at the expense of the employer's profits. By contrast, if one's initial premise is that employers are sensitive to labor prices and can substitute capital for labor or move their operation to places where there's cheaper labor, the logic that the minimum wage would hurt at least some low-skilled workers is similarly flawless. After all, a low wage is better than no wage as a result of having been replaced by machinery or your job has moved overseas. Competing visions of how the world works enters many areas of our lives and generate polar opposite policies. Another example is gun control. If it's your vision that an inanimate object such as a gun can cause crime, then you'll advocate gun control as a means to reduce crime. The logic is impeccable -- fewer guns means less crime. But, if it's your vision that evil people, not guns, cause crime, you might advocate more gun ownership as a means to reduce crime, namely giving law-abiders greater protection and providing more uncertainty for criminals. A way out the conundrum of competing visions is to demand that people make their initial premises explicit so they can be challenged. Supporters of higher minimum wage law, as a means to help low-skilled workers, should be required to provide evidence that employers are insensitive to increases in labor prices, and those who argue against should be required to provide evidence employers are sensitive. Gun-control advocates should be required to provide evidence that guns, not evil people, cause crime, and gun-ownership advocates should be pressed for their evidence that it's evil people, not guns, that cause crime.