Bryan Caplan  

Feeling vs. the Minimum Wage: A Hard-Headed Assessment

Further Notes on James Buchana... Buchanan: Seeing With New Eyes...
The best response by far to yesterday's challenge was a pair of tweets by Dan Lin:
Find a person who got laid off from a charity after minimum wage increase. She tearfully says "I just want to help people."

Oprah hugs the crying worker and whispers "Truth is a deeper sense of intention." Audience nods thoughtfully. And...scene.
I can actually imagine this persuading Feeling people to support a minimum wage exemption for charities.  Anything broader?  Doubtful.

None of the efforts to smear the minimum wage based on its racist historical origins would work, unless the listener knew someone who told them about first-hand experiences with racist minimum wage advocates.  Even then, it would probably feel irrelevant for today.

All of the answers with numbers, dollars-and-cents, or abbreviations (like EITC) would leave Feeling listeners feeling cold, bored, and unpersuaded.

Eli's answer is very cute:

You know Oprah, I wish I could in good conscience support the minimum wage, I really do. But do you know what happens when people don't comply? A lot of times it's imprisonment. Sometimes its a fine but if they don't pay something has to happen, and its not going to be pretty.

And many won't comply, for many reasons; maybe they're small businesses who can't afford it, or maybe they're just that darned greedy. But either way, is that something you want to destroy somebody's life over? Greed? Such a basic human impulse, that we all have by the way, and you want to bring out the guns over that?


Maybe the ends justify the means. And I know that in my brain, they do. But there's just something in my heart that says, these are people too, no matter how greedy they are. There has to be a better way.

Still, I can't see this working.  Most Feeling people would feel angry about greedy business owners and want to punish them, especially if they can do this in the name of caring for poor workers. 

Andy Hallman aptly describes the conundrum:

In order for an idea to appeal to someone with a soft heart, the victims have to be tangible, not statistical.

We can be fairly certain the minimum wage prevents some people from working, but since we don't know who exactly, we have nobody to feature in our sob story.

Daniel Levine interestingly observes:

I actually think that one of the better strategies might be focusing on how it's only a pretty narrow slice of people who actually make the minimum wage. So, if you care about the poor, raising the minimum wage doesn't actually help most of them. Those poor we care about are mostly making above minimum wage (and even above most proposed increased wages) and still have trouble making ends meet, or they're not making a wage at all.

Still, the Feeling response is bound to be: "But it does help some poor people!"

Bob Roberts promisingly emphasizes the handicapped:

We, on the other hand, had folks who were prevented from finding work by the minimum wage law. These handicapped people aren't able to do work that is worth the minimum wage rate, but they still wanted the pride that comes with a job, and they wanted it badly. They weren't going to go hungry or live in poverty or anything, but doing meaningful, necessary work gives a person a sense of accomplishment and value of oneself that you can't find anywhere else.

Maybe this would persuade them to support an exemption for the handicapped, but probably not.  The natural Feeling response would be, "It's bad enough they're handicapped.  Now you want to treat them like second-class citizens, denying them the same protections the rest of us take for granted?!"

Jim Rose warns:

Ask questions. What do you think are the consequences of a minimum wage rise? Never lecture!

Ask them to put themselves in the place of a small business owner face a minimum wage rise

Lecturing is a gift as they counter-punch rather than explain their own position in their own words.
The Feeling person will definitely like you more when you don't lecture.  But this approach will merely prompt the Feeling person to give you an economically illiterate lecture in favor of the minimum wage.  E.g., "I'd be happy to pay the minimum wage as long as all the other employers had to do the same."

Overall, the responses are a little stronger than I expected.  Yet in absolute terms, they fall short.  We certainly shouldn't give up because one day's comments failed to yield a magic public relations bullet.  It's an important problem worth ample time and thought.  Still, one thing is clear: If you think selling libertarian ideas to Feeling people isn't inherently difficult, you're fooling yourself.

COMMENTS (40 to date)
Doug writes:

Doesn't this all go to show what a stupid system democracy is. It's not like when the next version of the Linux kernel comes that file I/O cache policy is vividly debated by people with sub-100 IQs, with CNN running stories about people who lost their sister because of some horrible mal-function caused by a software bug related to the fallocate system call.

No, these types of decisions are made by people with the hardest-heads in the business. Hearts considered unnecessary. If you don't understand systems programming and you try to contribute to the kernel Linus is happy to tell you off without hesitation.

So why is it that computing and network policy can be made without the idiocy of the masses interfering, yet economic policy cannot.

Navin Kumar writes:

"Hi! This is the Late Afternoon Show with David Friedman. And we're here today with some very special people, people who are the backbone of America."

"This is Katja. She's been unemployed since 2008, when she graduated from community college. Why? Because employers don't want to hire anyone without experience! And how's she going to get experience if noone will give her a job?! Which of us hasn't been there?"

"Now she's living with her parents, who are having trouble making ends meet anyway. 'We had a tenant in Rachel's old room, but had to get rid him when she moved in after college. Now we're living paycheque to paycheque' [camera focuses out packs of cigarettes in background]."

"And we also have with us small business owner Robin Hanson. Robin, isn't it true that you need someone to help you around your hardware store?"

'Yes, David. I need someone who's honest and hardworking to unload trucks and mind the store. And Katja would be perfect. But I just don't have the money to pay her minimum wage! It's too much, and times are hard on small businesses. It ain't that we're greedy. We literally don't have the money. So now I have to stand at the counter all the time and unload the truck myself. At my age!'

"So there you have it, folks. A young woman tragically denied a job. An old man forced to do back breaking labour. By what? Minimum wage laws! But aren't they good laws? Aren't they *meant* to help us?"

Cut to Bryan talking about how MWL were meant to keep out minorities.

And scene.

Frank Annecchini writes:

How about an approach that compares the ZMP worker at minimum wage to a machine? The best example I have is that when I was in high school in the late 70's I was able to work at McDonald's making fries and shakes for minimum wage. Back then, it was one person's job to only make fries and shakes. Now, go to a modern McDonald's and you will see an automated french fry cooker and automated shake maker that are operated by the cashiers. The higher the minimum wage, the easier it is for business owners to substitute machines for people. So the argument is which do you prefer - employed people or employed machines?

F. Lynx Pardinus writes:

@Doug That certainly doesn't sound like any version of the technology world I've worked in. It's just as full of massive egos and incredible biases as any other field.

Jay writes:

"Such a basic human impulse (greed), that we all have by the way....

Still, I can't see this working. Most Feeling people would feel angry about greedy business owners"

You just lost every Feeling Lib/Prog on that statement period. Go over to HuffPo or Slate and test it out. You will not find a single Lib/Prog that will admit that they (or President Obama or Harry Reid, etc) are greedy.

*The theory on the other side being greedy but not me is not unique to Dems - it applies to Republicans/Libertarians/etc too just not for this topic.

nazgulnarsil writes:

I don't see a mention of the homeless in yesterday's thread. The most common scenario I am familiar with is that of homeless people (illegally) doing a bit of cleaning or sign holding for a business in exchange for a meal. Should a restaurant owner be fined and possibly imprisoned for doing this?

Jay writes:


Feeling Liberal's Response - restaurant owners should give the homeless a meal without expecting a service in return. Taking advantage of the most vulnerable amongst us by using them for slave labor is predatory and inhumane. Remember slaves were compensated with food and shelter. If the restaurant owner was homeless they would want the fortunate to give them things for free too.

andy writes:

There are 40 cashiers in the supermarket earning minimum wage. One of them is a little freak, not exactly liked by the rest, but doing her work. Minimum wage gets raised.

Who gets fired?

(no, the customers will not change the supermarket because of slightly longer queues, because other supermarkets will fire some of their cashiers too and their queues will get slightly longer too)

Doug writes:

@F. Lynx Pardinus,

Technology world may be filled with egos and personal agendas. But have you ever heard of a project's success or acceptance hinging on whether you can sell it to Oprah?

Say I was arguing for a change in some feature to SQL caching policy, but the only way I could get it accepted is if I could explain it to a crowd of emotionally loaded sub-100-IQ untrained laymen who are instinctually hostile to it.

I sure as heck wouldn't be figuring out how to sell my ideas to the "soft-headed soft-hearted." I'd be abandoning that project and system as quick as possible and looking for any alternative that I could.

We've set up very good systems that have as of yet insulated virtually all technology decisions from the unwashed masses. Even when those technology decisions affect virtually everyone on the planet (e.g. IPv6).

What we need to do is figure out a way to do the equivalent with economic decisions.

IVV writes:

Wait, are we talking about Feeling personalities, or are we talking about irrational personalities?

Also, this discussion of the Feeling as a "they" needs to stop. We should embrace the Feeling side in ourselves, and use that to come up with answers. Do we truly believe that what we're trying to do isn't good for everyone and doesn't improve happiness?

magilson writes:


You are familiar with Daniel Kahneman's work. These "feeling" people are never interrupting System 1. So long as we try to capitulate to them on their own terms they will never fire up System 2. And System 1 will provide falsehoods all day long to generate a coherent story for whatever world view that "feeling" person holds.

So I believe your pursuit may very well be impossible. How can we interrupt System 1 such that they might, somehow, possibly, just maybe, realize the story they're constructing for themselves is just a story.

Glen Smith writes:

Known very few minimum wage people who got laid off BECAUSE of a minimum wage increase. I know a few people who got laid off because their % above minimum wage could not be profitably maintained. There also is likely a set of people who cannot get jobs because of minimum wage but I doubt if would make sense for lot of these people to work for much less than the minimum wage.

Methinks writes:

Even "feeling" people should not be immune to logic. Those people who are completely immune earn a different adjective. Nor should they be immune to empathy. I usually take the same approach I do with children: "Imagine you're a black teenager in a ghetto, going to a ghetto school, your mother is on would you feel if your only choices were welfare or dealing drugs because your skill level doesn't merit even minimum wage so that you can get your first job and put yourself on a path out of the ghetto?"

Normally they respond with the need for more government programs because these bleeding-head limousine liberals usually really think that poor people are lower life forms who cannot survive without their beneficence - which is defined by robbing someone else to pay for their self-aggrandizement projects masquerading as aid for the poor. For these people, it's not really about the poor, it's about themselves and you're not getting through to them.

The truly feeling people are usually willing to abandon bad ideas in favour of better ideas because they're really interested in bettering the welfare of the people they claim to want to help instead of polishing their own egos. Those people have also most likely been to a ghetto, talked to the inmates and see them as actual human beings and not vehicles for their own social advancement.

You're not getting through to everyone. Especially not anyone who swallows lines like "live simply so others can simply live" and "truth is a deeper form of intention".

Kevin writes:

I have found that feeling people are responsive to arguments against the minimum wage when the would-be employee in the story doesn't "need" the money. Specifically, people respond to stories about teenagers and handicapped people not being able to get jobs because of the minimum wage. Little Billy wants to learn the value of work, how to deal with an employer and co-workers, etc. but is denied the chance to gain this experience because some law requires that the employer pay him like he's trying to make ends meet for his family, which he isn't. A species of the disabled case is in Bryan's post.

As Bryan points out, this will probably not achieve much more than a concession that minimum wage should maybe not apply (or should be lower) for whatever class of people the feeling person just heard about. BUT - if you look at who actually makes the minimum wage, most of them are teenagers (19-24 year-olds account for over half of people making "at or below minimum wage" but lots of them have unpaid internships). So even if the principled argument fails, a good deal of the damage could be mitigated, for now.

Bostonian writes:

The minimum wage results in some interns being paid nothing, when in its absence they might be paid something. The inability of low-income young adults to do free internships locks them out of careers where internships are necessary.

Libertarians should give up for now on trying to abolish the minimum wage and instead support reforms of it, for example allowing an employer to pay a sub-minimum wage for a year.

KLO writes:


I don't think that many internships would pay a nominal amount in the absence of a minimum wage. Part of the appeal of an internship over a low wage job is the perception that it is not, in fact, a low wage job. Students would likely avoid internships that paid very little in favor of those that paid nothing at all just to maintain the illusion that their internship is prestigious and not some sort of low wage job.

I also do not understand why those who currently do not pay their interns would choose to pay them in the absence of a minimum wage. If the going rate for interns now is $0 an hour, why would employers voluntarily pay more than that in the absence of a minimum wage?

wintercow20 writes:

This is probably bordering too close to hard headed arguments ... but simply ask folks if they think minimum prices for basic needs is a good idea. Have them support a minimum price for gasoline, water, vegetables, socks, even apartments. And you can do this without lecturing, I think.

adny writes:

@KLO - I would imagine that if you are an employer not attractive enough to be worked for free, however attractive enough to be worker for small wage, abolishing the minimum wage would open these options?

ssh writes:

Raising wages helps people, not raising wages does not help people.

That is about as much logic that someone in hardcore "feeling" mode can handle, so thats what you have to beat.

Seriously, just call it racist. One line. Minimal to no logic required. Plus it send the signal that you are on team progress, so its okay to believe it. Its your best shot.

james writes:

Ask the soft-hearted what they think the minimum wage ought to be and why it ought not to be higher than that. Once the soft-heart acknowledges there is a "too high" minimum wage you're just arguing about what that amount is.

I think arguments about ending the minimum wage as a way for people to get their foot in the door are not persuasive. A worker willing to take a very low paying job in order to build skills and reputation seems to be destined for higher than minimum wages. The minimum wage doesn't seem like a big hurdle for that kind of person.

RAH writes:

The main problem that I saw with Eli's answer was that not even the dumbest "feeling" person would fall for it. You can make the exact same argument for anything

You know Oprah, I wish I could in good conscience support the speed limit, I really do. But do you know what happens when people don't comply? A lot of times it's imprisonment. Sometimes its a fine but if they don't pay something has to happen, and its not going to be pretty...

Of course I believe that people should drive at reasonable speeds. I would, and I think you would Oprah. I think that every decent human being would... But I cannot take the leap from that to actually putting a human being in a jail cell with rapists and murderers.

Troy Camplin writes:

There is only one way to sell anything to Feeling people: art. Stories allow you to personalize the abstract. That was the purpose of my poem. It actually does in its presentation what everyone else failed to do in their talk show appearance.

Ben writes:

Maybe the best approach is to get the Feeling person to start their own thinking process. How about saying "Hey, yeah, the minimum wage seems like a great idea! In fact, I'll go you one better: let's pass a law that raises the minimum wage to $100/hour. That way everybody can be rich!" Don't say it nastily or sarcastically; say it genuinely and enthusiastically. Try to get them to talk you down from your obviously crazy position. If there's any hope that you can get through to the person you're talking to, it will rapidly become clear.

Max writes:

Well, if you want to effectively argue to soft heads, soft hearts, then you will have to argue on the victim - opressor axis that Arnold help create.

You will have to find a way to argue that those NOT getting jobs are oppressed by those having jobs and well-paying at that.

Then you have to argue the right to work angle.
Of course, you might also take into account the amount of females in the soft/soft group and perhaps appeal to maternal instincts (family before strangers), which can be quite an interesting thing. In general maternity argues for the oppressed, except when doing so would endanger the own-group, the family. The family will always supersede the priority of strangers and in that case, women are actually falling in the hard/soft group. It is quite interesting after all.

Dan C writes:

While I agree with Bryan's characterization that most of these arguments are unconvincing to the true believer, I'm not sure that I agree that policy cannot be influenced by intelligent debate. The reason why emotional appeals work is because most people aren't really paying attention and just go with what sounds good. Most election battles are over small demographic groups ("swing voters") in very narrow geogrpahic areas.

Almost everyone in my extended family is liberal-progressive, and all are very well educated and rational/non-emotional, including professors, engineers and doctors, and are very representative of the liberal Democratic elite, so I feel like I have insight into their thinking. However, for most of them, their economics knowledge is very limited.

Interestingly, on the MW, one family member trotted out research that suggests the MW actually increases hiring because the poor will have more money to buy products.

Generally speaking, I have found that the equally-weighted combination of a hard head and a soft heart is the most persuasive on almost any issue. The hardest part, however, is getting anyone to actually pay attention to what you are saying and not what they think you are saying ("no, I am not regurgitating Fox's storyline"), and not cutting you off after third third word escapes from your mouth.

F. Lynx Pardinus writes:
"None of the efforts to smear the minimum wage based on its racist historical origins would work, unless the listener knew someone who told them about first-hand experiences with racist minimum wage advocates. Even then, it would probably feel irrelevant for today."

I found the "racist historical origins" attack against the minimum wage interesting. It certainly doesn't work when a libertarian tries to convince a conservative of open borders based on the racist historical origins of immigration quotas, so why would a similar attack against the minimum wage work against liberals?

johnleemk writes:

F. Lynx Pardinus:

It doesn't even work when a pro-open borders libertarian tries to convince an anti-open borders libertarian. If anything, open borders seems to have the worst of both worlds when it comes to persuading people: it will obviously benefit the world's poorest and obviously looks nothing like the status quo, so the same "hard head" who, say, opposes communism will treat it as just another utopian pipe dream. But the "soft heart" who, say, likes communism, for whatever reason is just as inclined to think (or feel, if you will) that open borders is a bad (or at best, not really great) idea. And whether you have a hard head or soft heart, the racist history of immigration restrictions seems to make not one whit of difference to how you think or feel about the issue.

BTW I think something similar goes for the war on drugs. People will often cite its terrible impact on the black community in the US as a reason for opposing it, but my observation tends to be that this argument by itself doesn't make much of a difference.

Ted Levy writes:

FLP: "I found the "racist historical origins" attack against the minimum wage interesting. It certainly doesn't work when a libertarian tries to convince a conservative of open borders based on the racist historical origins of immigration quotas, so why would a similar attack against the minimum wage work against liberals?"

Because liberals actually care about being called racist? ;-)

Ted Levy writes:

Perhaps a tangent, but "soft head, soft heart" people are not a new phenomenon. Yet the regulatory state has only cancerized in the last century. Were these people calling for minimum wage legislation a century ago? I don't believe so. Why not? Is this merely status quo bias, or is something else at play?

Glen Smith writes:

You'd have to be able to construct a logical case against minimum wage, something I've rarely seen done well. You are going to have to PROVE many core premises (this is especially hard when some core premises are of the not exist variety). A challenge is that having to prove those premises (in some cases, even explain them) will likely make the argument take too long and could be frustrating.

john hare writes:

You might be able to construct an argument for sub-minimum wage jobs that don't report against government benefits. I've met a lot of people that couldn't find a job as long as the poverty dependent checks came in.

"We can offer you a training wage that doesn't bite you in the food stamp/subsidized housing that we know you need and deserve." You won't see any difference in benefits until you reach $12.00 an hour, and even then it is only a graduated loss until you reach a living wage."

Steve Sailer writes:

Economists are shooting themselves in the foot by putting so much public effort into trying to abolish the minimum wage, when they've largely won the more significant argument over whether it should be high or low.

It's low.

Ted Levy writes:

Maybe the economists who note the black teenage unemployment level is above 30% disagree with you, Steve, that the minimum wage is set low ...

Jim writes:

This article certainly helps to demonstrate the difficulty of the task, though, is speaking of a Utopian 15 hr work week as opposed to the minimum wage. I find the comments more interesting than the article. Hard heads will be frustrated.

In fairness, I think Keynes was hijacked for this article.

Winton Bates writes:

Reading through the responses, I think those most appealing to soft-hearted people would be the stories which describe what happens to those who can't find a job at the minimum wage. Show what life is like for people who remain unemployed for long periods, develop psychological problems and become eligible for disability payments, work illegally for lower than the minimum wage, enter some form of self-employment where their income is much lower than the minimum wage etc.

jure writes:

Well, i think that all efforts are misguided.

No. 1 and first problem with selling the min. wage law to the emotionalists is that you are trying to denigrate the law that has the name: MINIMUM WAGE LAW !
So the problem is in the name itself, cause emotionalists do not think about the real meaning of words, they rather think about the words itself instead of meaning. So when you'll be talking about effects of min. wage on a tv - all that they will remember from all of your fancy informations is ... that some guy from a university was trying to tell average joe that he wants to take the min. wage from him.

So dozens of arguments above and those you chose as best are meaningles, if you do not attack the name first. And then you try to play a bit on emotional hostility against government which is still present in US- and say that nurnberg laws were also laws with fancy names about fairness and protection. So you must discredit and dehumanize those people who were advocating the laws with fancy names and promote a substitute expression for a word min. wage law. Everytime someone say this to you, you tell him: you mean min. employment opportunities law, you mean pronazi law, you mean antiblack job opportunity laws...?

Yes solution is difficult. But we cant get far if we are keep trying to find out how to destroy the law with minimum wage name in it.
And maybe you are overly pessimistic. We will never convince 100% everyone. Some emotionalists are really terrible, but you in your own post are presuming that everyone is so dumb that cannot undersand the message. That means that problems are not here particularly, but are grounded in deeper problems- like bad schooling, society that favors emotions and feelling ahead of reason, popular culture, left wing journalists with their emotionalistic writing...

So resistance to abolishment of min. wage is just a signal of some deeper problems in society, taht favors dreams and emotions everywhere. I mean does anyone know for 1 single movie in hollywood or musician in MTV that you can regard as a plea to reason and as libertarian?

Ghil writes:

Real "soft head - soft heart" people has a excellent capability to shutdown their brain (I wish I had this capability before going to sleep)

So, if they feel that your story and/or following explanation is going to hurt their "System 1", they just don't listen to you anymore.

The only way to persuade people that liberty is good is to show numerous small stories where coercion is bad. And other stories where coercion comes from government. And the key point is to repeat again and again the same kind of stories until it enters their "system 1".

Then, you need to let them draw the conclusion by themselves. It can take some time but this is the only way I see to convert firm believers of "social justice"...

Seth writes:

I'm surprised nobody has offered the 'If just one..." approach that is often utilized by feeling people.

If just one person can't find a job because the minimum wage is too high, is it worth it?

Of course, a feeling person's retort might be, if just one person gets a higher wage than they otherwise would, then it is worth it.

To which I might reply, so you get to be the judge of what's fair for the person who can't find a job? I bet he or she would love to thank you for making that trade-off for them.

I've used this approach on some feeling people with some success. It at least got them to stop and think.

Also, Bryan's guesses for how a feeling person would respond to these arguments may be right. But, Bryan isn't the target market.

AAQQ writes:

how about a PSA by earnest Qatarians pleading for a US minimum wage of $100/hr?

'but...hamad....if you force companies to pay $100/hr, almost every american would lose their job and a lot of those companies would go out of business'

'good! serves them right for forcing americans to live in such wretched conditions!'

Fonzy Shazam writes:

Okay, I'm late to this, so I may get ignored. Regardless here is my attempt:

Not all businesses are highly successful. In fact many are just slightly and sporadically successful. Still these are important business and important employers. If we force these businesses to have costs above their natural rate, we most likely cause some of these businesses to fail. Failure of these marginal businesses reduces competition and empowers the already powerful, successful businesses. Choose carefully who you want to reward and who you consequently punish.

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