Economists Show How Progressives Originally Wanted to Use the Min. Wage as a Eugenic Weapon


Will they or won’t they?

That’s the question that’ll have to be answered by the Senate parliamentarian after Senate Democrats and Republicans proffer their arguments on Wednesday regarding the thorniest issue in Joe Biden’s COVID relief package, a $15 federal minimum wage, according to Politico.

Because the Democrats don’t have the 60 votes to override a filibuster no matter if the minimum wage is in it or not, the bill would have to make it through the upper chamber through a process called budget reconciliation, which allows a very limited number of bills a year which strictly have to do with matters concerning spending, taxation or the debt ceiling to be passed by a majority vote.

At issue is whether or not a $15 minimum wage is related directly enough to the budget to be passed under reconciliation rules — which is where the parliamentarian, the arbiter of what can and cannot fit under budget reconciliation, comes into play.

There will be wider practical issues about what the minimum wage means, of course — issues that could mean two Democrats, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, might not be on board if the minimum wage hike is included.

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Beyond that, however, no one’s talking about the historical aspect of the minimum wage. Most countries have one. The question is, where did it come from?

For at least one academic who was proposing it in the years leading up to the passage of the first federal minimum wage, Jeffrey A. Tucker of the American Institute for Economic Research notes, one of the most prominent economists in favor of the minimum wage wasn’t trying to lift those on the lowest rung of the employment ladder out of poverty.

In fact, he didn’t even want them working at all.

Frank W. Taussig doesn’t come to mind when you think of the most influential economists of the pre-World War II era, but wrote “Principles of Economics,” the 1917 textbook that became the model for students during the progressive era. Tucker actually thinks it “does hold up in general,” with one glaring exception.

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“There is one section, however, where the author really goes off the rails. He is discussing labor policy and a ‘compulsory minimum wage rate,'” Tucker wrote in the piece, published last Monday. “There was no such national law at the time (that didn’t arrive until 1933) but Professor Taussig made the case for one.

“For him, this was not about lifting up the poor or increasing wages for everyone. He saw it as a tool for including and excluding workers based on whether and to what extent the people in question should even be part of the labor pool.”

The purpose of the minimum wage, in Taussig’s thinking, is that it would “regulate the plane of competition” so that “one one could undersell the others by cutting below the established rate.”

“It would be impossible to compel employers to pay the minimum to those whose services were not worth it,” Taussig wrote.

To put that another way: If you make the services of people with low skills so expensive they have no place to start, they’re priced out of the labor market for good, off to some kind of limbo. Keep in mind, too, that this was before any social safety net, much less the massive one provided by liberals.

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And let’s be clear: This wasn’t just being done in the name of labor efficiency. It would be horrible indeed if this were intended to up productivity with no calculation as to the human cost. It was far worse than that.

“Here is where Taussig gets brutal,” Tucker wrote. “Some people are simply unemployable, he says, for example ‘those who are helpless from cases irremediable’ due to ‘old age, infirmity, disabling accident’ and also those suffering from ‘congenital feebleness of body and charters, alcoholism, dissolute living … irretrievable criminals and tramps.’

“This class, he opines, ‘must be stamped out’ and should not ‘be allowed to breed,'” Tucker continued.

“Ideally, he says, we should ‘proceed to chloroform them once for all’ but that might have a bad look. Instead, ‘at least they can be segregated, shut up in refuges and asylums, and prevented from propagating their kind.’”

“Pretty chilling? Indeed. Welcome to the world of Progressive-Era economics as informed by eugenic concerns in which the law is deployed for purposes of stamping out undesirables,” Tucker wrote.

“Taussig’s view was not considered scandalous because it was fully mainstream opinion at the time. As grim and immoral as his aspirations, at least he gets the economics right: the minimum wage does indeed lock people without privilege out of the labor force.”

He wasn’t the only one to hold this view. Consider President Woodrow Wilson’s commissioner of labor, Royal Meeker of Princeton University: “It is much better to enact a minimum-wage law even if it deprives these unfortunates of work,” he said in 1910. “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.”

You will not hear any of this on the floor of the House or the Senate when discussing the proposed $15 minimum wage.

Our reasons these days are far less rebarbative, but this is what the left was originally all about. Nowadays, it’s about shoring up the base — especially labor unions and voters who don’t see how higher wages mean more unemployment. But when that happens, at least those people can be priced out of the labor market and into the willing arms of the welfare state. The hatred, the bigotry — that might be different 104 years on. The basic intent — to keep low-skilled workers from ever getting their chance — isn’t.

Will they or won’t they? The answer could depend on whether our most vulnerable job-seekers — especially job seekers of color — can get onto the employment ladder in the first place. It’d hardly be a surprise if they made it harder, after all. These are the progressives who thought the minimum wage was a dandy idea if it served their eugenic purposes.

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C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014.
C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014. Aside from politics, he enjoys spending time with his wife, literature (especially British comic novels and modern Japanese lit), indie rock, coffee, Formula One and football (of both American and world varieties).
Morristown, New Jersey
Catholic University of America
Languages Spoken
English, Spanish
Topics of Expertise
American Politics, World Politics, Culture