The political map has moved on since French nobles sat to the left or right of the King, but most would still class me as a classic Right-winger. So why do I support a wage floor for the UK – and not just the minimum wage, but a Living Wage and beyond?
After all, I laugh in the face of unions (economic wrecking balls) who you’d think would be working towards the same goal. And my contempt for the Labour front bench – a mob of jerk-offs and whack-jobs incapable of simple sums – is total. I believe Occupy is shorthand for “Stand and deliver” and that Russell Brand is an overhyped self-indulgent uber-flake, circle-jerking the right-on juice for an audience of Guardian journalists. (Well, no argument there I suppose.)
Yup, the British Left is a joke, and the Conservatives aren’t that much better. I’m a hardcore Libertarian, in the extreme top right corner of the Nolan Chart. High social freedoms and high economic freedoms for all, and the main job of a small government is to protect those rights, not take rights of its own. The rights of society must stem from the rights of the individual, otherwise it’s just masters and slaves.
(As every State that’s ever dabbled in Communism discovers.)
And that’s why my stance is unusual. Isn’t the free market about invisible hands, supply and demand, efficient allocation of capital and all that? Libertarians are supposed to support laissez-faire. A minimum wage is a market distortion, and, the dogma goes, market distortions are always bad.
I still believe that. I’m a Libertarian even among Libertarians. But I also want to live in a civil society. And one of the few arguments against a Libertarian society is that it might not be a civil one.
Just to get things straight: I’m not developing a social conscience here. (Perish the thought.) Don’t worry folks, I remain a self-centred, individualist, rat-racing me-first Social Darwinist who glorifies the I over the We in true Objectivist tradition. Enlightened self-interest is the only personal philosophy that makes any sense, and darling Ayn got everything right, including not liking Libertarians. I enjoy BioShock for all the wrong reasons and Cormac McCarthy’s Judge ranks among my favourite fictional characters. And now we’ve got that sorted…
… anyone working fulltime at the lowest pay grade should be able to afford a decent life.
Not a life of luxury. Not a life of eating out every night – or even once a week. But a roof over your head and cash for Asda, with enough left over for a change of clothes and a broadband connection, isn’t asking much. And that’s all anyone needs to get onto the ladder of self-actualisation. The dignity of work should be matched by the dignity of pay… because those dignities give you the opportunity to pull yourself up.
And a society of 60m people with those opportunities is a successful, economically dynamic one. That’s the kind of place I want to live in.
So let’s look at what really matters to a small-statist: what does it cost?
The answer: a lot less than you’d think. And the benefits are enormous.
Back of envelope: the cost to employers worst-cases 58bn. That’s if Britain’s 12m lowest earners get £9.15 an hour. But many of them work part-time, bringing it down to £26bn or so. And some earn Living Wage already. (Including, to their credit, many local councils – although it’s easy to be generous with other people’s money.)
That brings us down to £22bn on the cost column. And the good news continues.
Because increasing these wages won’t make the jobs go away. Most low-wage jobs are non-exportable. They’re the cleaners, the waiters, the guys who sweep your streets and mix your drinks. You can’t outsource these jobs to Vietnam. A living wage won’t reduce employment.
What’s more, many employers among our EU neighbours already face real costs above this premium: try employing someone in, say, France. Britain’s beyond the economic stage where human labour is a costed commodity; low earners don’t make aircraft engines or devise new drugs. A living wage will have no effect on Britain’s global competitiveness.
Third, most of these extra costs can be recharged directly to customers. Anyone paying £2.50 for a Latte can afford £2.62, and if you begrudge the guy with his hands in your toilet an extra two quid, you need to rethink your priorities. I estimate £15bn of that £22bn moves straight into the revenue column; a living wage carries little real cost to employers.
So we’re down to a £7bn real cost to employers. What else?
Well, surprise surprise: put an extra £400 a month in people’s pockets, and they spend it on stuff. That £15bn charge-out becomes a £15bn economic boost. Which means greater sales for the companies who employ them. Leading to economic growth, higher employment, higher VAT receipts at the Treasury, and an increased feel-good factor among the teeming hordes. Would that cover the £7bn and bring the real cost of this change down to zero? I think so. (And yes, I’m aware how Keynesian this makes me sound. Suck it up.)
There are other benefits. A reduced need for Housing Benefit. A lower bill for income support. And a greater incentive to get into work; that extra £98 a week might, who knows, persuade some lard-assed wasters away from the Sky box. And with the minimum income of a full-time worker – over £18,000 – now significantly greater than most people can score from the Social, the number of people claiming benefits would fall anyway. It’s all good when work pays. An extra £3-4bn boost to GDP?
These positives, of course, also reduce the appalling complexity of Britain’s welfare state. All the edge cases – what percentage of this guy’s rent should we cover? How many hours of this woman’s childcare? – go away, and with them the armies of functionaries who adminster them. (Maybe they can all get jobs in Starbuck’s instead.) A living wage means a smaller State. What’s that, £1bn off the Public Sector payroll?
So there you have it: I estimate a living wage carries a £5-10bn benefit to the UK economy. Not far off a full percentage point on growth. Are you listening, Osborne?