Paying off the disabled

June 22, 2011

Howls of righteous outrage greeted Philip Davies’ proposal that the disabled should be able to work for less than minimum wage. For once, the righteousness was indeed righteous; the implication of the proposal is that the labour of the disabled is worth less than that of the able-bodied, and so they’re less likely to be hired if the price for that labour of less worth is below the minimum wage.

Naturally, in the implacably divided political blogosphere, outrage was met with outrage. The attitude of the Right was broadly that if the disabled were only able to get jobs when people paid them below the minimum wage, then they should bloody well be able to take jobs below the minimum wage. Davies’ comments were interpreted in the context of a broader objection of the Right to the minimum wage, which is that it excludes from the labour market those whose labour is worth less than it. This objection has the advantage of being true. What it doesn’t imply, however, is that any particular subsection of society should be singled out as being less likely to capable of selling their labour at or above the minimum.

Let me tell you what will happen if this proposal goes through. If an employer is choosing between two prospective employees of equal ability, one of which happens to be disabled, they’ll be more likely to employ the disabled one. Good, say the Right, more disabled people working. However, the reason why they employ the disabled person is that they can pay them less than the minimum wage. If the choice was between two able-bodied people of equal ability, the employer would be willing to pay the minimum wage for the same labour. If this proposal goes through, then disabled people who otherwise would’ve been able to sell their labour for the minimum wage if it didn’t exist would have an artificial lowering of the value of their labour relative to the same quality of labour when sold by an able-bodied person. It would serve to depress the price of disabled labour. It would be a state intervention which results in an unfair market distortion.

Either be opposed to the minimum wage, or be in favour of it. But for goodness’ sake, don’t introduce artificial distortions into the labour market on a sectional basis; only misery can result.