Frederick Douglass (1817–1895) is considered by many to be America’s greatest African American. Along with Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King, these make up their top three.
Born into slavery, Douglass became a free man and rose through the ranks to eventually become the first African American to receive a vote for nomination for President of the United States. His final years were spent as Consul-General to the Republic of Haiti.
Following the American Civil War and the emancipation of America’s slaves, Douglass was asked, “What should be done for these (former) slaves?”
“Nothing!” he replied. “Leave us alone. By freeing us, you’ve done enough already.”
“If you leave us alone, we’ll work our way up. We will create pathways for others to follow.”
The value of getting one’s foot onto that first rung of the ladder cannot be overstated.
I mention this because a number of years ago an application was made to amend the Australian Fast Food Industry Award and dramatically increase the wages of junior employees.
It was unarguable that junior employees’ wages were very low at that time, but this had the significant benefit that many young people from lower socio-economic areas were able to get jobs and, to paraphrase Frederick Douglass, “work their way up”.
Appeals to reject the application fell on deaf ears and a substantial increase in the Award wage occurred.
This had the perverse effect that middle-class college students started applying for the jobs – and getting them. One franchise-owner said to me, “Why wouldn’t I employ the college kids? They’re smart, articulate, reliable, and their parents drop them off and pick them up in a BMW!
“The lower socio-economic kids may not have been as good, but hey, they were cheaper.”
No-one was sacked and replaced, but over time the poorer kids were replaced by the wealthier ones.
Let’s face it, some young people don’t have a lot going for them. They’re not well-connected, may come from dysfunctional families, may not have particularly high IQs, and may have other problems as well. The one thing they do have going for them, however, is their ability to compete with the more fortunate ones on price.
In short, they were prepared to work for less in order to get a start.
Not anymore. We have taken away from them that one last remaining labour market advantage they had over the rich kids.
This form of price-fixing is at the heart of labour market regulation. It’s called ‘centralised wage fixing’. It is putting the power to dictate to someone what they can and cannot work for – regardless of what they want – into the hands of people completely remote from the circumstances of those whose lives they are about to ruin.
When people, young people in particular, are excluded from full participation in community and working life, the social costs can be enormous – drug and alcohol abuse, crime, domestic violence, poor health, depression, frustration, boredom, bikie gang recruitment, civil disorder, teenage pregnancy, even suicide. This is what can happen when young people don’t have a job. They are locked out of the labour market at exactly the time they are biologically ready to enter into relationships, get married and start a family.
No-one is arguing against a welfare safety net, but we have to allow people to get a foot on that first rung of the ladder.
The current political battle is not between Left and Right, rich and poor. It’s between freedom and authoritarianism. It’s between those who, like Douglass, want to help people become self-reliant by removing barriers to entry to things such as jobs and housing, and those who see those without jobs and houses as political opportunities to get themselves elected. “It’s not your fault”, political opportunists say. “You are a victim. The system did this to you. That rich kid took your job. Those baby-boomer investors took your house. Vote for me and the government will look after you. I’ll remake that cruel and nasty free-market capitalist system.”
Not only is this economically stupid, it is morally reprehensible.
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