Who owes you a living wage?
Jason Brennan, over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians argues that employers do not owe their employees a living wage. This is in the context of whether the government subsidises Wal-Mart by providing the welfare state so that Wal-Mart does not have to pay a living wage. But as Brennan argues this presupposes that it is already antecedently the case that it is the employer who specifically owes it to the worker to pay him enough to live a life with sufficient standard of living. But why couldn’t it be our loved ones or even us collectively* as a society? Why does the default burden fall on the employer?***
Suppose a homeless person offers to squeegee my car window while I’m stopped at an intersection. Suppose washing my window will take 60 seconds. Suppose that having my window washed is worth very little to me–I’d lose money on the transaction if I paid more than 10 cents. However, suppose that a living wage amounts to $30/hr. Am I morally obligated (not out of duties of beneficence, but out of justice) to pay him 50 cents, and thus lose 40 cents on the transaction?
*If you’ve been paying attention positive rights are all pervasive. Arguing that collective provision is suspect because in the breach there is no one person at fault commits you to saying something very similar (and at the least extremely implausible) when it comes to genuine public goods like defence and the protection of other negative rights. Consider, if Alan rapes Betty, Alan may have violated Betty’s negative rights, but strictly speaking failure by everyone else to prevent Alan from raping Betty or subsequently fairly prosecuting Alan does not violate Betty’s negative rights. If justice were to consist only of duties of non-interference, then there would be nothing remotely unjust about society’s further failure to punish Alan.**
**Of course, it doesn’t mean that society has to on pain of injustice. After all, Alan still has rights to a fair trial which if yields a not-guilty verdict can over-ride Betty’s claim for redress.
***We all as a society have decided… does not count because firstly, because it is false. The sheer fact that roughly half the country thinks otherwise means that no, you as a society did not decide. Secondly, even if there was some significant portion whose decision could bind the rest regardless of the content of the decision, that is the wrong sort of reason to invoke. We could very well say something similar about banning gay marriage. But clearly, the just-ness of marriage equality does not depend on whether enough people have pronounced it just or otherwise.