Are Workers Commodities?
Tibor R. Machan
In The Washington Monthly magazine, pundit Kevin Drum states—in response to George Will’s point that “The minimum wage should be the same everywhere: $0. Labor is a commodity; governments make messes when they decree commodities’ prices”—that “This, in a nutshell, is the core problem with conservative economics: it views workers as commodities. Naturally it follows from this that we should be free to treat workers like commodities, rather than as human beings.”
For starters, what George Will was actually writing about is labor, not workers. Labor is a commodity, something that may be sold by free men and women on terms they can reach with prospective buyers. And it is workers or their representatives who treat their labor as a commodity—in the form of a service—which they want to trade for wages or salaries. Indeed, all professionals do this—doctors, teachers, athletes, scientists, artists and so forth. In order to make a decent living all of these folks attempt to sell their labor and skill so they can then go out and also buy goods and services—e. g., from dentists, teachers, pundits, dance instructors, attorneys, and the rest.
The marvel of the free market place is just this, namely, that we may seek out the best possible deals for what we have to offer, goods or services. The alternative would be akin to what the Soviets did, namely, have government decide who will do what work and for whom, with no consultation of the workers or anyone else, for that matter, all in the name of abolishing alienation! Such collective decisions are what really amount to the demeaning of workers, treating them as objects instead of men and women with a will of their own.
Free market trade in labor does not for a moment imply that the people who sell or rent their labor—skill, time, etc.—are commodities. No one is buying people in the market place. It is people’s skills and time that are being traded. And the way this is made utterly clear is that the buying has to occur on terms set by the people doing the selling, not on terms set unilaterally by those obtaining the service.
The ruse Mr. Drum is trying to perpetrate is to equate the free market place with slave auction but it will not wash. At a slave auction it is indeed a human being who is being sold by another human being. That is of course completely unjust—one’s life is one’s own, so other people may not—must not—sell it. Indeed, one cannot even sell one’s own life, only one’s skill and time—labor or service.
It is true that sometimes when people want to sell their labor they find it difficult to do so. There may not be any wish for what they have to offer—American Idol demonstrates this in spades! Most of us, also, usually would like higher wages or greater salaries paid for our services than what people in the market place are willing to offer, so we may be displeased with the deals available to us. Yet, many of us carry on with less than most desirable deals because without them we would not be well off at all—we wouldn’t be able to turn around and buy the services from those who offer them to us. And when we want to dramatize our dissatisfaction with the deals that we are able to make, we tend to engage in hyperbole and talk of not being treated like human beings but as commodities (e. g., a la Karl Marx). All the effort we put into developing our skills, making available our time does not appear to be well enough compensated and we are upset about this and besmirch the best economic system available to us all.
Fact is, however, no one has the authority unilaterally to set the terms of a deal—we must discover some mutually satisfactory terms. And while such terms may be satisfactory, they may also be disappointing, given our hopes and even expectations. But to insist that our terms rule the deal is itself unjust—it leaves those with whom we are attempting to strike deals out of the picture. And that really would mean treating them as less than human.
So the folks who belly ache about how people are being treated as commodities got it wrong. And, furthermore, they are the ones who are proposing to ignore the humanity—the basic human rights—of all those whose terms they would rather ignore.