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Departmental Seminar: (Minimum) Wages, Recognition, and Economic Citizenship

Christian Schemmel
Wednesday, May 3, 2023, 1:30 pm – 3:10 pm

 Co-authored with Georg Picot (University of Bergen)

Low-paid and precarious work is widespread. Over the last decades, income inequality as well as in-work poverty have increased significantly even in affluent countries. Many countries have reacted to this trend by introducing, or expanding the coverage of, minimum wage legislation, as well as raising the level of the statutory minimum wage. There seems to be increasing consensus among policy makers that minimum wages are much-needed policy instruments, and there seems to be significant –often bipartisan – support for their use within the public at large, many of whose members agree that they respond to a pressing moral problem.

But what exactly is the moral problem that minimum wages can claim to solve, or, at least, to whose solution they make an important, distinctive contribution? In this paper, we argue that the most distinctive, and strongest, justification for adequate minimum wages, and adequate processes for guaranteeing them, is not that they contribute to fulfilling desirable overall social goals, such as minimising poverty or reducing economic inequality, but that they fulfil a central demand of recognizing economic citizenship. They express appropriate respect for individuals who fulfil their obligation to make a productive contribution to social cooperation by undertaking paid work (whatever other activities may fulfil this obligation, too). Developing this distinctive justification for minimum wages matters not only because their increased use is, as noted, an important and widespread policy development, and we should want to know whether these policies are, normatively speaking, on the right track. It also matters for  two further-reaching reasons. First, it reveals some general insights about the moral status of paid work in contemporary market economies. Second, on this basis, it also points to a set of additional measures and policies likely needed to recognise demands of economic citizenship more fully, such as democratised wage-setting, and setting upper bounds to permissible wage inequality.