Wendy’s recent announcement that it’s installing 1,000 self-service kiosks in its restaurants is a huge counter-salvo against the Fight for $15 and its effort to push through an unreasonable national minimum wage.
Most mainstream economists believe paying America’s youngest and least-skilled workers at least $15 an hour will kill countless jobs, especially for those least able to lose them. But the progressives behind the push, seemingly ignorant about how the economy actually works, claim the wage hike would have few ill effects.
But the Wendy’s plan, plus similar automation ideas being considered by other fast-food chains, puts the lie to that contention. When you force employers to pay workers more than they’re worth, the result is fewer people have jobs.
The battle over the minimum began at the turn of the 20th Century, the dawn of the original Progressive Era . There is, however, a huge difference with how the leftists of yesteryear approached the issue. The original Progressives backed a minimum wage precisely because it would throw people out of work.
As economic historian Thomas C. Leonard explains in Illiberal Reformers (Princeton University Press, 2016), the Progs were a new breed on the national landscape at the end of the 19th Century. Devout believers in science as a cure for every ill, Progressives were convinced the only way America could survive and thrive was if all aspects of society were run by experts — namely themselves.
One of the Progressives’ main concerns was racial purity. They feared that Americans of Anglo-Saxon stock were threatened by hordes of inferior creatures, primarily racial minorities and immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. They concluded that an efficient way to protect the native-born was to drive the undesirables — whom they called “unemployables” — out of the workforce.
The “experts” believed the government had to intervene to prevent white workers’ pay from plummeting to unsustainable levels. They thought blacks and immigrants would accept lower living standards than white men, so they would accept lower wages. The ensuing “race to the bottom” would cut white men out of the job market and leave them unable to raise families.
To that end, the Progressives sought a national minimum wage — or, as they called it even back then, a “living wage” — to make labor so expensive that employers would hire only highly competent workers (i.e., white men).
(The Progressives also wanted women out of the workplace. Not only did they hold jobs that men could do, but the Progs also wanted females at home, breeding and caring for their families for the betterment of the race.)
So what would the “unemployables” do if they were prevented from working? Under the Progs’ plan, some — imbeciles, drunkards, criminals and the disabled — would be institutionalized, while others would be placed in “labor colonies,” a euphemism for work camps. It’s not a stretch to imagine that such places could eventually become concentration camps.
By 1919, fifteen states had minimum wage laws, but the Progressives never got the federal law they wanted. Acts were passed, but the Supreme Court struck them down as unconstitutional because they interfered with employers and workers’ right to enter into free and willing contracts.
Not until Franklin Roosevelt’s administration did Congress approve a law, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, that survived judicial review.
When it comes to the Progressive Era, historians are unfailingly generous in telling how it improved American life by creating better working conditions, establishing food and drug regulations, and reforming the political system. Many also credit the movement for women gaining the right to vote even though most Progressives opposed the idea.
But the dark side of Progressivism is buried and rarely comes to light in the history books. Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism is an excellent antidote that is both enlightening and entertaining. Now we can add Thomas C. Leonard’s Illiberal Reformers to the must-read list for exposing the anti-humanity ideals that formed the core of the Progressive machine.