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October 25, 2005

Bad History

The blog Marginal Revolution, although economically libertarian, is usually more interesting than the average free market rant.  But this post on the supposed "secret history of the minimum wage" is just propaganda of the worst sort, distorting history to paint minimum wage advocates as racists and male supremacists:
Progressives, including Richard Ely, Louis Brandeis, Felix Frankfurter, the Webbs in England etc., were interested not in protecting women but in protecting men and the race.   Their goal was to get women back into the home, where they belonged, instead of abandoning their eugenic duties and competing with men for work.

Unlike today's progressives, the originals understood that minimum wages for women would put women out of work - that was the point and the more unemployment of women the better!

If this was the point of minimum wage and maximum hours legislation, why did progressives of that era also advocate for those same kind of laws on behalf of white elite men in privileged sectors of the economy?

Did they hate white men as well?

Of course, the context for this post is that the Supreme Court and various state courts struck down minimum wage and maximum hour laws as unconstitutional in that period.  And so progressives, in order to salvage some of those laws on behalf of women, turned to a whole range of alternative arguments to convince the courts that women deserved "special" protection, especially since women could not vote and could not protect their interests themselves politically.  

Having struck down a maximum wage law for male bakers in Lochner v. New York,  the Supreme Court, responding to these alternative arguments in Muller v. Oregon to an odd mix of arguments and social policy studies to argue that women could claim special protection under the law:

[W]oman has always been dependent upon man. He established his control at the outset by superior physical strength, may, without conflicting with the provisions and this control in various forms, with diminishing intensity, has continued to the present. As minors, thought not to the same extent, she has been looked upon in the courts as needing especial care that her rights may be preserved.
Of course you can pull racist or sexist quotes about pretty much any group in that period-- it was a profoundly racist and sexist society.  But to ignore that earlier legal context of arguments by people like Brandeis and Frankfurter-- the latter who would strongly uphold minimum wage laws for men as well as women once he was on the Supreme Court -- and paint support for the minimum wage as some kind of anti-female conspiracy is disingenous history of the worst and most perverted kind.

This meme of wage laws as racist is a pervasive trope of the rightwing-- we've seen it recently in rightwing justifications for Bush undermining Davis-Bacon post-Katrina.  It of course ignores the fact that latinos and african americans are some of the strongest supporters of such laws.    

There are interesting lessons about racial and sexual divides in the workforce from that era, but these kinds of simplistic propagandistic arguments don't count.

Posted by Nathan at October 25, 2005 10:21 AM