There are two good reasons that liberty should be central in any discussion of public policy. First, freedom is the best candidate available to be the central goal of social policy. Second, any sensible policy discussion recognizes that emphasizing liberty provides a needed safeguard against the excesses of government power. While a philosophical discussion of natural rights gives us little clear guidance on what to do about regulations, like the minimum wage, these two central reasons for valuing freedom point to a pretty clear policy conclusion against such regulations.
Why should freedom by the primary goal of government? There are really two alternatives for the proper objective of government: liberty and everything else. The advocates of liberty argue that individuals, not the state, should be the primary arbiter of how to live their lives. They argue that private individuals make better decisions than governments and that individual decision-making is inherently good. This view does not give any clear answers about tradeoffs between the freedoms of two people, but it does put liberty first. The alternative view is that the state should select objectives, like psychological well-being, longevity, or racial purity, and push the population towards those objectives. The case for liberty is as much a case against these alternatives. The case for liberty is best made by emphasizing the imperfections of governmental decision making, and a historical track record where liberal democracies have far out-performed the alternatives.
Accepting that the goal of government is to maximize the range of choices available to private individuals tells us little about cases where there is a tradeoff between two peoples’ choices. But regulations like the minimum wage are not problematic because they increase one individual’s choices at the expense of another, but because they redistribute choices badly. If the goal is to take money from some people and give it to others, then standard tax-based redistribution accomplishes this more effectively, without restricting the ability to freely contract and to employ less skilled workers. The minimum wage is bad not because it redistributes choices across people, but because it reduces freedom for everyone, at least relative to a better redistribution system.
The second reason to treasure liberty is the need to be vigilant against the abuse of power. Every expanded regulation provides yet another opportunity for the state to put special interests ahead of the public. Every increase in redistribution will be accompanied by inefficiency and inequity. Without a clear and compelling reason to increase the coercive
acts of government, our bias should be against more intervention. It is hard to see why the need for the minimum wage is so vital that it leaps over this threshold, especially when other forms of redistribution exist.
Whether or not one can spin philosophical justifications for this type of regulation, it is hard to see how this is a sensible way to redistribute income that puts the burden fairly on all taxpayers, instead of on the employers of less skilled labor and the consumers who buy their products.