National Review troll Amity Shlaes, who you may remember from such arguments as “true freedom is a worker choosing to labor 70 hours a week,” in lamely attempting to write the “humanitarian case” for repealing the minimum wage writes her own history of the Gilded Age:
It was not always thus. In the 19th century and well into the 20th, many employers and employees believed that their relationship, the two-party one, was key. Outsiders — regulators, unions, lawmakers — were intruders. That privacy of employer and employee often yielded negative results. The employer might exploit the employee. But the two-party dynamic often succeeded. Because the employee-employer pair set their terms together, they trusted each other. From time to time, they also helped each other.
Example: It’s hard to find employers more vilified in the annals of American history than Andrew Carnegie and Henry Frick. These gentlemen hired the Pinkerton men who shot at the workers during the steel strike over, yes, wages at Homestead, Pa., in 1892. What is mostly forgotten is that the workers also shot at the detectives. What is entirely forgotten is that Carnegie and Frick did much for workers, precisely because they felt responsible to their counterparty. The exploiting Robber Baron Carnegie endowed more than 1,500 public libraries up and down the Atlantic seaboard and out west, and many more around the world. Carnegie’s aim was to dare workers like those who tackled the Pinkertons to improve their skills, so that they might rise as Carnegie himself had. “He that dare not reason is a slave,” reads the motto at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh. Many immigrants after Carnegie did reason, and did rise.
In 1905, the Supreme Court supported this old view when it held that New York State might not regulate the hours worked at a bakery because doing so interfered with the sanctity of the contract between worker and employer. The case, Lochner, has long been ridiculed by progressives and conservatives alike as an example of absurd federal interventionism: After all, the issue was a state law, not a law passed in Washington, D.C. Several decades later, in the 1923 case Adkins v. Children’s Hospital, the Supreme Court explicitly rejected the minimum wage, with Justice Sutherland explaining of the minimum wage: “It exacts from the employer an arbitrary payment for a purpose and upon a basis having no causal connection with his business, or the contract or the work the employee engages to do.” It was only another decade-plus later, in West Coast Hotel, that the enervated justices finally succumbed and opened the door to a third party, the labor regulator. Well into the second term of a progressive administration, justices do tend to get intimidated, and the Supreme Court certainly demonstrated that in West Coast Hotel.
Defending Henry Clay Frick and the Lochner decision is special but not too surprising I guess. Bringing back the old idea of the equality of contract between the billionaire employer and unemployed worker, now that’s bringing the first Gilded Age into the second Gilded Age!
It’s also amazing how workers’ desires for a minimum wage are never taken into consideration in these arguments. But of course the equality between employer and employee for these people exists only so far as it allows the exploitation of labor.
But Carnegie built some libraries, so it’s all good. Every defender of plutocrats brings up the Carnegie libraries. Two notes. First, that was a century ago. Maybe you should find some modern plutocrats giving away all their money. Second, a person should be judged by how they made their money, not what they did after they were multimillionaires. The former is far more telling. And all the libraries Carnegie could build could not assuage the guilt for his behavior, both at Homestead and throughout his career.