Apologists for the “free” market may argue that while the rich have become richer, the poor have become less poor, so everyone’s economic circumstances have improved. The argument takes for granted that wealth is about a standard of living. In fact, wealth is about power. What matters is not how much money one has but how much more money one has than others do, and thus how much power one has, over others, to influence outcomes in politics, economics, culture. Consider at the extreme a logical application of the market apologists’ premise: if a slaveowner becomes wealthier and provides better food, clothing, and shelter for his slaves so that they become more productive, the slaves’ lot has improved, too. What is missing from this equation is, of course, freedom.
Workers today have a set of rights, privileges, and choices that slaves do not, but in deeply important ways we lack power over our own lives. While the material circumstances of many have marginally improved with the growth of our economy, that says little about our freedom to critique and create, to self-determine. Consider a world in which nearly everyone has enough money to purchase adequate food, housing, and health care to live longer, stronger lives. That sounds like a big improvement. But what if this access to material welfare occurs in the context of a society in which the wealthiest determine everything about the world in which we exercise our buying power? What if the powers that be make education stultifying, pillage the environment, and require workers to work the majority of their waking hours in jobs they don’t care about until an ever increasing retirement age? Is material security worth this loss of power?
Fortunately, because we are not slaves, we could do something about it. But first we must understand that to the extent we believe that wealth is about consumption, we have been tricked into playing their (rigged) game. In fighting for higher wages, let us remember why we want not just a minimum, i.e., subsistence, wage. It is because we want to live a life of our own that we need a living wage.