Michael Kinsley
Bloomberg View

WASHINGTON: Even a conservative who ordinarily doesnít care much for government regulation of business ought to find the case for a government-mandated minimum wage pretty compelling. In brief: As a conservative, you believe in the dignity of work. And it sends a terrible message about the dignity of work when working full-time doesnít earn you enough to live a decent life.

On the other hand, even a committed liberal whoís concerned about growing income inequality ought to have some doubts about the minimum wage. The minimum wage reduces employment (or ďdestroys jobs,Ē as the accusation is usually put) by pricing people out of the market.

When two people (let us call them ďworkerĒ and ďbossĒ) voluntarily make a deal, we can presume it must be good for both of them. Otherwise, they wouldnít do it. This logic applies to employment deals just like any others. No one is forced to take any job, so when someone does take a job, we may surmise that he or she finds this job, at the pay being offered, preferable to other available jobs ó or to no job at all. By what right and what logic do we step in and say: No, this is a deal youíre not allowed to make?

You may say that when an unemployed worker with a family to support takes a nasty job at a low wage out of desperation, this is hardly the kind of voluntary free-market decision contemplated by Adam Smith. But unless youíre offering a better job or a better wage, simply forbidding this particular deal is of less than no help. The minimum wage restricts workers as well as bosses: It forbids both categories of economic actor from making a deal they wish to make.

The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, a figure that reflects our ambivalence about the whole idea. A wage of $7.25 an hour amounts to $15,080 a year. At this rate, weíre violating the principle of free markets by having a minimum wage of any level. But $15,080 isnít enough for anyone ó let alone any family ó to live on with dignity.

President Barack Obama proposes to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour from $7.25 an hour. Economics tells us that this will destroy jobs. Anyone whose hourly work is worth more than $7.25 but less than $9 will become unemployable. What kind of favor is this to them?

Critics of the minimum wage like to say that it slices the bottom off the ladder of success. You might be able to work your economic value up from nothing to five bucks an hour to $9 an hour or (we may hope) even more. (Nine dollars an hour is still only $18,720 a year. Good luck.) But if you canít even start the great game of life until youíre worth $9 an hour, the challenge is greater.

There are studies suggesting that the minimum wage doesnít really destroy jobs. These get hauled out whenever an increase in the minimum wage is contemplated. They are hard to believe. In fact, I donít believe them. The conclusion is just too counterintuitive and too convenient.

Critics of the minimum wage think this is the end of the story. To them, the minimum wage is just an anachronism from the New Deal, a sop to people who donít believe or donít understand the basic principles of economics.

Yet many government policies violate basic principles of economics and therefore reduce our prosperity. A perfectly legitimate answer to this objection is, ďSo what?Ē A prosperous society such as the U.S. can afford to give up some prosperity in exchange for more equality or some other social goal.

If we were to ask people who actually do work at the minimum wage whether they would like to see it abolished, most undoubtedly would say, ďNo, thank you.Ē Is this because they donít know economics? Because they donít realize how the minimum wage could take away their jobs? Because theyíre crazy or duped by left-wingers who love red tape and hate America and want to see our economy strangled?

Not necessarily. Minimum-wage workers might quite reasonably think: ďThis is a gamble. But itís a gamble worth taking. Maybe Iíll end up without a job, but maybe Iíll end up with a raise of $1.75 an hour.Ē That doesnít sound like much of a raise, but itís 24 percent.

You canít know for sure in advance which effect the minimum-wage increase will have on any particular person: A raise? Or unemployment? But itís far from irrational for minimum-wage workers to conclude at some point that the risk of losing their jobs is worth taking in exchange for the certainty of a raise. It depends on the size of the risk and the size of the raise.

Of course, itís possible that a policy such as the minimum wage might be bad for society even if itís good for the individuals most closely affected by it. So you go and tell someone making $7.25 or even a whopping $9 an hour that you want to eliminate the minimum wage for his or her own good. Iím not going to.

Kinsley is a Bloomberg View columnist. He can be reached at mkinsley@bloomberg.net or @michaelkinsley on Twitter.