Don't Conflate Policies and Values

Content Warnings: poverty, worker abuse, human trafficking

The idea of raising the minimum wage from its current value of $7.25 per hour to between $10 and $15 per hour has received a lot of coverage in the political and economic news lately. Some argue that such a raise is long overdue, as the minimum wage has not kept up with inflation, and that those currently making at or around the minimum wage are being needlessly kept in poverty. Others believe that raising the minimum wage will shortly produce higher prices that lower the buying power of both the poor and the middle class. Some even oppose the very concept of a minimum wage, while people at the other end of the spectrum think we should institute a Basic Guaranteed Income. Proponents of every viewpoint make what they feel to be very reasonable and compelling arguments, and many outspoken pundits attribute to their opponents either ignorance, ill will, or both.

Let’s say (because it’s true) that I believe a dramatic increase in the federal minimum wage will actually result in workers being worse off in the mid- to long-term future. Even though I agree that it doesn’t make much sense to let inflation grossly outpace the minimum wage, I’m also not too sure a federal minimum wage is such a great idea in the first place. I worry that if we increase the minimum wage, workers like me who make only a little more than $15/hour will demand a similar increase in wages from our employers, which will ratchet up the whole system, once again pushing the lowest-paid workers far to the bottom of the heap in quality of life, while leaving unaddressed the other systemic problems in our economy that perpetuate the income disparity.

A strong proponent of increasing the minimum wage would disagree with my position and all, or nearly all, of my reasoning. We could agree, though, on the value that I hope I’ve done a good job of positioning as the basis for my opinion: the desire for an increase in buying power and quality of life for lower-income workers.

Unfortunately, very few people (at least the kinds speaking loudly on the internet and cable news) appear capable of making such a distinction. Most of us have so tangled our values with the policies by which we think those values could best be achieved that we assume anyone who doesn’t agree with our policies must not adhere to our values. Why doesn’t Ryan think we should raise the minimum wage? He must hate poor people; that’s why he wants them to continue suffering such injustice. At best, we can assume that Ryan has little concern for poor people. Maybe he doesn’t wish them harm, but he doesn’t wish them well, either.

Of course, phrased so baldly such reasoning sounds a little silly. I don’t hate poor people, and I certainly do wish them well. I suspect that most people would like to see poverty mitigated or erased, so the second I realize that my repudiation of someone’s stated opinion on the subject boils down to “this jerk hates poor people”, I know I need to take a step back and consider whether I’m confusing a disagreement about policy with a mismatch of values.

To take another issue as an example: Even though for religious reasons I believe that prostitution is immoral, I think legalized prostitution is probably the best way to decrease trafficking and abuse of sex workers and help keep women and men safe when they sell or purchase sexual services. At the very least, I believe we need to decriminalize sex workers so they feel safe seeking help from authorities when they suffer abuse. Plenty of people disagree on both counts. Do those people hate sex workers and want them to suffer? Maybe a few do, but I’ll bet that most just don’t think my policies would result in a net gain for society as a whole or sex workers in particular. Some would probably even argue that my policies would cause greater harm to sex workers in the long run. Still other people would tell me that even my religious objection to the act of prostitution itself taints my opinion with toxic sentiment, making me, on the whole, a harmful force in the battle for sex workers’ rights. Do such people hate religion or religious people? Again: maybe. Or maybe they just care more about the welfare and rights of sex workers than about coddling the opinions of well-meaning but moralistic Christians. It would be a massive mistake on my part to assume raw anti-religious sentiment on their part, just as they would be unfair to depict me as nothing but a hypocritical and judgmental religious bigot. Someone’s policies or opinions can be wrong or harmful even if that person means well and espouses worthy values.

I believe that most people do have worthy values, even if they don’t always express or embody them well or even understand their own opinions in such terms. I’ll go one step further and assert that most people hold values that match or at the very least align well with everyone else’s. Most of us want the same sorts of things: for as many people as possible—especially those closest to us—to have food, clothing, shelter, education, freedom from oppression, and the opportunity to do work that gives meaning to their lives. Some people add values of spirituality or religious devotion and attribute some or all of our values to a divine source, but we do not therefore jettison the aforementioned values shared by the rest of the world. The more consistently I recognize this fact about the people with whom I disagree, the less cynical and hostile I make myself, and the more optimism and comradeship I can feel toward my fellow humans.