Friday, May 6, 2016

Actually, paternalism in factor income is not at all unprecedented

Matt Bruenig has an interesting post on his Demos blog. In a nutshell, he asks why so many people believe transfer income should be treated very differently than wages. He quotes a Washington Post editorial by Michael Strain:
If we take money from John to give to Matthew, who would starve without it, then we owe it to John to make sure that his money is appropriately spent on Matthew’s food and shelter, not on Matthew’s alcohol and gambling.

And Bruenig asks why the same paternalism shouldn't apply to wages spent on alcohol or gambling?

But wait! Paternalism used to be the norm for waged labor!

Here's a 1931 article on Henry Ford's "shotgun gardens," so-called because employees were forced to keep them or they would be fired. Here is a quote from Henry Ford's actual press release introducing the policy:
"Next year, every man with a family who is employed at the plant will be required to have a garden of sufficient size to supply his family with at least part of its winter vegetables. Those who do not comply with the rule will be discharged. The man too lazy to work in a garden during his leisure time does not deserve a job. When the people of our country learn to help themselves they will be benefited far greater than they would be by employment insurance. If our agricultural plan is adopted throughout the country, the dole need never be thought of."
This sort of thing was really common. In The Invention of Capitalism, Michael Perelman quotes the welfare secretary of the steel giant American Iron and Steel Institute: 
regulation of his meals, the amount, the character and the mastication of them, the amount and character of drink, the hours of rest and sleep, the ventilation of rooms . . . washing of hands before meals, daily washing of feet, proper fitting of shoes, amount and kind of clothing, care of the eye, ear and nose, brushing of the teeth, and regularity of the bowel. (cited in Montgomery 1979, 40)
Yes, this company had a welfare committee (or in other words, a paternalism committee).

Why such paternalism? An early economist, James Steuart, calculated that a two full days' work at the going wage rate in Scotland was enough to support that worker (not the worker's family--just the worker) for one day. Families had to support themselves by gardening and selling products they could make by hand, such as handloom weaving. (For the record, Steuart didn't consider such sub-poverty wages a problem; he viewed it as a great efficiency, a triumph of the free market).