On the Very Idea of a Just Wage
The way that wages are determined in a market economy produces results that strike most people as morally counterintuitive, if not positively unjust. I argue that there is an important and easily defensible principle underlying the system—it is designed to channel labour to its best employment, the way that it does any other resource. But many consider this defence too minimal, and so strive to find a thicker, more robust moral principle that can be used to defend the market, using concepts like ‘contribution’, ‘effort’, ‘laziness’, ‘skill’ or ‘talent’—all of which combine to provide a concept of ‘desert’, or ‘fairness’ in compensation. The objective of this paper is to caution against such overreach. I begin by articulating what I take to be the central principle underlying the determination of wages. I go on to discuss three different ways that both critics and defenders of the market have sought to go further than this, by introducing thicker moral concepts to the discussion, and why each of these initiatives fails. My central contention will be that markets are structurally unable to deliver ‘just’ wages, according to any everyday-moral understanding of what justice requires in cooperative interactions.