On the Very Idea of an Efficient Wage
This paper argues that the standard characterisation of the equity-efficiency trade-off as set out in this symposium by Joe Heath overstates the tension between these two values. The reason lies in the fact that economists tend to take individual labour supply preferences as given, which leads to a superficial analysis of the concepts of reservation wage and of economic rent. The paper suggests that we should instead think of reservation wages as variable and as influenced by social norms. Social norms play a double role in this context. First, they represent a constitutive element of market competition; second, they can be a determinant of income inequalities. From this perspective, a certain share of high reservation wages sustained by contingent inegalitarian social norms should count as economic rent. The last section of the paper strengthens this conclusion further by drawing a parallel between expensive tastes in consumption and a certain class of high reservation wages. To the extent that the latter are underpinned by social norms rather than efficiency considerations, not paying them is both just and efficient.