Are There Moral Limits to Wage Inequality?

In Anders Örtenblad (ed.), Equal Pay for All. pp. 167-81 (2021)
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Income inequality in democratic societies with market economies is sizable and growing. One reason for this growth can be traced to unequal forms of compensation that employers pay workers. Democratic societies have tackled this problem by enforcing a wage standard that all workers are paid regardless of education, skills, or contribution. This raises a novel question: Should there be equal pay for all workers? To answer it, we need to investigate some factors that are relevant to the unequal conditions of power and authority in which wage offers are made. By clarifying these, we can determine whether wage inequality is morally permissible. If not, then a case might be made to pay all workers the same regardless of education, skills, or contribution. Even if it is permissible, another question worth considering is whether there are limits to how much inequality is acceptable. The argument here proceeds along the following lines. First, I summarize the economic and non-economic factors that determine the value of wages in labor markets. Second, I examine a particular problem that concerns whether the conditions of wage labor are coercive because they restrict alternatives or otherwise include threats to the welfare of workers. If there is coercion, we have good reasons to establish a standard that improve these conditions. Finally, I claim that establishing this standard requires increasing the value of low-wage work. Doing so will not only expand alternatives that are available to these workers, it will also diminish the potential threat to their welfare.

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Kory P. Schaff
California State University, Los Angeles


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