Memo to Larry Summers

In the Right

The process that began with last spring’s Living Wage Rebellion draws to a close. The Harvard Committee on Employment and Contracting Policies (HCECP) has compiled its statistics and made its recommendations, and you get to take them or leave them. Here’s why you should leave them.

To the report’s credit, it doesn’t endorse a mandatory wage floor. For that, you should be relieved. Remember that Undergraduate Council meeting you attended last October? Referring to a “living wage,” you said, “Presentations that present it as good and evil are not likely to be helpful in solving the problem.” And you were right to table the matter of moral principle. Despite PSLM’s claims, it isn’t at all obvious that Harvard has a duty to pay more than its workers voluntarily agree to accept. The fact that some workers face difficult economic conditions is unfortunate, but whether society has an obligation to change those conditions is a question that political philosophers have debated for generations—and one that no slogan (no matter how loudly shouted) or occupation of private property (no matter how illegal) can resolve.

Admittedly, lack of agreement doesn’t prove non-existence. But a principle requiring economic equality would have to overcome a strong prima facie case against it. Eliminating economic inequality requires denying the sovereignty of property rights and eroding the freedom of individuals to dispose of their holdings as they see fit. We have every reason to worry about such limitations on personal freedom. Times were when colonials on this side of the pond felt so strongly that the Crown should keep its paws to itself that they fought a war over it.

Of course there are occasions when such limitations are needed to protect other rights: as Pellegrino University Professor Robert Nozick observes in Anarchy, State and Utopia, my property rights in my knife allow me to leave it where I will, but not in your chest. The wealthy, however, don’t infringe on rights just by being wealthy. It’s difficult to show that those with money are responsible for the poverty of those without it; and it’s perhaps equally difficult to prove that poverty is due more to social conditions beyond one’s control than to consequences of one’s own choices.

Besides, even if society must guarantee a certain standard of living, why would responsibility for providing it fall on the shoulders of private institutions? The condition of Harvard’s workers is influenced by many factors beside their place of employment, so why shouldn’t caring for them be the government’s job? And what about the non-Harvard poor: do they lose out just because there aren’t any student activists around to browbeat their bosses into submission? Some might argue that since Harvard is an institution of higher learning (oohs and aahs, please) it should be held to a higher standard. But that hardly seems convincing: right is right, and what’s right for Harvard ought to be right for everyone.


The fact is, PSLM has never given a justification for its hijinks that even touches on these questions, and your subtle but unmistakable rejection of the good versus evil melodrama was a breath of fresh air.

Perhaps taking your hint, HCECP declined to make any moral claim at all. True, the report mentions “Harvard’s obligation to be a good employer,” concluding that this obligation means Harvard must raise its lowest wages to a level between the magic numbers of $10.83 and $11.30 per hour and guarantee that outsourced workers earn as much as their directly-employed counterparts.

But whence this duty to be a “good employer?” The report notes that “human resources” are the “most vital input” for the realization of Harvard’s academic mission. Ergo: “Harvard’s pursuit of excellence in teaching and research requires compensation and other employment practices that attract, retain and motivate employees to facilitate and undertake these activities.” In other words, Harvard only has to be nice because doing so helps fulfill its academic mission. That’s the report’s central claim, and it only supports HCECP’s proposals insofar as they further Harvard’s scholarly pursuits.

Doubtless there is truth in the idea that Harvard’s mission depends on all its employees—from you to the janitors who clean your office. But to argue that this concept justifies HCECP’s specific proposals is laughably farfetched. HCECP essentially wants you to believe that Harvard’s academic aims are compromised because cashiers at the Greenhouse make less than $10.83 per hour. Please. I suppose, then, that once Harvard’s least skilled and (forgive my frankness) most replaceable workers get raises, we’ll see Nobel Prizes and research grants rain down like manna from heaven?

I may be exaggerating the report’s implication a bit, but the essential point remains: HCECP doesn’t offer one shred of evidence demonstrating a relationship between the wages of Harvard’s lowest earners and the University’s academic output; nor does it provide evidence suggesting that the employees who would benefit from HCECP’s recommendations are currently giving less than full productivity. You are a policymaker. You aren’t in the habit of endorsing policies without empirical support. And yet that is precisely what HCECP is asking you to do.

One questions whether HCECP takes its central claim seriously. I suspect the report’s idiotic instrumental justification of a pay hike was simply a way of letting HCECP say what it wanted to say all along without resting its case on the naked assertion of elusive moral precepts. It seems that at the heart of this report lies a standard theme of the left’s loony repertoire: since the rich (and Harvard is indeed rich) have so many dollars, they had better cough up a few (million) to help save the world. Rejecting the report’s recommendations forces you to challenge that assumption. That could get you in trouble, which is the last thing you need in the wake of your spat with everybody’s favorite prima donna, Brother Cornel. When Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West ’74 threw his temper tantrum, you got bloodied in the press. Surely you don’t want to give the liberal elite another excuse to go for your jugular, so I can’t blame you if you grit your teeth and rubber stamp the report. That’s what former President Neil L. Rudenstine would do.

But then again, you’re no Rudenstine. Your spineless predecessor gave birth to HCECP’s misguided musings when he pandered to PSLM. Now you can set things right by refusing to act until HCECP provides evidence supporting its central claim. Doing so will take some courage. But I think you have it.

Jason L. Steorts ’01-’03 is a philosophy concentrator in Dunster House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.