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Uncounted Costs of a Living Wage

By Vivek G. Ramaswamy, Contributing Writer

The “Living-Wage Campaign” at Harvard is like a Boston winter: you know it’s going to strike, but wonder only when and how hard. And last weekend—much like the Boston winter—it struck. And surely it won’t be long before throngs of students and Cambridge activists will march, chant, and protest outside the Holyoke Center and around Massachusetts Hall, believing that they are fighting an important battle in a larger war to achieve higher wages for Harvard’s lowest-paid workers.

The campaign’s flaw, however, lies in the consequences that follow should it ever become successful. Its flaw is not simply the substitution effect—the economic consequence of shifting labor demand curves—or anything else that we may have learned in Ec10. Rather, if the living-wage campaign were successful in achieving a wage increase for Harvard’s lowest-paid workers, it will have done so at the cost of respect that the rest of the Harvard community has for these workers—a cost that, no matter how high the wage increase, is too high to pay.

It might seem presumptuous to criticize a living-wage campaign on the grounds of lost respect for those whom the campaign is intended to help. Perhaps there is actually a more monetarily selfish reason to be resistant to such a wage increase. (For example, I might oppose the campaign because I am disinclined to spend a few extra dollars on a needy Harvard janitor.) After all, according to the living-wage proponents, it is the very intrinsic human worth of the lowest-paid workers that fundamentally entitles them to such a minimum level of wages.

But herein lies the dilemma. At the start of a living-wage campaign, all of its proponents agree that the monetary worth of Harvard’s poorest workers is entirely unrelated to their fundamental human worth. However, by using the human worth of these individuals as the basis for entitling them to a certain level of monetary worth, the living-wage proponents inextricably yet fatefully marry the two previously separate notions. Once the notions of monetary and human worth have been linked—be it in the minds of students, workers, or living-wage advocates—the consequence is stark. As long as there ultimately exists some difference in monetary worth between Harvard’s lowest-paid workers and other members of the community (and there surely will), so too will there exist a rift in the human worth accorded to members of each of those two groups.

The notion is more intuitive than the formal argument makes it seem: when a Harvard student knows that the University has allocated a greater portion of his or her fees to pay the wage of a janitor (at a higher level than the laws of supply and demand would require), a condescending strain of sympathy subtly yet naturally replaces the mutual human respect that otherwise would have existed. The higher level of Harvard fees allocated to paying the higher wages is the price paid to purchase a right to condescend—a “right” that Harvard has no prerogative to sell in the first place. To know that the nature of every polite exchange, be it a greeting or a handshake, between the more and less privileged members of Harvard’s community would be forever altered by redistribution is not worth any material benefit may come out of that exchange—even a higher wage for already poorly paid workers.

The natural reply of living-wage advocates might be that, even though all members of the community are entitled to the same level of respect, the bottommost members require a baseline level of monetary worth, because their poverty results from arbitrary factors beyond their control. That our society chooses to monetarily reward certain talents (intelligence, for example) over others is inherently arbitrary. It is insignificant, at least from a moral perspective, that certain people are born with more prized talents. That inequity should not be the basis of denying society’s poorest individuals a baseline standard of living.

If it is arbitrary, however, that Harvard’s poorest workers happen to not possess the talents our society prizes, then it is also arbitrary that these workers should be the prime beneficiaries of a campaign to achieve a more equitable distribution of wealth. That is, the poorest workers in parts of the world outside Harvard live on wages that make Harvard’s janitors’ expenditures seem luxurious, yet living-wage campaign proponents at Harvard focus primarily on achieving a higher level of equity within their own community. If a distribution of talents or monetary wealth is arbitrary, then so too are the bounds of the Harvard community. If living-wage campaign proponents were true to their rhetoric, they would be campaigning for living wages in another hemisphere before asking for higher wages at home.

This criticism against living-wage campaigns does not mean that Harvard should avoid taking a stance on this issue. To the contrary, supporting a higher wage would simply be taking the wrong stance. Instead, the more appropriate stance would be to cultivate an environment (through education and other means) in which all people, prosperous and poor alike, would be accorded the level of respect to which they are entitled—independent of where they live, the language they speak, or the wages they earn.

Vivek G. Ramaswamy ’07 is a biology concentrator in Kirkland House. He was

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