The Myth of Wage Slavery

The concept of wage slavery is about as intellectually dishonest idea as you can come across. It states that in a free market, workers are forced to sell or rent themselves into wage slavery under threat of starvation. As Noam Chomsky puts it, “People should not be forced to rent themselves in order to survive.”

Often associated with the quasi-religious Kantian concept of autonomy, the force of the concept comes from its emotive imagery. Slavery certainly doesn’t conjure up warm and fuzzy feelings. The “threat of starvation” would make it appear as if the individual is being held against his will and suffering horribly, in contrast with the comfortable reality of many wage earners.

The first question we ought to raise is, aren’t we all slaves to our natural need for food? Does socialism remove our biological nutritional needs? Of course not. Until we can train monkeys to feed us in our sleep, we will all be slaves to our biological needs.

This criticism should allow us to isolate the intention of the claim of wage slavery. The socialist is in this case claiming that freedom is not in fact freedom and wage slave has no choice in whether or not he is exploited by the capitalist.

The charge of exploitation in this case relies on the thoroughly debunked labor theory of value (LTV).  We will not rehash that here. But we will deal with the charge that the worker has no choice but to allow an exploitive capitalist to act as middle man and siphon off the worker’s earnings.

This isolation of the argument is further bolstered the response of the claimant of wage slavery to the invocation of the freedom to walk off the job. The defender of the theory of wage slavery will claim that, “even if you reject one boss or twenty bosses, you still have to work for some other boss under threat of starvation.”

If such a case did exist, then yes, that person would indeed be in a state of wage slavery. But that condition does not exist in free markets.

When I first returned to America from Japan in 1990, I worked several wage based jobs. So was I a wage slave? No. In order to substantiate the claim that I was a wage slave, I would need to prove that I had no other alternatives. I primarily used the wage based employment opportunities in order to acquire skills.

When I really needed money, I decided to earn some and went directly to the consumers. For instance, I bought a pressure-washer, distributed fliers and started a house washing business. At roughly $100 a house, and ten houses (mostly mobile homes) a day, I earned over a $1,000 a day and was booked solid for several months.

But I wasn’t about to spend my life pressure washing houses. The beauty of wage based employment is that it is paid education. Some people spend tens of thousands of dollars to acquire a university degree so that they can earn $50,000 a year. I was in essence paid to get my education in construction. And after three years of compensated learning, I started my own business and immediately found myself making $100,000 a year. At no point was I in a state that could be characterized as wage slavery.

There is no limit to the number of products or services that the individual can offer directly to the consumer. As such, the false dichotomy of “wage slave or starvation” is patently false. You are free to sell your labor. You are free to not sell your labor and subsist on only that which you have produced. The choice is yours.

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2 thoughts on “The Myth of Wage Slavery

  1. Since I started studying Austrian economics and libertarianism I began to be much more critical of the Marxist/marxian and leftist ideas I grew up with. However, I don’t feel this article lives up to the generally good arguments from this intellectual circle.

    If you make a wage that is only enough to survive, and you don’t own any means of production other than your labor, you are a wage slave. You can’t withhold your labor and subsist only on what you produce because you can’t produce anything autonomously in the first place. This is because virtually no product or service in a modern economy relies solely on labor as an input (if there is a counterexample, I would love to hear about it and be refuted). Therefore, your only choice is to sell your labor.

    The author’s case is not the above because he made more than enough for bare survival – i.e. he could save up enough money to buy means of production other than his labor. Nonetheless, I think its hard to deny that millions of people do in fact live in a situation where they cannot do this, and are forced to continue working at survival wages at the threat of starving to death… So, yeah, maybe wage slavery is not common to all wage labor, but it does exist for all those who can’t actually produce anything autonomously because they lack the means to do so …

    1. Hiya and welcome to my blog!

      If you make a wage that is only enough to survive, and you don’t own any means of production other than your labor, you are a wage slave.

      First of all, that’s an awfully broad definition of the concept, but we’ll work with it. First, in a free society, the individual is allowed to make claims on un-owned resources (land, fish in the sea, wild animals, etc) enough to subsist upon. This means that the individual is able to initially exist without any contact with the community.

      Of course, most of us want to engage in trade with others. A minimum wage job often provides more comfortable lifestyle than one of solitary farming. And we may enter into contracts which place obligations on us. This forces us to increase our earning.

      Now, let’s say I am barely getting by. This is the situation you describe. Now, you assert I am not free to do otherwise. Now I have been in such a situation, and instead of going to work one day, to earn $8 an hour, I instead offered my services in a mobile home park – washing the mobile homes. Instead of $8 an hour, I made over $100; the service became very popular and I was soon booked up, 12 hour days, making well over $1,000 a day.

      And, let’s be frank here. Washing mobile homes for lonely old folks isn’t the only way to make a thousand dollars a day without skills. So, I cannot find the wage slavery charge to carry any weight.

      I think its hard to deny that millions of people do in fact live in a situation where they cannot do this, and are forced to continue working at survival wages at the threat of starving to death

      Really? In America? I find this hard to imagine, even in America with all its statist regulations. I was once homeless and living in my car – I started a gypsy cab service and made some very respectable money. In less developed nations, without all the regulations, I would expect the opportunities to be more plentiful.

      I know a young lady, on the verge of homeless, who started a house cleaning services with the homeowners’ own cleaning supplies (at first). Within months she was doing so well that she bought a small, brand new car with cash. Quite honestly, I never recommend working for wages. It’s usually more profitable to sell your services directly to the consumer.

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