Lord Freud is not evil

How much am I worth? Now there’s a tricky question.

First of all, what are you measuring? My entire life- tears, laughs, bumps, scrapes and all? What would you even use to price that? How much would you pay to take ownership of all that I am?

Is it my labour? Well, then, my salary should give you an idea of how much that is worth to my current employer. Does that mean my labour is only worth that amount and always will be only worth that amount? Of course not. Others may pay me more than I’m getting now, and others less. It all depends on their perception of the value I would add to their business. It also depends on my choice in accepting or rejecting those offers.

Regardless, my salary does not reflect my moral worth as a living, breathing, thinking person. If I had an identical twin earning twice the amount I was, would I- or anybody else for that matter- genuinely believe my life was only half as valuable as his? If you put a gun in my hand and lined up a beggar, a doctor, and a chief executive and told me to kill the person who was worth the least, do you really believe my instinct would be to shoot the beggar? 

When Lord Freud let slip that he thought some disabled people were “not worth the minimum wage”, it exposed an insensitive, unthinking attitude towards the plight of some of the most vulnerable members of our society. It was a thoughtless and stupid thing to say.

However, I do not believe Freud is an evil man, as some of my comrades on Twitter and the blogosphere seem to. What (I think) Freud meant to say is that the labour of a certain group of disabled people is perceived by employers to be of less monetary value than the current minimum wage. Essentially, that some disabled people cost more to hire than they add in terms of value to a business.

Is this true? Well, it’s impossible to make generalisations. A manufacturer looking to hire someone for a physically demanding job on the factory floor would rightly identify that an able-bodied person would add greater value than a person with muscular dystrophy. However, that same manufacturer would identify- again, rightly- that an able-bodied person and a person with muscular dystrophy would add equal value in an administrative role.

The uncomfortable truth is that we all perceive our own, and others, economic worth differently. The difference between socialists and libertarians is that libertarians see no problem with this, whereas socialists do. Libertarians accept income inequality as the product of an unbiased, amoral market system. Socialists believe income inequality breeds social, political, and cultural inequalities that are harmful to everyone in society. Libertarians think that the market should not be manipulated by the state as it lacks the information necessary to achieve its desired end. Socialists believe the market is far from perfect and needs state intervention to produce more equitable outcomes.

The minimum wage is a socialist policy. It says that the labour of everyone over the age of 21 is at the very least worth £6.50 an hour. Does this reflect employers’ perceptions of the value added by individual employees? No. Does it promote equality? Yes. Depending on which answer concerns you more, you’re either a libertarian or a socialist.

Lord Freud may have thought removing this principle of equality would help more severely disabled people into work. He may be right. He also made clear that people should only work for less than the minimum wage if they chose to, recognising that individuals have a part to play in assigning themselves an economic worth.

But he did not think about the degrading effect unequal pay would have on those disabled people earning far less in the same jobs as their able-bodied peers. Yes, the state could top up their wages to bring them in line with the minimum- but that's not the point. There would still exist a distinction between able-bodied and disabled pay which would have a harmful effect on disabled people's perception of their economic value. Freud did not think about the fact that part of the dignity of work is tied up in earning a decent wage, paid by the employer and not the state.

He also did not think of where this unravelling would end up- with unequal pay for women, for parents, and for carers. He did not think that a better solution would be to help find the severely disabled minimum wage jobs where they can add value to employers.

So Lord Freud is not evil. But his thinking is bound by the limitations of an ideology that says society can only operate within the constraints of the market.

This article, like all publications of the Young Fabians, represents not the collective views of the Society but only the views of the author

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