You might wonder exactly why it is that janitors earn much less money than CEO’s. After all, in most circumstances, janitors engage in much more physical labor than do CEO’s, executives and managers, and even the average “white collar” worker.
Are the working class laborers being systematically exploited by managers and white collar workers? Is it the case that white collar workers are making money at the expense of blue collar workers, or is there a better explanation?
Value Does Not Come From Labor
If labor created value, then society (and all of its members) could get rich by having everyone use their bare hands to dig large holes in the desert and then fill them back up. After all, this would be extremely hard work of a very physical nature. However, this would create no wealth for society—in fact, it would represent a destruction of wealth (imagine what the laborers could have actually produced if they were not hired to complete this task). Generally, this destruction of wealth takes place in the form of an absence of economic activity which would have otherwise occurred.
The value of a product does not come solely from the labor of the workers. The value of a product is measured subjectively; a product is essentially worth what people are willing to pay for it.
A laborer in turn receives payment for his services based on the value that his work adds to the product or service. A janitor in a shoe factory adds relatively little value to the shoes that are being created. There is likely more value being added by the designer who designs the shoes, by the worker who sews the shoes together, and by the person who manages the distribution network which allows for the shoes to be sold in thousands of stores around the world. These workers add more value to the product, despite the fact that the janitor undoubtedly exerts more physical effort to do his job.
While value added by workers is an important reason for the existence of disparities in income, scarcity tells much more of the story.
As Thomas Sowell put it, economics is the allocation of scarce resources which have alternative uses. With the exception of air, just about all resources are scarce. Similarly, nearly all resources have alternative uses (should this rubber be used to make tires or shoes?, should this glass be used to make a window or a beer bottle?, should my time be spent watching a movie or cleaning the house?).
Scarcity doesnt just mean that there isnt a lot of a certain good. Scarcity means that the good is limited. Even in America, bread is a scarce resource.
Diamonds and Water
Think of diamonds and water. Which of the two resources is absolutely essential to life, and which could we live without? Water is infinitely important: without water we will all die very quickly. Diamonds are nice and sparkly and women love them, but they are hardly essential to our lives. However, water is very cheap and diamonds are very expensive. This phenomenon is known as the “diamond/water” paradox. The reason for the differences in the costs of these goods is scarcity; water is abundant, while diamonds are scarce.
For example, I live in unincorporated DeKalb County [in Georgia] where my water is provided by a government monopoly (and hence is likely more expensive than would be the case under a free market system). Yet, the monthly bill for my 3 bedroom house has averaged $61.17 per month since April of 2007. In other words, over the past 4 years, it has cost about two dollars per day to provide the 2-3 people living in my house at various times with the most important resource that we need for survival. In fact, water is so cheap that I can do more than just use it for survival needs—I use it for showering, cooking, watering my plants, and even brewing beer.
What does this have to do with janitors and CEO’s?
Well, the same principles which lead to the diamond/water paradox also apply to compensation for labor. Please keep in mind that my intent is not to belittle the work that janitors do. I know that this type of work is physically demanding and dirty work. However, there is little skill involved and little intelligence required. The fact of the matter is that nearly every able-bodied person above the age of 13 or so is probably qualified to be a janitor. In contrast, there are only a very limited number of people who have the intelligence, experience, and ability necessary to be a successful CEO of Coca-Cola. Janitors are replaceable and easily trained. High-level executives are not. In other words, the pool of available janitors is relatively unscarce when compared to the pool of available CEO’s of Fortune 100 companies.
Bringing it all together
Disparities in income are hardly the result of exploitation by the white collar class against blue collar workers or the working poor. Compensation results from several factors including the value added by the worker, as well as the relative scarcity of the pool of workers available to fill that position.
There is no Federally mandated wage scale requiring certain salaries for certain types of workers. Decisions on how to pay employees—be they janitors, CEO’s, or something in between—are generally made on a company by company basis. Those in the position to hire janitors will pay them according to the value that they believe will be added to the firm. They will likely tend to pay the janitor at levels similar to that of other janitors in related fields. This is because a janitor is likely to add similar levels of value at which ever company he works. The range of compensation for CEO’s is very large, with CEO’s of smaller companies earning drastically less than do CEO’s at large multi-national firms. This is because of the differences in the amount of value that can be added by different CEO’s in different fields at different companies. The CEO of Wal-Mart is responsible for running a worldwide distribution network, ensuring that over a million employees get paid, and in a broader sense—ensuring that society is fed and clothed. In contrast, the CEO of a small but delicious pizza chain has responsibilities which are much greater than his employees, but which do not compare to that of the CEO of Wal-Mart.
This article does not deal with things like corporate welfare or other special privileges which are often received by corporations from the State. While special privileges will likely skew the distribution of income away from the bottom of the and towards the top, the principles at hand do not change. In a truly free society with no governmental grants of limited liability, no business licensing requirements, corporate welfare, and private control of the currency, income is likely to be somewhat more evenly distributed among the productive members of society. However, as long as there is any level of freedom of choice, there will always be disparities in income. Income disparities are not always bad–in fact, they are very important. Differences in income give us something to strive for. If we all earned the same wages, no matter how hard we worked, no matter how much value we added to society, and no matter what type of work we did, no matter our ages, or no matter how much experience we had, there would be little reason for people to put much effort into their jobs. There would be little incentive for anyone to be productive beyond the subsistence level–after all, any additional effort that they did would have to be shared equally with all of society. If we were all the exact same, there would be no reason for trade, or even for society to exist. It is our differences which encourage people to interact and trade with each other. No society larger than a small tribe could survive for long if wages were distributed equally.
As long as there are people with different skills, levels of intelligence, backgrounds, lifestyles, and so on, there will be differences in income. People are different from each other, and as such, will seek out different goods and services. They will also find themselves qualified for different types of employment than their friends and neighbors. Typically, those who are employed in positions that create a lot of value and are relatively scarce will earn higher incomes than those who are employed in positions that create little value and are relatively common.
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