Every day on my way to work I walk past a McDonald’s restaurant. Yesterday I saw a member of staff handing a hot drink to a young girl sleeping rough outside. It was a brief but touching moment between two young ladies of greatly differing fortunes. The former with a low but regular income, a sense of social worth, and a roof over her head, the latter with seemingly nothing more than a sleeping bag.
The hot drink was worth only a couple of pounds, but the thought that someone cares about her and that there is hope was probably priceless to that homeless girl, and just maybe warmed her heart as much as that drink warmed her body.
The episode was a reminder that there are hard-working, respectable and kind young folk out there, many of whom serve us in places like McDonald’s. As well as some, too many perhaps, that are struggling to establish much of a foothold in today’s economy, or even none at all.
Bless those youngsters, mostly females, that work in my local McDonald’s. I know their work is crappy; it’s dull, it’s repetitive, it’s messy, and yet they invariably greet me with beaming smiles. That’s worth something! I get my food quick. That’s worth something. I like the taste of it and it fills me up when I’m hungry. There’s a McDonald’s around every corner. That’s all worth something, which is why I, and millions of others, exchange money for it.
As I walked on by I considered that this young homeless person, in her current state, is probably not worth the minimum wage, and that therefore she is legally prohibited from being employed by one of the biggest employers in the UK.
In a world with more (or ideally full) individual economic freedoms, which is to say a world with no such thing as the minimum wage, the manager of McDonald’s would be free to provide the homeless girl with employment for whatever wage he or she felt the young lady’s current mental and physical abilities meant she was initially worth. (From what I saw the girl didn’t seem to be suffering from any significant mental or physical disability).
We can’t know for sure that the manager would want to do this, of course, but if the hot drink donation was anything to go by then perhaps the manager would do so if he or she was free to – or else could be persuaded to do so by his or her staff.
As it is, government coercive control over the private economic exchanges of individuals prevents the manager from acting on any desire he or she may have to help the homeless girl in a more permanent way – and thus to potentially significantly improve her lot.
Instead, the homeless girl has to settle for occasional hot drinks consumed on a cold pavement, instead of regular hot meals in a warm room she would eventually be able to buy with wages she earned for providing value for a business.
A young person’s life could be turned around by virtue of a simple economic exchange, but the law of the land prevents it. When laws are restricting economic freedoms such that people down on their luck in a wealthy society cannot easily escape destitution, then something is very wrong.
The manager of the McDonald’s may have only been prepared, at least initially, to pay the homeless girl a few pounds an hour for all we know, but anything’s better than nothing. As economist and political philosopher, Thomas Sowell, once remarked “the real minimum wage is zero.” And that’s precisely what UK law says she and everyone else worth less than the minimum wage can (legally) earn.
That homeless girl sits outside McDonald’s getting cold and watching others live their lives, but she could so easily be walking purposefully around inside, cleaning up or serving people with a smile and getting paid a wage, whatever it might be, to enable her to start living her own life.
The minimum wage law implies that if she isn’t worth the arbitrary hourly wage rate set by politicians, then she’s worth nothing, but plenty of employers could show this homeless girl that she is worth something by buying her labour at a price they are willing to pay – if only they were free to. The tragedy is that the longer she sits on the streets and the longer she goes without employment the more likely she is to believe that she has no value to society. There is no worse state for a human being than to believe they are worthless.
Simply by giving the young homeless girl a warming beverage and a heart-warming smile, that McDonald’s employee, without realising it, showed the former that at the very least her well-being is worth something to someone else. This is the kindness of strangers. The great shame is that she had to be left out in the cold and cannot be brought permanently into the warmth of free market society. This is the unkindness of strange laws.