The majority isn’t always wrong, but it isn’t always right, either

With Scott Walker in town today, I took a moment to read a letter that some New Hampshire Democrats wrote to him upon his visit to that state. An excerpt:

We wanted to welcome you to the First in the Nation Primary. You are a little late to the game, so we decided to help you out with some information about New Hampshire.

Last night, you said that raising the minimum wage was a “lame idea.” Lame idea? Really? Well, it’s an idea that 76% of Granite Staters support

Which got me to thinking about Henrik Ibsen.

That letter — a good example of the kind of letters that partisans send, not meant to communicate with the purported recipient privately, but to taunt him publicly (or in this case, to tell the 76 percent what an awful person Scott Walker is) — got me to thinking of some of my favorite Ibsen quotes back when I was 17, from “An Enemy of the People:”

“The majority is never right. Never, I tell you! That’s one of these lies in society that no free and intelligent man can help rebelling against. Who are the people that make up the biggest proportion of the population — the intelligent ones or the fools?”…

“Oh, yes — you can shout me down, I know! But you cannot answer me. The majority has
might on its side–unfortunately; but right it has not.”…

“What sort of truths are they that the majority usually supports? They are truths that are of such advanced age that they are beginning to break up. And if a truth is as old as that, it is also in a fair way to become a lie, gentlemen.”…

I fear that I’m giving you a rather ugly picture of myself when I was 17. Well, I had my share of youthful arrogance and alienation, a bit of a Raskolnikov complex, which is common enough. Some of us outgrow it. Others among us end up like Edward Snowden, convinced that we know better than everyone else, especially established institutions.

I outgrew it, thank God. Which is to say that I’ve come to disagree with almost everything Ibsen seemed to be on about.

All that remains of it, with me, is a belief that the majority is not always right. It can be right, and I think it probably is considerably more often than the proverbial stopped clock. I think there’s really something to the notion of “the wisdom of crowds.” Or as Stephen Maturin said in The Mauritius Command, “whoever heard of the long-matured judgment of a village being wrong?”

Yes, and no. It is very often right, but it can be wrong, I fear.

In any case, it seems unreliable as an indicator of whether an increase in the minimum wage is a good idea, or a “lame” one.

I’ve heard the arguments for and against, and I just don’t know. If anything, I may lean toward the against — the assertions that a mandatory increase in wages could lead to fewer jobs, particularly for the poor, seems to make some sense.

But I don’t know, regardless of what 76 percent of Granite Staters may say…

14 thoughts on “The majority isn’t always wrong, but it isn’t always right, either

  1. Burl Burlingame

    The problem with laws like Minimum Wage is they can also be used to keep wages artificially low.

    1. Brad Warthen

      And you know why I read Ibsen back then? Because Mrs. Burchard made me.

      That was one of the few things she ASSIGNED. Mostly in her class, we studied books WE selected — Catch-22, Stranger in a Strange Land, Cat’s Cradle

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        You realize that what a character says in a play is not necessarily endorsed by the playwright?

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Well, my understanding is — and this Wikipedia entry seems to support it — that Doctor Thomas Stockmann was expressing Ibsen’s views at the time. Ibsen was raging against conventional wisdom of his day. As Wikipedia says:

          An Enemy of the people (original Norwegian title: En folkefiende) is an 1882 play by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen wrote it in response to the public outcry against his play Ghosts, which at that time was considered scandalous. Ghosts had challenged the hypocrisy of Victorian morality and was deemed indecent for its veiled references to syphilis….

          But maybe you have other information. I see that Wikipedia notes that that description needs a citation, so maybe it’s thin. But that has been my understanding of the situation.

          1. Kathryn Fenner

            Well, the Victorians (one might use another term outside of the UK–mid-to-late 19th century society? I mean, were Norwegians “Victorians”?) certainly had a lot of hypocritical morality to challenge–but that isn’t particularly about the “majority” qua majority–rather the prevailing morality at the time.

  2. Doug Ross

    My daughter works as a baker in a bagel shop. She makes more than the minimum wage but less than some of the proposed higher minimum wage levels. Her job requires a special skillset and a more demanding schedule (4:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., fulltime) than the 17 year old kid who works the line 16 hours a week making bagel sandwiches. If you raise the pay of the 17 year old to $10 or $12, should my daughter expect to get a comparable raise above the minimum? The turnover on those frontline positions is very high because some workers either a) don’t want to work too hard or b) can’t do basic math or c) can’t follow the policy that forbids them from using their cellphones while on the clock. Should my daughter (who has not missed a day of work except for vacation in a year and a half) be lumped in with those people when it comes to compensation?

    You want to raise your wage without a government mandate? Get some unique skills. Acquire a work ethic. Own your own outcomes.

  3. Mark Stewart

    Funny given that NH is such a tea party type of place. I don’t know how to square a social welfare ploy that purports to improve the economic distribution of the lesser skilled (regardless of wether it may actually do the opposite) with that political outlook.

  4. susanincola

    There’s a big difference in New Hampshire between the cities in the south (more liberal) and the rest of the state (rural and heavily conservative). Or that’s my impression. Just got back from my once-a-year two-week visit to family up there, and the political talk often mentions it. (The relations live in the mountains upstate, and are definitely of the more conservative persuasion).

  5. Mike Cakora

    The real minimum wage is zero which is what displaced workers earn when the government (federal, state, or local) raises the minimum wage to a level above which employers are able or willing to pay.

    Google “Thomas Sowell minimum wage” without the quotes and you’ll find columns like this:

    “It would be comforting to believe that the government can simply decree higher pay for low-wage workers, without having to worry about unfortunate repercussions, but the preponderance of evidence indicates that labor is not exempt from the basic economic principle that artificially high prices cause surpluses. In the case of the surplus of human beings, that can be a special tragedy when they are already from low-income, unskilled or minority backgrounds and urgently need to get on the job ladder, if they are ever to move up the ladder by acquiring experience and skills.”

    Translation: some folks’ aptitude, productivity, and abilities are not worth the minimum wage.

    More relevantly, here in the Midlands, a whole lot of work is black market, under-the-table, not reported. It’s not just the black women in white uniforms providing daycare or eldercare in some of the nicer neighborhoods or the Hispanic or black yard crews all over, it’s also the server at that upscale eatery that made The Free Times top whatever list.

    Why is such illegal behavior tolerated, why can employers get away with not paying the mandated or fair wage along with the taxes for Medicare, Social Security, and the like? Because in Columbia, perhaps in most of the state, everybody is happy with the way things are. The workers get more cash in their pockets than they otherwise would, the employers pay less and have less burdensome paperwork, the public enjoys lower taxes overall. It’s shortsighted to some extent, but also a reflection of the lower level of economic opportunity present here. I commute to Northern Virginia regularly to avail myself of the higher wage level in the DC Metro area for folks with my skill set.

    The state and feds end up on the short end of the stick here, but it appears that the state enforcers are not too interested in spoiling things for everybody. The feds to date have not devoted the manpower needed to crack down on the manifold abuses in the local labor market.

    So a dollar goes a lot farther here than elsewhere in the nation in part because of our way of doing bidness.

    1. The Greek Population

      “Why is such illegal behavior tolerated, why can employers get away with not paying the mandated or fair wage along with the taxes for Medicare, Social Security, and the like?”

      We’ve been doing that for years and to a much greater extent. So far, it’s worked out fine for us.

      1. Barry

        Because to enforce it would require many more state/federal employees whose job would be to visit those homes, and interrogate/audit the families – and no one wants to see that or do that.

        This is not new – and it’s not unique to South Carolina.

  6. Mike Cakora

    Ooops! In the above, “the public enjoys lower taxes overall.” should read “the public enjoys lower prices overall.”

  7. Queenie

    My only experience of Ibsen, was Heda Garber at the Old Vic London, which I thought was a waste of my evening. Dostoyevsky’s creation in Crime and Punishment?, ok, and then Maturin, quoted from Patrick O’Brian, are you sure you’ve outgrown it all? There might be some individuality in somewhere, but keep on growin’ !


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