Sunday, December 7, 2014

LD Jan/Feb 2015 - Just Governments & Living Wages - Introduction

Resolved: Just governments ought to require that employers pay a living wage


I guess it's time to debate just government, a staple of LD debate, as one coach recently proclaimed to me.  But requiring employers to pay a living that practical?  My first thought was, suppose we increase the pay of all working citizens to some mandated minimum which meets the standard defined by "living wage".  It seems logical to think, the cost of goods and services would soon increase to compensate for the fact people are receiving higher wages and so we are back to square one since the level of income needed to maintain our lifestyles will ratchet up due to the increased costs.  Either prices increase or employment falls but either way, the economy will right itself like a ship in the waves. But does it really work like that? If so, the pragmatic debate is lost before it even begins.

living wage
Let's start at the end. What is a "living wage" and how is it different from something like the U.S. minimum wage? No problem, wikipedia can be a starting point for research because everyone should know, wikipedia provides citations, like this one leading to the New York Times.

Gertner (2006):
Workers in some of Baltimore's homeless shelters and soup kitchens had noticed something new and troubling about many of the visitors coming in for meals and shelter: they happened to have full-time jobs. In response, local religious leaders successfully persuaded the City Council to raise the base pay for city contract workers to $6.10 an hour from $4.25, the federal minimum at the time. The Baltimore campaign was ostensibly about money. But to those who thought about it more deeply, it was about the force of particular moral propositions: first, that work should be rewarded, and second, that no one who works full time should have to live in poverty.

Okay, so now we can begin to formulate a standard that a "living wage" should elevate the recipient above the poverty level and we also can see, in the U.S., the federal minimum wage law may not provide sufficient compensation. Adams and Neumark gives us more background.

Adams & Neumark (2005):
The number of cities, counties, and school districts with living wage ordinances across the United States has swelled to nearly 100. Living wage laws have three central features. First, they impose a wage floor that is higher—and often much higher—than traditional federal and state minimum wages. Second, living wage levels are often explicitly pegged to the wage level needed for a family with one full-time, year-round worker to reach the federal poverty line. Typical living wage levels as of December 2002 (when our sample period ends) were $8.17 (Los Angeles), $9.05 (Detroit), and $10.25 (Boston). Third, coverage by living wage ordinances is highly restricted. Frequently, cities impose wage floors only on companies under contract (generally including non-profits) with the city. Other cities also impose the wage floor on companies receiving business assistance from the city, in almost every case in addition to coverage of city contractors. Finally, a much smaller number of cities also require that municipal employees receive a legislated living wage. Previous estimates have found that living wage laws increase the wages of low-wage workers. On the flip side, however, there are negative employment effects on workers at the low end of the skill distribution.

While we have no specific definition for living wage, we can see the requirement varies from place to place and there are a number of ways the requirement is applied. But never fear, I found a good definition of living wage.

Roosevelt (1912):
We stand for a living wage. Wages are subnormal if they fail to provide a living for those who devote their time and energy to industrial occupations. The monetary equivalent of a living wage varies according to local conditions, but must include enough to secure the elements of a normal standard of living--a standard high enough to make morality possible, to provide for education and recreation, to care for immature members of the family, to maintain the family during periods of sickness, and to permit of reasonable saving for old age.

Check the source on this, you may be surprised to learn the debate over living wage is not new and at least in the U.S. has been part of the political landscape for some time.

This term is simple. An employer is any person or organization that employs people (Oxford Dictionary). The same source lets us know that "to employ" means to give work to someone and to pay them for it. There was probably no need to define the word and there is practically no chance anyone would dispute its meaning.  Its only purpose in the resolution is establish a mechanism by which the government can provide its citizens a living wage. But we should be clear, the government itself is also an employer and so it too would be required to provide a living wage to its employees.  This distinction is necessary so the debate does not require people to receive a living wage just by virtue of the the fact they reside within the jurisdiction of the government.  The debate is limited to individuals who are employed by an employer under the jurisdiction of the government.

to require
In the context of this resolution, "to require" means to compel as means to achieving a purpose or establishing an essential condition. I suppose a dictionary definition is suitable if necessary for clarification.  In this resolution it is a government which establishes the requirement and we assume, in order to have any force, it must be empowered by law.

I defer to all of my previous discussions of this powerful word which means so much more than "should".  In the past (just look at this LD topic, for example) I have provided links to Ralph Wedgewood's paper, "The Meaning of 'Ought'".  I think philosopher David Hume would require, when faced with the word "ought", to provide a reasonable explanation of how statements which describe how things are lead us to a normative statement about the way things ought to be. I believe and often advocate that debaters should be able to debate in a purely theoretical universe in which things happen as they "ought to" but humans are grounded in physical reality which requires one to build a very sturdy bridge between what "is" and what "ought" to be. For many, that bridge is rooted in the concepts of morality since it is not too difficult for most judges to conceptualize a universe in which things behave according to basic human standards of right and wrong. Otherwise, it is necessary to make the link between what is and what ought to be with real-world harms or benefits.

just governments
I guess we can entertain several definitions of "just" in this context and I suppose many will link it to traditional definitions of justice such as giving each his due, and indeed, there is no reason such values cannot be used in traditional LD cases.  In this context, however, I think when one sees the specific terminology, "just government", just is derived from the word justified. The Oxford dictionary defines just as "based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair" and gives the example of a "just society" or a "just cause", Merriam Webster says "being what is called for by accepted standards of right and wrong". This definition of the word is thus very similar to the common definitions of "moral".  However, claiming a government (or corporation) is moral has its own complications since moral agency is usually attributable to beings possessing free-will and capable of rational choice. Nevertheless, the actions and decisions of governments can be guided by standards established by moral beings. It was Thomas Jefferson who said "man is not made for the State but the State for man, and it derives its just powers from the consent of the governed".  While this resolution is not specific to the U.S. we can to look to the founding fathers for understanding about the role of the just governments. James Madison, for example, supported the idea that governments should only serve to preserve our natural rights when he wrote, " This being the end of government, that alone is a just government, which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own". (Madison 1792).

Off We Go

So, I think I have laid a bit of a foundation for the Aff and Neg positions and we should be able to find enough evidence to build reasonable approaches to both sides of the resolution.  While I do believe there could be more interesting debates for just government, this one will allow us to learn more about the practical effects of wages on society and business while allowing us to also explore ways to discuss hypothetical worlds of what is and what ought to be.

The Affirmative position is here.


Adams, S., Neumark, D. (2005) The Effects of Living Wage Laws: Evidence from failed and derailed living wage campaigns, Working Paper 11342, National Bureau of Economic Research. Accessed 12/4/2014.

Gertner, J. (2006), What Is a Living Wage?, New York Times Magazine. accessed 12/4/2014

Madison, J. (1792), Property, 29 Mar. 1792 Papers 14:266--68, A collection of essays retrieved 12/3/2014:

Roosevelt, T. (1912), Address by Theodore Roosevelt before the Convention of the National Progressive Party in Chicago, August 1912, Archived by the U.S. Social Security Administration. Accessed 12/5/2014

Wedgewood, R. (2011) The Meaning of 'Ought',  Oxford Studies in Metaethics, ed. Russ Shafer-Landau, vol. 1 (2006), 127-160. Accessed 12/2/2015.


  1. Thank You so much....I gained so much background about the topic before I can start debating...Keep Posting!!!

  2. Replies
    1. Follow the link to the Aff position and from there the Neg position. Values are discussed.


Feel free to leave comments relevant to the topics and activity of competitive high school debate. However, this is not a sounding board for your personal ideologies, abusive or racist commentary or excessive inappropriate language. Everyday Debate blog reserves the right to delete any comments it deems inappropriate.