Mises Daily Articles
Gross Wage Rates and Net Wage Rates
[This article is excerpted from chapter 21 of Human Action: The Scholar's Edition and is read by Jeff Riggenbach.]
What the employer buys on the labor market and what he gets in exchange for the wages paid is always a definite performance which he appraises according to its market price. The customs and usages prevailing on the various sectors of the labor market do not influence the prices paid for definite quantities of specific performances. Gross wage rates always tend toward the point at which they are equal to the price for which the increment resulting from the employment of the marginal worker can be sold on the market, due allowance being made for the price of the required materials and to originary interest on the capital needed.
In weighing the pros and cons of the hiring of workers, the employer does not ask himself what the worker gets as take-home wages. The only relevant question for him is, What is the total price I have to expend for securing the services of this worker? In speaking of the determination of wage rates, catallactics always refers to the total price which the employer must spend for a definite quantity of work of a definite type, i.e., to gross wage rates. If laws or business customs force the employer to make other expenditures besides the wages he pays to the employee, the take-home wages are reduced accordingly. Such accessory expenditures do not affect the gross rate of wages. Their incidence falls entirely upon the wage-earner. Their total amount reduces the height of take-home wages, i.e., of net wage rates.
It is necessary to realize the following consequences of this state of affairs:
It does not matter whether wages are time wages or piecework wages. Also where there are time wages, the employer takes only one thing into account; namely, the average performance he expects to obtain from each worker employed. His calculation discounts all the opportunities time work offers to shirkers and cheaters. He discharges workers who do not perform the minimum expected. On the other hand a worker eager to earn more must either shift to piecework or seek a job in which pay is higher because the minimum of achievement expected is greater.
Neither does it matter on an unhampered labor market whether time wages are paid daily, weekly, monthly, or as annual wages. It does not matter whether the time allowed for notice of discharge is longer or shorter, whether agreements are made for definite periods or for the worker's life time, whether the employee is entitled to retirement and a pension for himself, his widow, and his orphans, to paid or unpaid vacations, to certain assistance in case of illness or invalidism or to any other benefits and privileges. The question the employer faces is always the same: Does it or does it not pay for me to enter into such a contract? Don't I pay too much for what I am getting in return?
Consequently the incidence of all so-called social burdens and gains ultimately falls upon the worker's net wage rates. It is irrelevant whether or not the employer is entitled to deduct the contributions to all kinds of social security from the wages he pays in cash to the employee. At any rate these contributions burden the employee, not the employer.
The same holds true with regard to taxes on wages. Here too it does not matter whether the employer has or has not the right to deduct them from take-home wages.
Neither is a shortening of the hours of work a free gift to the worker. If he does not compensate for the shorter hours of work by increasing his output accordingly, time wages will drop correspondingly. If the law decreeing a shortening of the hours of work prohibits such a reduction in wage rates, all the consequences of a government-decreed rise in wage rates appear. The same is valid with regard to all other so-called social gains, such as paid vacations and so on.
If the government grants to the employer a subsidy for the employment of certain classes of workers, their take-home wages are increased by the total amount of such a subsidy.
If the authorities grant to every employed worker whose own earnings lag behind a certain minimum standard an allowance raising his income to this minimum, the height of wage rates is not directly affected. Indirectly a drop in wage rates could possibly result as far as this system could induce people who did not work before to seek jobs and thus bring about an increase in the supply of labor.1
- 1. In the last years of the eighteenth century, amidst the distress produced by the protracted war with France and the inflationary methods of financing it, England resorted to this makeshift (the Speenhamland system). The real aim was to prevent agricultural workers from leaving their jobs and going into the factories where they could earn more. The Speenhamland system was thus a disguised subsidy for the landed gentry saving them the expense of higher wages.