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10. Monopoly and Competition > 4. Labor Unions > B. Some Arguments for Unions: A Critique

(3) Greater Efficiency and the "Ricardo Effect"

One common prounion argument is that unions benefit the economy through forcing higher wages on the employers. At these higher wages the workers will become more efficient, and their marginal productivity will rise as a result. If this were true, however, no unions would be needed. Employers, ever eager for greater profits, would see this and pay higher wages now to reap the benefits of the allegedly higher productivity in the future. As a matter of fact, employers often train workers, paying higher wages than their present marginal product justifies, in order to reap the benefits of their increased productivity in later years.

A more sophisticated variant of this thesis was advanced by Ricardo and has been revived by Hayek. This doctrine holds that union-induced higher wage rates encourage employers to substitute machinery for labor. This added machinery increases the capital per worker and raises the marginal productivity of labor, thereby paying for the higher wage rates. The fallacy here is that only increased saving can make more capital available. Capital investment is limited by saving. Union wage increases do not increase the total supply of capital available. Therefore, there can be no general rise in labor productivity. Instead, the potential supply of capital is shifted (not increased) from other industries to those industries with higher wage rates. And it is shifted to industries where it would have been less profitable under nonunion conditions. The fact that an induced higher wage rate shifts capital to the industry does not indicate economic progress, but rather an attempt, never fully successful, to offset an economic retrogression—a higher cost in the manufacture of the product. Hence, the shift is “uneconomic.”

A related thesis is that higher wage rates will spur employers to invent new technological methods to make labor more efficient. Here again, however, the supply of capital goods is limited by the savings available, and there is almost always a sheaf of technological opportunities awaiting more capital anyway. Furthermore, the spur of competition and the desire of the producer to keep and increase his custom is enough of an incentive to increase productivity in his firm, without the added burden of unionism.70

  • 70. On the Ricardo effect, see Mises, Human Action, pp. 767–70. Also see the detailed critique by Ford, Economics of Collective Bargaining, pp. 56–66, who also points to the union record of hindering mechanization by imposing restrictive work rules and by moving quickly to absorb any possible gain from the new equipment.