The minimum wage ended the Roman Empire

April 6, 2012 - 9:04am

Coalitions in Missouri, Illinois, Maryland and Massachusetts have launched campaigns to increase the minimum wage in their states. Students in the city of San Jose, California collected thirty thousand signatures to put a minimum wage hike on the city’s November ballot. 

Predictably, business lobbies are claiming that minimum wage increases for low wage workers will lead to economic disaster. It’s a familiar – and wrong – refrain that business lobbies and conservative politicians have used since FDR signed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, that established the federal minimum wage, into law. 

The award for rhetorical extremism goes to Guy Harrington, representing the National Publishers Association during  a 1937 Congressional hearing. He claimed that that wage standards caused of the decline of the Roman Empire. 

Harrington, testifying against the proposed law on June 11, 1937, said:

"It would seem that many people are not willing in these times to heed the object lessons of the past. What is herein stipulated has been tried many times and failed. Rome, 2,000 years ago, fell because the government began fixing the prices of services and commodities.   We, however, know what has always happened when governments have tried to superintend the industry of private persons. The final result has always been distress, misery and despair."

After Harrington's testimony, Committee Chairman, Congressman William Connery (D-MA) asked him the following questions.  The exchange is quoted verbatim from Congressional hearing transcripts.  Imagine a similar exchange today.

The Chairman: I notice here that you make the definite positive statement that Rome 2,000 years ago fell because the Government began fixing the prices of services and commodities?
Mr. Harrington: Yes.
The Chairman: Under which Roman administration did that occur?
Mr. Harrington: That followed the reign of Augustus Caesar. During the reign of Augustus Caesar, Rome was operating under a capitalistic system and they enjoyed a period of great prosperity. The deterioration of Rome began to take place about 300 or 400 years after that.
The Chairman: I see. Augustus Caesar began to fix prices ---
Mr. Harrington (interposing): No; Augustus Caesar did not. The fixing of prices began after that period.
The Chairman: Which administration began to fix prices?
Mr. Harrington: At the moment, I don’t recall.
The Chairman: At the moment you do not recall. How long was it after Augustus Caesar ceased to reign until this happened?
Mr. Harrington: It was 200 or 300 years after that time.
The Chairman: Why did you mention Augustus Caesar?
Mr. Harrington: Prior to that time, they had had a period of very great prosperity.
The Chairman:  I see. How long had they had prosperity?
Mr. Harrington:  Well, I cannot tell you that.
The Chairman: Do you remember whether it was 1 year or 100?
Mr. Harrington: I cannot tell you that.
The Chairman: But you recall that two or three hundred years after Augustus Caesar’s time, they began to fix prices and services?
Mr. Harrington: Well, I don’t recall it.  [Laughter]
The Chairman: Was it at that time that services began to be fixed, was Rome still an empire? Did they have an empire or what was the form of government?
Mr. Harrington: Yes; it was under and empire.
The Chairman: Three hundred years after Augustus Caesar?
Mr. Harrington: I don’t’ recall the exact time – you are asking me questions and asking me to recall information which I covered rather thoroughly two or three years ago.
The Chairman:  Would you object to telling us from what bibliography this information was obtained?
Mr. Harrington: As a matter of fact, a man who wrote a book and became an authority on Roman history was my source of information. If I am not mistaken, he was a member of the United States Senate at one time and he came from Missouri and was prominent in the political affairs of the State of Missouri.
The Chairman:  What was his name?
Mr. Harrington: I don’t recall his name now, but at that time he became considered an authority on Roman history, and particular on the economic situation in Rome.
The Chairman: Did you ever read Ferrara’s economic history of Rome?
Mr. Harrington: No; I never did.
The Chairman: Did you ever read any of the other economic histories except this one that some man that used to serve in the Senate from Missouri wrote?
Mr. Harrington:  He was considered an authority. That is the reason I mentioned him.
The Chairman: Did you read Gibbon at that time?
Mr. Harrington: Yes; I have read Gibbon.
The Chairman: Do you recall whether he referred to the fixing of prices?
Mr. Harrington: At the moment, I cannot.
The Chairman: You make the direct and positive statement that Rome fell on that account, and I have heard and read some conflict of ideas as to the real reason that Rome fell.
Mr. Harrington: Yes.
The Chairman:  It may have fallen for this reason, but I really had not heard that reason assigned before. But you make the direct and positive statement that the reason that Rome fell was because several hundred years after Augustus Caesar they began to fix prices and services.
Mr. Harrington: That was one of the contributing causes.  I am only expressing an opinion.
The Chairman: What were some of the other reasons?
Mr. Harrington: The attacks from without, the degeneration of its social system and social life, and that sort of thing, probably were contributory factors. No question about that.
The Chairman: Could you give us the name of that man that wrote the book?
Mr. Harrington:  Yes, sir; I would be very glad to do that. I will do that as soon as I get back to my house.


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