In an otherwise largely fair write-up of the disagreements and controversies surrounding the economics of minimum wage laws, a blog I was cited in yesterday made a common error in discussing the so-called “efficiency wage hypothesis.” Here’s the extract (my emphasis):
But if employers have monopsony power (they have enough market power to influence the wage rate in their industry) then the impact of a minimum wage is to raise employment (up to a point). Furthermore, the efficiency wage theory suggests that a minimum wage could help raise employment by increasing productivity and lowering turnover.
This last sentence is a misreading of economic theory.
Many do claim that higher minimum wages can lead firms and workers to improve productivity in ways that avoid job losses, whether that be through more worker effort, less staff turnover or whatever. And there’s no doubt that in some cases, firms and workers adjust in this way.
But the efficiency wage theory itself is actually a market failure theory of unemployment. It does not suggest that raising the minimum wage could increase employment. It suggests that in certain sectors where the costs of replacing labor are high, firms pay above market wages out of fear that lowering them would reduce their workers’ productivity substantially. The consequence is that the specific sectoral labor market does not clear, resulting in at best excess supply of workers in that sector (who subsequently have to find employment in other sectors at lower wages) or at worst more unemployment in the economy as a whole.