Half Past the Month: The ‘Prevailing’ Wage

April 24, 2013

“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies, much less to render them necessary.” — Adam Smith, 1776

by Craig Ladwig

Beginning this year, only those construction projects valued at more than $350,000 are covered by the state’s prevailing-wage law. All right, but why $350,000? Why not $350? Or zero?

Because the law is arbitrary, capricious and immoral, that’s why, and a GOP super majority led by a conservative governor so far hasn’t done anything about it. That tempts the thought that one might as well go Democrat and hope to be cut in on the deal, to join those who are prevailing.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; first, we need to know the history of this particular usurpation.

There is, of course, the infamous 1931 speech on the floor of the House of Representatives by Rep. William Upshaw:

“You will not think that a southern man is more than human if he smiles over the fact of your reaction to that real problem you are confronted with in any community with a superabundance or large aggregation of negro labor.”

You get the idea: A “prevailing” wage, please know, doesn’t have anything to do with an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.

What the law did then for federal contracts and what it does today for Indiana contracts is this: Politically manipulate the market for labor, whatever its color. It does so in a way that ensures that some people (unionists) have an employment advantage over the hapless rest.

That, of course, is a theft, however widely unreported. Once institutionalized in a government budget, it becomes a double theft — first from an employer and then from a taxpayer. Moreover, economists can show that there are hidden social costs in market distortions, the communication of trade skills, etc.

In nearby Michigan, for instance, where the law was temporarily ruled invalid for 30 months, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy found that 11,000 new jobs were created during that period. Other findings in its study include:

Similar studies in Indiana might or might not give similar results, but government waste and inefficiency are not the point. It is that the prevailing wage constitutes a moral wrong. That would be true even if it were to save taxpayers money, preserve “good” jobs or improve the quality of construction (and it doesn’t do any of these).

George Leef, writing for the Cato Institute, put this moral wrong in an economic context: “The prevailing wage is merely rent-seeking by a politically potent interest group using its influence to use the law to enforce a price-fixing scheme.”

Is this OK with our Indiana GOP? Apparently so. There’s no movement among the super-majoritarians for reform, nor can the issue be found on the governor’s “road map” for progress.

Look, this isn’t a difficult public-policy question. It has always been a bad idea for any government to assist any group of sellers (in this case, unionists) in what is an eternal human desire to fix prices and stifle competition.

So the Indiana GOP’s reticence is puzzling. Let’s hope it can find its voice on this core economic issue.

Craig Ladwig is editor of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review.


David Bernstein. “The Davis-Bacon Act: Let’s Bring Jim Crow to an End.” Cato Institute, Dec. 26, 2012.

Richard Vedder. “Michigan’s Prevailing Wage Law and Its Effects on Government Spending and Construction Employment.” The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Midland, Michigan.

The Ohio Legislative Service Committee Senate Bill 102 Report: 22 25.

George Leef. “Prevailing Wage Laws: Public Interest or Special Interest Legislation?” The Cato Journal, Winter 2010.



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