April 2011

IZA Policy Paper No. 26: Wage Setting in Modern Labor Markets: Neither Fair Nor Efficient

The increasing wage inequality in many countries is usually seen as brought about by economic forces that drive for economic efficiency within a changing technological and social environment. Ethical evaluations of these developments diverge, yet the view that free labor markets drive to efficiency remains undisputed. This note sets out to criticize, in a non-technical manner, this efficiency presumption which is based on Adam Smith’s theory of wage setting. It is urged that a Smithian wage structure would indeed be both efficient and fair. Yet modern labor markets work in ways that are fundamentally different to what was envisaged by Adam Smith. That makes the outcomes observed in modern labor markets, according to Smithian standards, both inefficient and unfair. As a consequence, the pursuit of the Smithian ideal requires organizational remedies, intervention and regulation in labor markets.