Donald Trump’s ill-considered remark about punishing women for abortions offers a “teachable moment” about . . . minimum wage laws. Minimum wage laws?! Well, stay tuned.
Let me make two things clear up front. I would not vote for Trump for dogcatcher. And I do not believe that abortions should be illegal, even though I do consider them immoral. (As the great Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out, the side effects of trying to outlaw all sin may be worse than the benefits.)
Donald Trump is a bull in our political china shop. You never know what he might say, and apparently neither does he. But what comes out of Trump’s mouth is not always as crazy as it is inexpedient. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
If abortions were indeed illegal, it would make sense to punish the patient as well as the doctor. The relationship between patient and doctor is a voluntary association created by their mutual consent. Since the doctor could not violate the law if the woman had not consented, it would appear that both are responsible for the violation and to punish only one of them would be arbitrary.
Likewise with minimum wage laws. The employer paying less than the legal minimum can only violate the law because someone agrees to work for less than that minimum. Since the employer-employee relationship could not exist without the worker’s consent, both are equally responsible for violating the law. It is therefore be arbitrary to punish only the employer and not the employee.
But even militant anti-abortionists denounced Trump’s short-lived proposal to punish women who have an abortion. And no one ever proposes to punish the worker who agrees to work for less than the legal minimum.
A contrasting situation can be found in laws prohibiting prostitution. The logic of the situation is identical to abortions and minimum wage law violations. A would-be prostitute without a willing client cannot violate the law. But we find no general reluctance to punish both the prostitute (and/or her pimp) and the client; indeed we often hear vociferous complaints when clients are not punished.
Unwillingness to punish both parties whose cooperation is required to violate a law may indicate that such laws themselves are not a good idea. Paying sub-minimum wages, like abortions, may be a case where attempting to outlaw actions regarded as bad produces more damage than benefits to society. Depriving someone of the best possible job he or she can find is, after all, a strange way to help the poor.
Since outlawing abortions and low-paying jobs does not improve the situation, perhaps government should act instead to reduce the need for abortions and to universalize opportunities for well-paying jobs. Encouragement of birth control and adoption are obvious alternatives to abortion. And government could become employer-of-last-resort, guaranteeing employment doing useful work at whatever minimum wage-level is acceptable to the tax-paying electorate.
In a better world, abortions would thus be perfectly legal but rare, and low-paying jobs would be legal but would find no takers because everyone has better job opportunities.
When laws make a bad situation worse, it is better to have no law.