Libertarians and conservatives often talk about a preference for "local control." But in few instances are the reasons for that belief as clear as they are in the case of the D.C. Council's so-called "living wage" bill.
The bill, which forces "big-box retailers" to pay employees well above the District's minimum wage, was drafted and passed in response to an announcement by Wal-Mart that it will open six new stores within the D.C. borders. In doing so, the company will bring with it thousands of jobs, lower prices and greater choices for consumers on a variety of goods, millions of dollars in charitable contributions to community groups and, with any luck, other new businesses, which like to set up shop in the vicinity of a Wal-Mart in order to capitalize on the flow of customers the stores attract.
No area of the city will benefit as much from the new Wal-Marts as D.C.'s eastern-most neighborhood, Ward 7. That region is slated to receive two of the coming Wal-Mart stores, and with them, 600 jobs. Just as important, the construction of the new Wal-Marts would provide food and shopping options to part of the city that is sorely underserved by retail and grocery stores.
It's no surprise that Ward 7's representative on the city council, Yvette Alexander, has been such a vocal supporter of Wal-Mart's plan to move into her district – and such a vocal opponent of the living wage bill, which Walmart says would force it to pull out.
"We've planned for several years for Walmart to come," Alexander explained. "And in my district especially, two Walmarts were slated to come into areas where we have not had a lot of development, we have not had a lot of jobs, we have not had a lot of retail options or shopping options. (These are) food desert areas. So it would be ideal. It would mean so much as a catalyst, as an anchor, for so much more business to be attracted to that area."
Here we have an elected official battling desperately to bring development to an underdeveloped section of D.C., and her colleagues on the city council undermining those efforts for political gain. The members who voted for the living wage bill, and the activists who pushed for it, have told Alexander's constituents they should not have the right to decide how much money they're willing to work for. They have decided on behalf of struggling Ward 7 residents that no job at $12.50 an hour is better than a job at "only" $8.25. This is paternalism in its most immoral and destructive formulation.
If D.C.'s affluent Ward 2 wants to insist large chain stores pay their employees $4 more than smaller companies do, that may be a poor business decision, but local control proponents would say they should have that right. It's much harder to imagine that residents of such posh neighborhoods as Penn Quarter, Dupont Circle and Columbia Heights should get to dictate to Capitol Heights and Skyland what businesses may set up shop within their borders — and make no mistake about it, when they vote to raise the minimum wage on the only major retailer interested in putting down roots in those neighborhoods, that is exactly what they are doing.
"The bill just sends a message to say, We are not business-friendly in the District," Alexander said. "It would devastate our economy. Right now, there is no other business interested in coming (into Ward 7)."
If residents east of the river think the benefits from employment and retail and development are worth accepting jobs that pay less than a Chinatown resident's conception of what makes a "living wage," there is no good reason they should not get to make that tradeoff for themselves.
You do you and I'll do me, as the kids these days would put it.