Problematizing Problematization

To ‘problematize’ something means to ‘make into or regard as a problem requiring a solution’. A ‘problem’ is defined as ‘a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome’.

With those definitions in mind, you should have realized the over-usage of the word ‘problematic’ by the social justice left. ‘Toxic masculinity’, incorrect pronouns, and white-dominated professoriates are all ‘problematized’. However, the nature of a problem is that it should be problematic in and of itself, and therefore shouldn’t have to be problematized.

The ‘problem’ of income inequality is perhaps the best and most infamous example from the left. Without making a concrete argument which has stood the test of facts, the left has held income inequality out to be a problem for centuries. This myth has been repeated so often that even some free market thinkers have accepted its premise. Indeed, free market organizations to this day attempt to advance the ideas of economic freedom on the basis that they will lessen the gap between rich and poor. Some have gone to great lengths to research and disprove the idea that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. My question to both of these is: but why?

There is no good reason to suppose that the difference in income between certain individuals is objectively problematic. It is quite natural and perfectly acceptable for people to earn differing amounts of income for the mere fact that the employer of either individual has the first and the last say as to how much he will pay his employee. As we know well by now in free market circles: an employer will not pay a cent more than he thinks the labor of the employee is worth and an employee will not take a job where he earns less than he believes his labor is worth. Many people will disagree with us on the latter part of the sentence, citing the negotiating power of employers. But employees have acceptable and unacceptable deviations from the worth of his labor: a margin. He will not work below a certain wage because he knows it will in any case not cover his costs of living.

But we have recognized that the substandard wages of most can be attributed to the massive compliance costs in the regulatory state. In South Africa, for example, employees have a wealth of undue rights accruing to them from our Constitution and labor law. It is notoriously difficult to fire an employee and if you do so, you’ll likely end up having to continue paying him afterwards for a certain period. Moreover, South Africa’s labor climate is very tolerant of wage strikes: and we don’t have brunch-on-the-lawn wage strikes like I’ve seen in the United States. Our wage strikes are akin to minor uprisings. Few large-scale strikes will conclude without some of the ‘traitors’ (those who choose to work and not strike) being found stabbed or shot to death. Fewer yet of these strikes will conclude without large scale destruction of property of innocent third party bystanders.

What does this mean? The cost of employing unskilled labor in South Africa isn’t limited to the person’s monthly wage, but includes the undisciplined prospective behavior of the employee. Having a factory full of humans over machinery may turn out to be much more expensive than simply what you have to pay them: they may actually destroy your factory because they are unhappy with a particular floor manager or you pay them too little. This isn’t the workers’ fault per se, but the fault of the regulatory state, as we well know. South African law, and American law in many instances, encourages this kind of expensive behavior from employees, and this holds no benefit to the employer. As a rational human being he will therefore try his utmost to keep his cost of employment down. If nothing else, at least he can save some money to rebuild the factory or pay the insurance company against the cost of violent strikes.

Thus, not only is income inequality not in and of itself problematic, but the actual reason for the sometimes unacceptable low wages of certain individuals, is the State itself. That, however, does not mean that the low wages are ‘problematic’ – the wages are low because that’s how the market naturally responds to undisciplined labor (in other countries, there would be other factors). So, why are we as free market libertarians ‘problematizing’ the income gap between rich and poor? If we attempt to show that the ‘gap’ is a lie, then we have in any case accepted the premise that the gap would be a problem if it were true.

A more relevant example to the American audience is the supposed ‘gender wage gap’. By now, we know it’s a patent falsehood: but why do we care? Suppose that the gender wage gap, indeed, existed: would it be ‘problematic’ then? I’d argue that it wouldn’t. Employers can, based on any list of factors they deem worthy, decide to pay their employees differentially based on gender. Certainly, it may be in our interest to show that employers do not become bigots simply because the law no longer compels them to pay the same wage for the same work; but we must always be careful to not accept the premise which the social justice left has put at our feet. Their entire premise is based on the lie that the community should decide how people should be paid. It is premised in illogical collectivism. We accept the premise the moment we latently agree with them that if the gender wage gap did exist, then it would be ‘problematic.’

The social justice left’s idea of ‘problematizing’ things which aren’t problems have led to some of the greatest expansions of the State. South Africa has its own Department of Women, Children, and People with Disabilities (some of us call it the Department of Everyone Except Men), and I am sure such examples exist throughout the world. ‘Problems’ such as ‘manspreading’ have already led to some cities considering fines for this new ‘offense’. But ‘manspreading’ has never been a problem: it was problematized in the same way the left in the United States has once again made race relevant, without it actually being relevant. They will proudly declare that race is more relevant than ever, but this should be recognized for the sophistry that it is. It was them who problematized it and made it relevant without it being objectively so.

Don’t buy into ‘problematization’. If you hear a social justice leftist utter the term do not allow them to set the parameters for the inevitable argument that will ensue. The first thing you should ask is was this issue a problem in the first place? If the answer is no, then there is nothing further to discuss, and thus you avoid unwittingly accepting their premise and playing right into their trap.

This post was written by Martin van Staden.

The views expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect our views and opinions.

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Martin van Staden is the Editor in Chief of Being Libertarian, the Legal Researcher at the Free Market Foundation, a co-founder of the, and the Southern African Academic Programs Director at Students For Liberty. The views expressed in his articles are his own and do not represent any of the aforementioned organizations.

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