Should We Also Ban Volunteering?

A perverse implication of minimum wage laws is their effect on volunteer work.

Suppose politicians set a minimum wage at $10 per hour. Employers are now forbidden from offering a wage below $10 and employees are forbidden from accepting such wages. (Side note: See Adkins v. Children’s Hospital for the Supreme Court’s 1923 decision that minimum wage laws violate individuals’ liberty of contract.)

Yet one is still allowed to work for free. We call it volunteering. Or sometimes interning. And that means that $0 is an acceptable wage, as is any wage above $10 — but everything between is totally illegal. (!)

Partly this is a borderline-cut-off issue: Why should $10 be legal but $9.90 illegal if both parties are willing? But more perversely: Why should $1 be illegal but $0 legal?

The usually-offered rationale for minimum wage laws is to protect people from being forced to work for less than some desired amount: “$3 per hour is exploitation!!” But then isn’t $0 per hour worse exploitation?

So if we favor minimum wages, we should also favor making volunteering illegal.

“But … but people choose to volunteer!”

Then why not let them choose to work for $1?

Or $5? Or $8?

3 thoughts on “Should We Also Ban Volunteering?

  • July 2, 2016 at 11:01 am

    Volunteering is different than work, by definition. It’s something you do in your “free” time.

    Interning for free is restricted, at least in some states, in certain circumstances, because of minimum wage laws. It’s allowed when it’s considered training, schooling, etc. Do you think school kids ought to be paid to go to school as well based on your minimum wage argument?

    I think your argument obscures the debate rather than helps it.

  • July 2, 2016 at 2:43 pm

    Volunteering is a species of work, Bret, not different “by definition.”

    From Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary: “volunteer — a person who does work without getting paid to do it” (

    But the normative point is the key one: Individuals should be free to decide for themselves how they will spend their time and how much they will charge for it.

  • July 5, 2016 at 10:29 am

    We apparently use different dictionaries (I use

    I don’t disagree with you “normative point” but I still think the volunteering argument obscures it.

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