Conventional wisdom can be intimidating. This is particularly true in matters of law and economics. Therefore, I am not surprised that two very controversial decisions affecting our village – the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in McDonald v. Chicago, striking down Oak Park’s handgun ban, and the Village of Oak Park’s decision to cut off consideration of a living wage ordinance – have not yet been extensively debated. What little public discussion we’ve seen has turned on certain assumptions that are supposed to be beyond debate.
The recent rash of pro-gun comments on Oak Park news websites and message boards are notable primarily for their utter confidence in the correctness of their interpretation of the Constitution. Opponents of the Supreme Court decision and advocates of gun control are told to “Go read the Constitution,” and, “If you don’t like the Constitution, amend it.”
Fair enough. Let’s consult the Constitution. The Second Amendment reads as follows: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Pro-gun activists rarely cite the preamble to the portion that establishes a “right to bear arms,” because it creates ambiguity. A well-reasoned and respected lineage of American legal scholarship argues that the Second Amendment does not provide an individual right to bear arms, but rather a state’s right to establish a formal militia. So there is certainly room for debate. Advocates of gun control should not cede the debate just because gun-rights advocates claim that the text of the Constitution is on their side.
Similarly, conventional wisdom appears to have stifled debate for the time being on the proposal for a living wage ordinance placed before the village board by the Community Relations Commission on July 6. Trustees gave rationales for rejecting the measure, but none made much sense. The prevailing sentiment seemed to be that the proposed ordinance would create uncertainty during the recession. Further explanation should be offered as to why a living wage ordinance would cause uncertainty. It seems that the board is subscribing to a well-worn conservative economic theory: “As long as we don’t overburden businesses and developers with regulations, they’ll look favorably upon our village and jump-start our economy by setting up shop here!”
Why must we assume this is correct? Wouldn’t a living wage stimulate the local economy? An employee of a local business who is paid more is likely to be a more reliable, higher-earning employee. That employee increases the profitability of his employer. When that employee shows up for a day’s work in our village, he may take some of his additional income on his lunch break and visit a restaurant or a local grocery store. But just as importantly, adequately compensating working people is the right thing to do.
Our village has a rich history of grounding its policies in justice and equality as much as in dollars and cents. We should not allow conventional wisdom to change that.
Adam Salzman is an Oak Park resident and a labor and employment attorney. He also serves as chair of the Village of Oak Park’s Universal Access Commission.