Do you pay your secretaries less than your engineers because you like the engineers better, or because the secretaries don't need the dough?
- Thomas W. Hazlett
So far, we have been discussing the prices of goods -- present and future, consumer goods and capital goods. But people are part of the economy too, and not just as consumers. People are a key part of the inputs which produce output. Since most people are not volunteers, they must either be forced to work or paid to work, since the work has to be done in any case, if we are to live at all, much less enjoy the various amenities that go into our modern standard of living. In a free society, people are paid to work.
Simple as this may seem, its implications are often not fully understood or accepted. The very idea of buying and selling human labor is vaguely unsettling. The Clayton Act declared in its preamble: "The labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce." Perhaps the long history of slavery, which has plagued the human race on every inhabited continent, has left this uneasiness with the idea of selling human labor, or even renting it. Nevertheless, most Americans earn their livings by renting their time and talents -- and live much better than people in many other countries where most adults own their own land and work only for themselves.
Stories about the astronomical pay of athletes, movie stars, or chief executives of corporations often cause journalists and others to question how much this or that person is "really" worth.