Human Dignity vs. Minimum Wage or, Where the Right Goes Wrong


DSC02097Matt Walsh, the male Ann Coulter for the right (and he’s on the same path), is back at it again, creating a straw man and then hacking it to pieces. This time around, he’s picking on Walmart employees that don’t enjoy the wages and treatment, saying they should be thankful to have a job and that if they just worked a bit harder, they’d all get promotions. In this conservative utopia where hard work is always justly rewarded, everyone becomes the manager, everyone works their way up to the top, and everyone becomes rich who deserves to be rich. Sadly, however, Matt Walsh (and conservatives in general) ignore the importance of human dignity within the wage debate (not that liberals do any better; they demonize and dehumanize the rich, whereas the conservatives demonize and dehumanize the poor).

From a purely practical standpoint, basic psychology tells us that if we treat someone as less than human then that person will act as less than human. One wonders why in the Roman Empire there were so precious few slave revolts until one realizes that beating slaves and treating them as less than human led them to believe they were less than human. The same rings true within the American south, where slaves didn’t revolt even when they made up a majority. Typically, when humans are exploited, they begin to think of themselves as “lesser than” and act accordingly. It should serve as no surprise, then, that when you put a minimum investment into a person you get a minimum return.

The better I’m treated, the less I have to worry about bills, the more incentive there is to earn higher pay for working harder, the likelier I am to be a better worker. The promise of an eventual promotion that may or may not come is merely dangling a carrot in front of the horse, getting him to run harder without the promise of ever actually eating the carrot. “If you work hard, then perhaps someday you too could become an executive in this corporation!” This, of course, is assuming that you’re able to keep a roof over your head, pay for electricity and water, and then afford the necessary education to get promoted. More than likely, however, even the hardest working Walmart employee (or any other big retail chain) will find herself stuck within store management, typically after years of hard work.

See, for all the love between Christianity and American conservatives, we would do well to remember that the two are not the same. Modern conservatism, or neo-conservativism is actually Darwinian and materialistic in its outlook on life. Modern conservatism, at least economic conservatism, is nothing more than the bastard child of Ayn Rand, the ugly offspring of objectivism. Within this philosophy the individual reigns supreme, even over the family unit. The essential core is that if a man wants to be rich, he has to be willing to outwork and undercut anyone around him, even if it’s his wife and kids. The end objective of existence is for the individual to realize himself. Such a teaching stands in stark contrast to Christianity, which teaches that the individual is nothing without the community, that a man must sacrifice himself to his family’s needs, and the objective of existence is to become like God.

Thus, the minimum wage debate is an interesting one in which we have conservatives, many of whom want to “take back” a “Christian America,” arguing for pragmatic utilitarianism, one of the most anti-Christian philosophies out there. “I’ll pay you for what I think you’re worth, depending on what you bring me.” Such a thought process inherently views the laborer not as a person, but as a commodity. The laborer is then viewed as nothing more than livestock, produce, or whatever it is the company happens to sell. While the labor itself is a commodity, the laborer is not; he is a human being and worthy of dignity and respect. The Christian view, then, is that the commodity of labor is to be treated fairly to the laborer because he is made in the image of God.

 

The Bible is full of passages dealing with the importance of paying the laborer justly, paying him for the labor he actually put in. See, the Bible views his labor – even when the labor is done on behalf of another (say, an employer) – as his property. Consider the harsh judgment in James 5, where the apostle writes:

“Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasures in the last days. Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out: and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury; you have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have murdered the just; he does not resist you.” [Emphasis added]

The Greek phrase used in referring to “keep back by fraud” is απεστερημενος αφ (apesterpemenos aph). It denotes the idea of withholding some of the wage (or the entire wage), and in the context it’s clear James is referring to holding back on a laborer’s wage with the goal of increasing profit. In other words, James 5 sounds like it could easily be written to a modern corporate executive who cuts wages in order to boost profits, which in turn boosts his own bonuses.

Of course, Malachi 3:5 isn’t any less harsh in its view of cutting laborers short of their labor. God, speaking through the prophet, said,

“And I will draw near to you in judgment, a swift witness against sorcerers; adulterers, those who swear falsely by My name, those who exploit wage-earners, those who oppress widows and afflict orphans, those who pervert the justice due foreigners, and those who do not fear me,” says the Lord Almighty.

Notice that those who exploit wage-earners are lumped in with a pretty nasty lot (also of note: So are those who reject justice to foreigners, which adds an interesting twist to the conservative view of the border debate). To “exploit” in this passage simply means to defraud, or to not give a worker his due. It means to be unfair in the treatment of the worker. Of course, there’s many other passages that convey the same idea (Leviticus 19:13, Jeremiah 22:13, Luke 10:7, Deuteronomy 24:14-15, wherein this passage special care is given to poor laborers); it seems that God is pretty big on the social justice aspect of paying a fair wage.

What, then, does it mean to provide a “fair wage?”

Obviously, a fair wage is entirely subjective to the place and time of the wage. $7.25 an hour back in 1914 would be more than fair and would be quite luxurious (the equivalent of $169 today, or about $351,000 a year). $7.25 an hour today, however, leaves the full-time worker with a little less than $250 after taxes per week. It’s hard to imagine how $7.25 is a fair wage for anyone who isn’t still a teenager and living at home with at least one parent. However, one could see how $13 an hour (a little under $450 after tax per week) would be fair in Wichita, KS or Lincoln, NE due to the cost of living. Such a wage, however, would not be fair in a place like New York or San Francisco. In other words, a national minimum wage, while necessary, doesn’t address the moral issue of wage. We could raise the national minimum wage to $16 an hour tomorrow and, ignoring the catastrophic wave this would bring upon our economy, it still wouldn’t solve the problem of exploitation.

The whole wage debate looks upon wage as a policy issue or a financial issue; but such a view couldn’t be further from the truth. The wage debate is one of morality, of what should an employer be morally obligated to pay a laborer? The Biblical line seems to be that the moral obligation falls upon what is just, and a Biblical view of justice is that which keeps the laborer out of poverty. Again, Deuteronomy 24 is very quick to say that a poor laborer is to be given his wages that day as he depends on those wages, meaning the Biblical view of “fair” for wages is that which allows a laborer to continue his existence free from hunger and oppression. By those standards, $7.25 an hour for a person over the age of 20 and not living with her parents hardly comes close to a “livable wage.”

The idea of a livable wage isn’t some socialist invention either, but dates back to the 1300s in England, where maximum and minimum wages began to originate. In fact, the first codified minimum wage on a national level occurred in the 1600s under King James I. The whole point behind the wages, however, was that it was to be enough for the worker to live, or a “livable wage.” The pressure for the magistrates and kings to pass these laws came from the Catholic and later the Anglican Church. When England became more secular in the 18th and 19th century, they moved away from minimum wage laws; it’s no coincidence that sweatshops and other travesties arose in 19th century England (which provided for fantastic literature via Charles Dickens) and that by 1890 the English government gave in and brought back minimum wage requirements. The moral of the story is that under a Christian (or even semi-Christian) view of the world, minimum wage was viewed as a necessity in order to preserve the dignity of labor. Once a more secular worldview took hold via the physiocrats, minimum wage laws were abolished, which only led to exploitation of workers.

Thus, modern conservatism, at least on economic matters, runs contrary to the Christian view of labor. Does this mean, then, that Christians ought to push the federal government to pass a livable wage? The answer to that, of course, is much more complicated than discussing the morality of wage. On one hand, Christians haven’t been bashful – especially as of late – to pressure the government to pass moral laws. One can imagine that there is little difference between, “If you don’t like abortion/gay marriages, don’t get one” and “If you don’t like minimum wage, don’t work for a job that pays minimum wage.” While the repercussions for all three are different, the thought process behind the argument is exactly the same. From a policy standpoint, with as vast as the United States is, it’s hard to imagine a national minimum wage that provided a livable and fair wage across the board; either such a wage would be too costly for lightly populated states, or too little for densely populated states. There simply is not “Goldilocks zone” of a minimum wage on a national level. Such an issue is better handled on the state level. Even on this level, while $14 is a livable wage for a single mother in a small down, it’s downright luxurious for a 16 year old coming from a six-figure income family. Paying someone what he is due is a job that is too big for the government to tackle, though they can set wide parameters that encourage just action.

However, pressuring the government only goes so far. The fact is that Christians ought to put moral pressure on companies that rely on minimum wage – such as Walmart – in order to boost their bottom line. Christians ought to pressure such companies to voluntarily increase their minimum wage. That is to say, we shouldn’t act like Matt Walsh and applaud these companies for exploiting workers in order to make a profit, but instead should be disgusted by such companies. We should applaud companies that do their best to pay a fair, livable wage to their employees (such as QuickTrip, Costco, Hobby Lobby, and many others) while openly condemning companies that exploit the labor of their employees (such as Target, WalMart, McDonalds, and many others). In the history of the human race poverty has consistently inhibited moral growth, the development of the family, and only perpetuated the fallenness of this world. It is why the Bible speaks so clearly against those who would seek to increase poverty for their own gain, it is why the Bible calls for a fair wage to be given to employees. We can act like Matt Walsh and other conservatives and mock the poor while celebrating those who became rich off the backs of the poor, or we can follow the Biblical view, which is to stand in solidarity with the poor and condemn those who became rich off another’s labor.

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5 thoughts on “Human Dignity vs. Minimum Wage or, Where the Right Goes Wrong

  1. Eh, it is hard to see how Matt Walsh set up a straw man when he was responding to an actual email. I will credit the author of this piece in that it was more insightful then I was expecting it to be. I do think you raise some valid points regarding the morality of the issue and how Christians should view it. However, you also bring up the issues with it, namely that setting a national minimum wage is practically impossible.

    I take it you have liberal views on immigration and homosexuality. On immigration, I don’t see the sense of the liberal view (except as a means of gaining the Democratic party votes) and on homosexuality I don’t see how anyone who claims to follow Christ could simultaneously support same-sex marriage, you clearly haven’t read the Bible carefully enough.

    Anyway, back to the topic on hand. I would say we could do more to encourage companies to voluntarily pay higher wages. I think that is an important contribution to the discussion. That said, Matt has a good point too. The idea that “I’m not being paid well so I’ll be a bad employee” is simply selfish nonsense. I worked at a job that paid poorly, treated its workers poorly, and that I hated (it was a call center, I hate phones). Despite that I worked hard, did my best, and actually, I was REWARDED for it. No, I’m not CEO, but I did manage to get to a point where I wasn’t constantly on the phones. I also took night classes to get a better career which I have been happy with for the last few years.

    Basically, Matt’s advice to “Bob” was solid but you also have some good ideas in that we should encourage employers to pay more if they are able. Although, as you point out, deciding what is a “just” wage is far from a simple issue.

    1. Well, let’s see…

      You’re talking about a parenthetical reference to same sex marriage, you’ve never read anything else he’s ever written on this site or elsewhere, AND he basically quoted Sceipture in Greek in this post.

      But yeah, he’s clearly never read the Bible.

      Anyway, hard work doesn’t always yield great results. I worked a terrible job, had a 4 year degree making $9 an hour but still worked harder and did more than anyone else at that job.

      I got passed over for a promotion by an 18 year old with 6 months of work experience. Total.

      Anecdotes are fun, but they don’t bring anything of value to issues such as this.

  2. Thanks for the insightful, rather comprehensive look at this issue. I feel more intelligent after reading your post and more stupid after reading Walsh. It’s amazing how we conservative Christians have been brainwashed to defend the rich even when they are unjust.

  3. I’m nowhere near an expert on economic matters, so forgive me if I’m spouting nonsense, but–isn’t one of the conservative arguments about jobs like burger-flipping or shelf-stocking along the lines that, ideally, and if more conservative financial policies were implemented, those jobs wouldn’t BE for people who have families to support? That there would be enough jobs available to leave menial, low-pay jobs like those mostly to teenagers and young adults just starting out in the workforce, instead of older workers more desperately in need of money being forced to take them (thereby leaving fewer jobs for young people) because they can’t find anything else?

    1. It is a reply that I hear every so often, but it’s also an unproven one. Historically, whenever neo-conservative economic policies are implemented, it tends to come with some pretty bad economic consequences. Essentially, such an argument ends up being a contradiction within neo-conservative economic theory. Their argument over low-wage is that it’s “supply and demand” for labor; so long as the supply outweighs the demand for a specific type of labor, then wages will remain low. Thus, if every adult who needed medium income had a job available that supplied this income, eventually the supply for skilled labor would surpass the demand, causing the wages to drop. Even if neo-conservative economic theory created an environment where higher paying jobs were available for low-skilled labor, if we followed their theory those wages would drop once the supply surpassed the demand. It’s a contradiction within their own theory, showing it to be untenable. Likewise, someone will always have to flip the burgers, clean the bathroom, and do the job that no one else wants, and that someone will not always be able to be a teenager. Hence the necessity to approach wages in an ethical way.

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