What About Morality in Economics? or, Virtue Capitalism and Wage

DSC02073One of the biggest arguments concerning homosexual marriage is that the government cannot allow such an immoral action to occur. Now, I have made my views known (that the government ought not be involved in marriage to begin with), but there are those who believe homosexuality ought to be banned because it is immoral. Likewise, they want to ban abortions due to their immorality, which is something I support. Yet, when confronted with the idea of instituting a just wage for unskilled workers, we’re told that it’s a bad idea. When we point to a multitude of Scriptures that speak of standing up for the rights of the impoverished, we’re told that it’s not our job to push our morality on businesses.

What I’m curious about is why we’re so quick to push morality on some issues, but not on others. After all, study after study after study has shown that low-wages lead to (1) higher unemployment, (2) more government aid in terms of welfare, food stamps, etc., (3) a weaker economy, and (4) the eradication of the middle class. In other words, this is a moral issue that has empirical negative effects; the low wage of the worker down the street does ultimately impact me (unlike homosexual marriage).

Proverbs 29:7 states that the righteous understand the rights of the poor, but the wicked have no such knowledge (the Septuagint goes further and says, “For [the wicked] has no understanding heart for the poor man”). What is interesting is that verse 14 says that a king who faithfully judges the poor will have his kingdom established forever. In other words, the Biblical command for aiding the poor doesn’t stop at private charity (as many conservative Christians claim), but is extended to the government. It is not only extended to Israel, God’s representation on earth, but to all governments. Numerous times in the Old Testament prophecies do we see pagan nations condemned in part for their treatment of the poor; in fact, based on Israel’s multitude of condemnations, it seems that with paganism an apathetic view of the poor often developed.

Now, I’m not advocating that we go out tomorrow and support the government increasing minimum wage to $16 an hour. Good people who care about the poor can differ on the practical applications of such concern. The problem, however, is that many Christians have fallen into the conservative myth about the poor; that the poor and unskilled laborers are in such a position because they are lazy, stupid, and unambitious. If they would only work harder they would earn more. We even point to anecdotal examples where someone we know (or ourselves) started in a minimum wage job and worked our way up. Not coincidentally, such people are typically white and come from a lower to middle class background. That is to say, such people often didn’t suffer under years – generations – of oppression where a fatalistic attitude took hold. We also ignore that upward mobility is declining in America so that even hard workers who earn raises typically stay within reaching distance of the poverty rate for decades.

What I am advocating is that we recognize the issue of hourly wages, or more broadly the widening gap between rich and middle class, as a moral issue and not an economic issue. The Bible also condemns those who gain their money via oppression of others. The Bible never does condemn wealth in itself and even says that God blesses some with material gains. Thus, no one is arguing that we all earn equally, merely that we earn fairly. When you look at places like Walmart where the CEO bring in over $17 million in total compensation (mostly from stock options) while the average employee brings in $22,000, how can a Christian think such a system is just? It becomes even worse when you realize that the stock options and bonuses come from boosting profit gains, but cutting labor costs is the easiest way to boost profit; thus, the CEO’s total compensation reflects the low wage of his employees. Such a thing is immoral.

From the Christian perspective, while there’s nothing wrong with having wealth, there’s everything wrong with having wealth at the expense of others. When CEOs make so much money that they earn at a ratio of 796:1 (in the case of Walmart), we are faced not only with a blatant immorality, but something that is dangerous for a society. 44 million Americans live in poverty. That’s 14% of our nation that lives below the poverty line. That doesn’t seem so drastic until we consider that 80% of Americans face near-poverty. This isn’t the result of economic fluctuations or a boom vs. bust economic model, this is the result of a country facing moral bankruptcy.  Continue reading