A Different (Old) Approach to Living Wages


We need to rethink our understanding of how we enable each other to provide for ourselves.  That admonition applies pretty much across the board.  I don’t think any significant faction in modern economic/political/moral debates has adequately articulated the correct perspective and, in turn, prescription.

Focusing on those worldviews that have the strongest pull on me, I’d suggest that libertarians are clearly correct that the government has no competence to proclaim a universal minimum wage or income and that meddling on that broad, impersonal scale will tend to create new problems with more-irreconcilable complexities.  On the other hand, my more-liberal co-religionists are correct to insist that work has dignity and that we have a responsibility to ensure each other’s sufficiency — basically, that people are not just resources to be priced into our economic decisions or discarded when unneeded.

A recent article by Adelaide Mena, of the Catholic News Agency, provides a worthwhile starting point to weave these principles together, and this quotation is as good a place to start as any:

[Rerum Novarum] also states that while “the state has to be involved in the adjudication of just wages,” [Fr. Thomas Petri, OP, Dean of the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate conception] said, “there has to be communal support for the person.” The [Pope Leo XIII] emphasizes that institutions like the family, the Church, other institutions along with the state can help provide a living for workers.

“Minimum wage isn’t the only thing that can help support families,” Fr. Petri said.

I’d go a step farther and suggest that we shouldn’t look at the solution as one involving a collection of various policies by which we build up a person’s living wage.  The core problem — the thing that’s really missing in our modern socio-economics — is not a way to add a few bucks to the pay of people with low income, but the personal and community connection between employer and employee.

An employer can pay a market wage even if it’s very low (well below minimum wage) and still accept the responsibility of treating his employees as human beings, perhaps providing other assistance as merited.  Maybe it’s Marx’s influence, but modern society spends a lot of effort worrying about bringing workers up from $8 an hour to $15 when the gap that we should emphasize is the one between seeing him as Employee X or as Bob who works my company’s night shift as a second shift while his wife earns her degree.

It would fall into the materialist trap to try to put a dollar value on the boss’s attention, but I have to think that a culture in which employers took real interest in those whom they hired would be more valuable to our society and to most individual workers than one that picks an ultimately arbitrary minimum income.  Perhaps the boss’s interest will result in a raise or freely given bonuses or other financial assistance, or maybe the successful business owner will guide the employee toward better decisions, or make connections for him or her.  Such things are extremely valuable.

The Catholic suggestion would be “both/and” (that employers should do both).  However, that misses the degree to which using government to push the price of labor beyond what the market would set actually impedes the more-important cultural change, making employees a burden to avoid rather than a blessing to seek.

A quotation in the article from Bill Bowman, Dean of the Busch School of Business and Economics at the Catholic University of America, illustrates how easily we slip into economic-only thinking:

Bowman said that the Church shies away from a “one-size-fits-all” approach, instead setting principles around which an employer can balance people’s needs – such as a city’s expensiveness or an employee’s family size, with the needs of the company is able to sustain itself. The result is that all businesspeople should be able to provide their workers with a just wage if they look towards innovative solutions.

Again, that’s all about setting a price, which objectifies the worker.  The “innovative solutions” we need are much more fundamental.  We need to establish the principle of interdependence (what the Church terms “solidarity”) in our culture and religion, with a few basic principles in law (e.g., against theft and fraud), but then leave it to the people involved in each human interaction to judge specific circumstances.  That’s the only way to fully respect the human person.  (Note that we can and should expand that to the community level, such that those who know the employee and the employer take an interest in them both and help them, without imposing, to manage their relationship.)

Failure to leave it to the people actually engaged in a transaction — the impulse to set rigid requirements in law — harms our status as human persons, treating us (employees and employers) as commodities just as much as exploiting workers does.  We might, as a society, be able to agree on a just wage given a whole bunch of assumptions about the worker, the company, the region, the market, the product, and so on, but almost nobody would actually fit those exact circumstances.

One can understand the error coming from progressives, who give clear indication that they don’t believe that people can be trusted to do the right thing.  But those of us who place a deep, existential emphasis on moral agency and the right of each individual to be respected as a human being have no excuse.