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Advocating for a Minimum Wage: Is There a Better Way?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 07, 2014

Today this headline caught my eye: Miami archbishop: raise the minimum wage. So naturally I warmed immediately to one of my favorite themes. Catholics ought to have their own ways of handling this sort of question. Why are wages a political issue? Or, to put the matter more broadly, why must everything be perceived as inherently political?

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not a libertarian, a viewpoint which tends to regard government as essentially unnatural. In contrast, Catholic social teaching rests firmly on the natural law, which teaches us that the inherently social nature of man calls for a public order charged with the protection and enhancement of the common good. Thus government in itself (though not necessarily “the State” in its modern conception) is a natural institution. On the other hand, Catholic social teaching rejects any sort of totalitarianism as a violation of the unique and precious dignity possessed by each individual person, who has the responsibility of using his particular gifts to further the work of the Creator in the perfection of the natural order.

At the extremes, the evil of such positions becomes increasingly clear, but it is a work of prudence to effectively balance the freedom and initiative of the person with the demands of the common good. Such adjustments are to be worked out with a deep commitment to the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, but because they depend on prudence, there is significant room for disagreement in the details. Thus, people can disagree about whether a minimum wage is necessary, or helpful, or harmful, under various circumstances, and with respect to various persons and groups; and they can also disagree about the appropriateness of pursuing a minimum wage as a matter of law.

But whether a minimum wage is pursued as a matter of law or not, it ought to be clear that every employer has a moral obligation to do his best to pay his employees at a level consistent with their dignity as persons. The question each employer needs to keep in mind is this: As a constituent part of an employee’s total earnings (for the employee might not be full-time), what pay is sufficient to enable the employee to provide for himself and his family, including their legitimate need for rest and recreation? Note that this level of pay may not always be possible. We have to remember that offering a job at unfortunately low pay is better than offering no job at all, and it is morally praiseworthy if the employer is doing his best. In any case, employers are morally obliged (by God) to make adequate compensation of employees a very high priority in the stewardship of their business.

For better or worse, it is difficult to assign any sort of number, because each situation is different. This is the case with most social issues, which depend so heavily on a wide range of circumstances. In this respect, for example, the morality of employee compensation is analogous to the morality of immigration. Just as an employer is morally bound to compensate employees as well as possible consistent with his stewardship of his business, so too is government morally bound to facilitate immigration as much as possible consistent with its stewardship of the common good. Once again, evil decisions will be most obvious at the extremes. In the broad middle, prudence plays an enormous role, and the weighing of different proposals is an important part of the process.

The Catholic Way

The red flag raised by Archbishop Wenski, who is chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, is not that he has advocated an increase in the minimum wage, but that his input on this issue is so likely to be purely political. Now it may be that Archbishop Wenski invests considerable time and energy in making sure Catholic employers are well-instructed morally on the question of compensation. It may be that the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development encourages a number of programs to foster a broader and deeper social awareness of this aspect of Christian stewardship. But surely it would be typical if, in fact, the only initiative here were a political initiative.

The reality is that a moral people with a healthy socio-economic culture would take it as a given that workers should be paid in a manner appropriate to their human dignity. Employers who disrespected their workers by failing to pay them adequately when capable of doing so would be relatively rare. They would also be subject to peer pressure to behave more responsibly, and their employees would have more alternatives as well. Those formed in such a culture would instinctively foster strong employer-employee relationships, and avoid as much as possible doing business with corporations that take advantage of the relative powerlessness of their employees. In contrast, it is almost laughably symptomatic of an unhealthy culture—by which I mean our own culture—that the moment we become aware of a problem, we immediately seek a political solution.

Unfortunately, despite the teaching power of the law, a constant resort to politics, law, and force simply further erodes culture. Instead of strengthening a culture to make it more self-sustaining, this constant emphasis on politics obscures the need for larger values and richer relationships. It tends to reduce responsibility to the successful navigation of the regulatory landscape.

The last people who should think this way are bishops, but the rest of us are hardly innocent. Let us suppose for a moment that a lay person feels strongly that workers in many situations should receive better pay. In our society, what will he do? He will look around for a candidate to vote for or a political action committee to support. He is extremely unlikely to seek out or launch a non-profit corporation devoted to the ethical education of businessmen or the fostering of social responsibility in economic relationships. He will almost certainly not begin researching and publicizing evidence that ties significant tangible business benefits to improved treatment of employees. It will not cross his mind to outline alternatives to large corporate models which often fall into the trap of viewing employees as commodities.

What he will not do is change people’s hearts or enrich the culture of his community by fostering a deeper understanding of both economic morality and beneficial business relationships. Instead, he will say, “There ought to be a law.” Force will not be his last resort, but his first. Therefore, once again I raise the question: Why must everything be political? The instinctive substitution of law for personal responsibility and cultural fruitfulness is, to put it mildly, not the Catholic way. As the Letter of James teaches us, the Catholic way is to “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (Jas 1:22). 

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Jeanna - Jan. 08, 2014 12:04 AM ET USA

    I agree, there is a better way: “By pleading for economic democracy through a wider distribution of the management, profits, and ownership of industry the Church is hearkening back to the true American position of property as the economic basis of liberty and the surest guarantee against human tyranny. America set out to be a country of well-distributed property as the sociological foundation of liberty and to that sound Americanism the Church bids us return.” -Ven. Sheen, "Freedom Under God"

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jan. 07, 2014 9:15 PM ET USA

    Is it just me or does anyone else notice that "the ones" who can't seem to govern the Church seem always to have a ready word for the way the politicians should govern in Washington?

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Jan. 07, 2014 5:55 PM ET USA

    Minimum wage is perceived as a political ideal because our government has failed to enforce the law about illegal immigration so now we have 20-40 million Mexicans in this country which puts extreme pressure on the minimum wage. Secondly, our govt. allows the fictitious Federal Reserve to exist thus driving our financial ship over a cliff. Thirdly, our government has driven many better paying jobs off shore. And there are more reasons that the financial house is under the control of govt.

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