A reader asks:
Dear Mr. Wright,
I read something today which made me think of you.
“”No Catholic, therefore, can regard with indifference a state of affairs in which work is considered a commodity and the worker merely as a “hand,” and not, as he primarily is, an immortal soul. He must want those conditions to be changed into something Christian.” The Cross and the Plough, Vol. 4 1938
Now I wonder what you, with your well known and thorough-going contempt for those who ignore or disregard the laws of economics, or attempt to legislate them away, make of the Church’s social teaching. As you know, the Church has a rather well developed teaching which goes back centuries, but is best realized in the great encyclicals beginning with Rerum Novarum and continuing with Quadragesimo Anno and Centesimus Annus. Recently you joined in hooting at calls for just wages, discoursing rather extensively on the folly of minimum wage laws rather than on the more pertinent question of justice.
I wonder if you would, with your copious spare time (ha ha), address this matter on your blog.
I for one would be quite interested, and I doubt if I am alone. The Church teaches that Man is made in the image and likeness of God; that his flesh and blood have been sanctified and made holy by the sacrifice of Christ Himself, Who took them on Himself, and offers them again to the Father every day all around the world at every Mass; that he thereby bears a dignity unique in Creation; and that he is therefore due, as a matter of justice, certain things. Among these are food, water fit to drink, sufficient shelter, productive work that pays a just wage, and medicine when sick. It is contrary to justice to withhold or interfere with these things, among others. Now the question of how they ought to be provided is a somewhat different question. The Political Correctors and socialists call for the mere provision of them: line up and the State will see to your needs, citizen. The Church on the other hand, calls for “those conditions to be changed into something Christian.”
What solution do you see?
I am not sure I have much to say. The Church’s teaching is of course correct, and, as a faithful Catholic, I confess all the Church teaches. The role of the prince or parliament in enforcing a legal minimum wage has nothing to do with the Christian employer’s duty to God to see to it that employees dependent on him are treated justly and compassionately, helping out those who are in need even if the employer takes a loss.
An unjust wage is giving a man less than he deserves because you find him in a difficult situation with no room to negotiate, and you drive a hard bargain because he has no where else to turn: that, I think, every honest man would condemn. That is what happens when you look at men only as units of production.
The temptation to look as men as units of production, as creatures of value because and only because of their efficiency, exists in all times and places, but it is an easier temptation to fall into when dealing with large numbers of factory hands or temporary workers whose names the foreman does not even really need to know. (This is not to say this temptation was not worse in other times and places, as when slavery was legal — but we are concerned with our sins of this age, not theirs).
What is a just wage?
A just wage is giving a man, in return for his labor, as much as you yourself would think just to come to you, if your labor was the same as his.
But a just wage is not a wage where you give a man more than he is worth to the company out of pity, as when there is a sickness or a sudden disaster in his family: when you pity a poor man, give him charity in addition to his wage, but do not insult him by pretending he earned the extra.
In all things, act as you would act if you had hired your brother, knowing you must answer to your father. Treat every man with nepotism, as it were.
Any employer who is just and charitable, generous and largehearted not only does his Christian duty by his men, he will find, if his men have decent hearts, that he will win their obedience and loyalty; and if he does well by his customers, he will win their goodwill as well. The principle is the same.
Imitate Fezziwig rather than Scrooge:
He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.
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Now for some specific questions:
How can we reconcile the Church’s legitimate concerns with the iron laws of economics, which render Man merely a factor in an equation like a falling body?
The iron laws of economics cannot be changed. The value the market places on a man’s labor depends on supply and demand, which neither employers nor the state can change. The value of the man, however, is seen with the eyes of divine love. The answer here is the same as it has always been: love money less and love man more. Tithing to charity, ten percent, is the least we can do. Even Pharisees will do as much. If you want to be perfect, sell all you have and give it all to the poor.
A legally enforced minimum wage does not answer the call for justice. How then to seek a just wage?
I am afraid I do not see the injustice we are discussing. If I fail to give a random stranger money in return for nothing, I may lack charity, but I have done him no injustice.
In order to raise wages, increase the efficiency per employee either by organizational techniques, clever management, or technological improvement of the work-effeciency. Nothing else raises wages in any real or permanent sense. The great economic leaps forward in wealth and worldly pelf enjoyed by the West over the other sections of the world are the result of both culture and law. American culture — at least before its recent corruption — places a high value on work and does not look down on any labor as demeaning. Our laws — at least before their recent corruption — create a stable framework of clear ownership and alienable property, with few or no barriers to the exchange of goods and services, where the laws are steady enough and reliable enough for businesses to make long term plans. That has evaporated in my lifetime.
When I was young, English-speaking Americans did not dismiss yardwork as low work fit only for illegal aliens to perform for their superiors. There was no talk of inferiors and superiors: the concepts were utterly unknown to us.
Even as recently as twenty years ago, businessmen were able to plan ahead without the uncertainty of fearing whether or not sudden additional burdens or directive or seizures from the government would increase their expenses or drive them out of business.
If you want to raise wages, the only way to do it is foreswear envy, foreswear socialist thinking, diminish the tax burden, abolish the income tax altogether, and diminish the size of government.
Are you shocked that I say abolishing income tax will raise wages? Whatever you tax, you get less of. Income tax is a tax on wages. Everyone’s paycheck would double tomorrow if the employer paid you what he pays Uncle Sam for the privilege of letting you work for him.
The large and inefficient corporations who are the catamites of big government will sicken and die in an atmosphere of free enterprise. Free enterprise benefits everyone, but it benefits the small, the weak, the new entrepreneur most of all; it benefits, the big risk taker and the big dreamer most of all — and all the folk they hire, and all the customers they serve.
Work gives a man self esteem and self reliance, and if he works and saves, he can become his own master in time. Free enterprise does not guarantee that — nothing does — but ever bigger government ever more intrusive in ever more orifices of private life, that guarantees the opposite: stagnation, favoritism, poverty, cronyism, legalized vampirism of the rich off the poor.
So that is what we, through the government can do: get the hell out of the way.
What we, through the culture can do is this: break the hypnotic spell of the culture of victimhood. If Blacks want to be as successful as Jews, let them act like Jews. No one gave the Jews special preferences in schooling and hiring and so on. No one paid them to break up their families. All the Jewish accomplishment in this country was done through hard work and stable families.
Let the culture cease praising the self destructive behaviors that trap the poor in poverty, unchastity and gluttony most of all. By unchastity I mean sex out of wedlock and childbirth out of wedlock. That is the number one indicator of poverty: no father at home. By gluttony I do not mean an unwholesome appetite for food: I mean addiction to drugs and to alcohol.
Privatize welfare, or at least turn it over to the states and local municipalities.
Let the culture put God back in His sovereign place at the apex of American life. The higher the lamp is hoisted, the broader shines the circle of light. Abolish no-fault divorce.
That will create a more just wage.
Is there a meaningful difference between a wage the market will bear and what a worker is due in justice?
In justice, he is due only what you have contracted to exchange with him. The poor man is not an inferior being who is given a wage but gives nothing in return. Pay what you owe; pay on time; and stop paying to subsidize behaviors that keep a man in poverty.
If he is unable to work, help him out of the love in your heart. Give him food. Teach him a trade. But do not pay him a wage above what the market will bear, because that makes charity into mockery.
If market forces create a situation in which a working man cannot put bread on his family’s table, is that unjust?
I do not understand the question. Market forces are nothing more nor less than the decisions of the poor man’s fellow man to buy or to refrain from buying those goods and services they want or need given the current or anticipated state of present or future availability of resources. If customers decide they do not want your product, where is the injustice? If I fail to persuade a given number of people to buy my latest science fiction space opera, if they read but do not enjoy, and, not enjoying, patronize me no longer, where is the injustice?
I can think of situations where wars and grave natural disasters threw many people out of work. Aside from that, I cannot think of the situation where a working man cannot put bread on the table that arises for any other cause, ANY OTHER CAUSE, aside from this one: the government is interfering with the free market.
Permanent unemployment, like a permanent underclass, is not a natural state of affairs. It requires a government system of regulation to erect barriers to trade and hiring to create a permanent class of poor.
In every case, in every case, in every single case, where an able-bodied and honest man cannot find work was because the government placed a barrier in his way, from a Jim Crow law to a minimum wage law, or the government use that man’s tax money, or his employer’s tax money, to prop up some failing leviathan of a business which the market had condemned, but which had corrupt friends in the halls of power.
You might wonder, what about some member of a despised minority who seeks work, but no White Man will hire him? I say that the government attempts to solve his problem are counterproductive, and lead to poverty; the solution is to eliminate whatever formal and legal barriers there are to work, because then whichever White Man first breaks ranks with his fellows and hires the minority will have a talent pool to drawn upon which his fellows arbitrarily forbid themselves, and in the rigorous environment of competition fostered by the free market, that slight advantage will make him rich. Nothing eliminates race prejudice more swiftly and more completely than the free market: greed makes men embrace diversity. Look at the statistics for employment and upward mobility among Blacks in the 1950′s compared to today, or how many businesses they owned, or any other indicator of economic progress. They have lost ground due to, and only due to, government benevolence. It is counterproductive. It hurts who it is supposed to help.
Change our laws and change our culture if you love the poor. Change our laws to get out of their way. Change our customs to make giving as commonplace as tipping.
How to remedy?
Restore the Catholic Church to power as the established Church in all Christian nations, and have her collect tithes by force and distribute welfare payments. Failing that, establish the Eastern Orthodox Church. Or the Russian Orthodox. Or the Copts. Or the Mormons.
Anyone but Caesar. He is the only one who absolutely and positively cannot be trusted with feeding the poor.
Or, more realistically, since the First Amendment forbids establishment, let the various Christian and Jewish denominations each put God in the center of civic life, and let us by a thousand thousand small and unregulated charities give and give enough to keep the poor from starvation.
Government is not the answer. Government caused the problem, increases the problem, and is the problem.