Nepotism of the Spirit

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.

*    *    *

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.

36 Comments

  1. Comment by jtherry:

    Thank you for the thoughtful reply.

    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.

    We are fully in agreement.

    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.

    This is a splendid answer. Again, we agree.

    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.

    The fault is mine. I was unclear. I was drawing a distinction between a minimum wage and a just wage. Various kinds of meddling have given us the current situation, in which unemployment is widespread and the currency is inflated beyond all reason. In this situation, a working man can plug away at an honest job, or even two honest jobs, and not have enough to be able to provide the material needs of his family. I think we would agree this is unjust, in the somewhat larger sense of what he is due in his human dignity, and which Leo XIII sketches in the opening sections of Rerum Novarum. I was wondering how to obtain a just wage for all in the present situation.

    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.

    We are roughly the same age. I am 52. I would quibble with you that the concepts were not “utterly unknown” to us, but as red-blooded Americans we disdained the class distinctions so obvious in, say, English society. They exist also in America but are not openly spoken of. We have our own Mandarin class, and we have our underclasses. Lines of race and sex are much more easily crossed in America than lines of class. I submit that the mask has slipped a bit recently and now class differences are more visible. But this is a side point.

    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?

    See above. By “market forces” I mean not theoretical forces studied in their textbook pristineness, but the warped forces currently at work in the 21st century global economy, with its industrial policies, preferential policies for banks and insurers, the institutionalization of usury (NOT the charging of interest altogether, but usury), the debasement of the currencies and constant cranking of the printing-press handle, and so on. So I apologize for asking a silly question.

    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….
    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.

    I can see no other answer. You appreciate, though, how unpersuasive this is in the public square, a square stripped of love of God, of belief itself. Set up in its place is the eidolon of “pluralism”. I have friends who speak of pluralism and a pluralistic society as though those were the highest goods. Well, your pluralistic society has given us more than fifty million dead children in the past forty years. They have no answer to that.

    Only repentance and conversion can do anything. Each of us, in his secret heart, must stop, repent, and start again. Nothing else will serve. You and I are in complete agreement for a change.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      but the warped forces currently at work in the 21st century global economy, with its industrial policies, preferential policies for banks and insurers, the institutionalization of usury (NOT the charging of interest altogether, but usury), the debasement of the currencies and constant cranking of the printing-press handle, and so on.

      Here is one point Catholics and Libertarians can agree upon. What you are describing is what is politely called ‘Crony Capitalism’ where a man who has friends in Washington manipulates the laws to drive away his competition. The more accurate word for it is ‘Syndicatism’ or ‘Fascism’.

      Fascism actually has a technical meaning. It is the national socialist organizing of the economy along military lines, that is, with the government giving order to the captains of industry who give orders to workingmen as serfs. I sorrow that this meaning has been lost in the misuse and abuse of the term by the Left. It refers, in effect, to Leftist economic policy when and where corruption rather than communism is the order of the day.

      You and I are in complete agreement for a change.

      The more I speak of Christ and the less I speak of my own vain opinions, the more we will be in agreement, I trust.

  2. Comment by tenkev:

    I agree with much of this essay; but, I would like to point out an area where I disagree; or, rather, which you left out of you analysis.

    As you pointed out, two of the main causes of poverty are unchastity and gluttony. Surely you are correct in this. There are also laziness, excessive risk-taking, lack of foresight, gullibility and foolishness. But it is not enough to say that most poverty is caused by sin and character flaws. We are responsible for our brothers in all their imperfection.

    I think the problem is not that men are not capable of providing labor equal to the wage necessary to raise a family; as you say, most able-bodied men are; but, rather, that they are incapable of managing the rest of their lives. As the proverb says, a fool and his money are quickly departed. This is especially true today with the failure of modern culture to guide our lives reasonably.

    The problem I see with our modern economic/political structure is the assumed absolute sovereignty for every-non criminal person. With maximum liberty comes maximum responsibility, and there is a great mass of people who cannot handle this level of responsibility. Not every man is noble. There is nothing shameful in admitting this. It is a fact of life. Now it is extremely important not to take this fact too far; but, it is also important to recognize it and plan for it. This means developing a hierarchical structure of power similar to a feudal power architecture; where those prone to foolish decision making have a loving, paternal, individual authority to guide their decisions (in a limited scope) and with this authority comes a responsibility for care in tough times and a claim to a small share of the labor in normal times.

  3. Comment by Stephen J.:

    “If I fail to give a random stranger money in return for nothing, I may lack charity, but I have done him no injustice.”

    I was particularly struck by this observation because it seemed to illuminate one of the critical distinctions between the perspectives discussed here: a hypothetical Prog-Gnostic, it seems to me, would insist that refusing to provide charity when able to any man who sincerely needs it is “injustice”; that the very state of being sufficiently deprived to need charity is an unjust state that the rest of us should be not only morally but legally obliged to amend.

    Now while Christianity does teach that disdaining charity is wrong, it does not specifically call that sin injustice because it has a stricter definition of what a man, of his own value and worth, is due as a matter of “right” from his fellows and society. For Christianity, a necessary element of charity is that it not be obligatory in any way other than by basic conscience; the very act of forcing someone to be charitable by law, or even threat of private penalty, destroys the moral value of the charity to the giver.

    The recasting of uncharitableness as “injustice,” therefore, is designed precisely to take away this element of choice, to change what someone may choose to give into what someone else has a right to demand. For the Prog-Gnostic, this is justifiable because in a materialist, functionalist universe, the overall mitigation of material suffering by any means is the only truly moral end; a Christian, by contrast, may applaud the compassionate ends, but must reject some means if those means are damaging, and ultimately destructive, to actual human souls. And so both can agree upon the urgency and necessity of “social justice” without ever being able to agree on the actual problems or solutions involved.

  4. Comment by Christopher:

    ‘Anyone but Caesar. He is the only one who absolutely and positively cannot be trusted with feeding the poor.’

    And it shows historically.

  5. Comment by gbaker:

    I am not attempting to “bash” Catholics, but I would not trust the Catholic Church, or any church, with the power to enforce tithing, or any church doctrine. History shows that every organization run be men is subject to corruption, and the more power that organization has the greater the corruption. Christ appointed his followers to be witnesses, not rulers. I think that is the more proper role of the church.

    As for the current state of poverty, it can be shown to anyone willing to see that most of it is the result of destroying the free market system, not allowing it. Policies that discourage or prevent the formation of businesses exist throughout the world. Minimum wage laws are one example, but hardly the worst. Environmental regulations have been elevated to religious status and beyond. And of course, the victim/entitlement mentality is well developed now.

    There is much to be learned in how God set up the society in the Promised Land in the Old Testament. One of the foundational pillars was private property. All of the families were given a share of land at the beginning that was theirs, earned through work required to conquer it. Charity was for the widows, orphans, and disabled. The able bodied worked. Welfare was called “gleaning.” Wisdom brought rewards. Foolishness brought consequences.

    Another lesson that many seem to forget or ignore these days, even in the church, is the call to treat others without partiality. I am not saying to act without pity or charity to those in need, which we certainly should do. But in matters of policy, we are supposed to demonstrate fairness under law and justice, not to favor the rich because they are rich or the poor because they are poor.

    The same could be said for races and genders. We’ve been doing it for decades now, with disastrous results. African Americans had been making slow, but steady progress in economic wealth and education from the 1920’s through the early 1970’s. Their families and churches were strong. Illegitimacy and other social problems was going down. Then the liberals enacted “affirmative action” and other social measures to “help” minorities. Progress came to a screeching halt and reversed.

  6. Comment by Captain Peabody:

    “Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.

    In these and similar questions, however, in order to supersede undue interference on the part of the State, especially as circumstances, times, and localities differ so widely, it is advisable that recourse be had to societies or boards such as We shall mention presently, or to some other mode of safeguarding the interests of the wage-earners; the State being appealed to, should circumstances require, for its sanction and protection.”

    -Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum

    As you can see from the above quote, Leo XIII regarded a “just wage” as relating to the ability to support oneself and one’s family, and not merely as equivalent to the current market value of labor.

    In addition, Thomas Aquinas famously argued that “whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor.” (Summa 2b.66.7)–and thus, that giving to the needy poor is not merely a matter of charity, but in certain cases also a matter of justice. In both cases, this is because man by nature has a right to the necessities of life, including food, shelter, and so forth. To give food to those who need it is not for Aquinas a matter of personal will or charity, but of strict obligation in justice.

    Indeed, Aquinas, St. Ambrose, and St. John Chrysostom all argue that these basic material necessities in a real sense already belong to the needy person, and thus to withhold it from them is morally equivalent to theft: “It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom” (Ambrose, Decretals).

    I am far from disagreeing with your contentions that free enterprise is good (and indeed Pope John Paul II strongly endorsed a free economy on many occasions), that the modern state is a dangerous ally at best, and the laws of economics have to be respected. But what of when the market as a whole is governed and driven by beliefs and practices that do not acknowledge the rights or value of human beings? In these cases, would not the market tend to produce results and valuations not consonant with human dignity? This is what both Pope Francis and especially Pope Benedict have argued strongly in recent decades.

    To take an example, if all factory owners you know are paying their full-time workers a wage far too low for them to support their families, then the market value for such labor would seem to be this wage–but Leo XIII would not regard this as a ‘just wage’ at all, but a most unjust one.

    In such cases, would not the requirements of justice, as expressed above, differ from or even contradict the requirements of the free market?

    • Comment by The OFloinn:

      Except that there is a hidden assumption: that money exists somehow and it is only a matter of shelling it out. The wages an employee receives depends upon the customers who buy his work. No customers–no receipts–no wages.

      Two anecdotes will illustrate:
      1. This happened to me when I worked part-time at a small print shop in Boulder CO. There was an old man who owned the place. Me, who did hand composition and ran the printing press. And another guy my age who did machine composition on the linotype. We printed wedding announcements, small newsletters, business cards, and so forth. Now and then, there were not enough customers to meet the payroll and the old fellow (a devout evangelical) gave us checks but asked us not to cash them until a certain date. Was he being unjust? Or was he simply in the same boat? (This was, btw, before the advent of desktop publishing.)

      2. While in college, my daughter (along with a friend) took a part-time job in a shop that painted ceramics. This was in one of the Plainfields in NJ. There were three other workers there. All three were on welfare, and so forbidden by government regulations from working and receiving payments. So they worked “off the books.” Now and then, as in the print shop, the paycheck would be withheld, possibly for much the same reason. But in this case it seemed that the owner, knowing that the welfare women could not report her, used this as a way to increase the bottom line. When my daughter and her friend made it known that they were not on welfare and did intend to report her, she went into a panic and started making good on the paychecks. (Alas, the tale would have a happier ending if the three welfare women were not using their paychecks to buy drugs from a guy who drove around on paydays. He had a regular route.)

    • Comment by Mary:

      I must observe that the question does arise of whether the workman could actually support himself and his family if he lived frugally enough.

      This also Leo discussed:

      Hence, the employer is bound to see that the worker has time for his religious duties; that he be not exposed to corrupting influences and dangerous occasions; and that he be not led away to neglect his home and family, or to squander his earnings.

      Now, if the relationship between them is paternalistic on the employer’s parent, naturally he will have both the duties and the rights of a father. If the question of a living wage came up, he must support his dependents but would have the right to demand the budgets of his employees, so as to be sure the problem was not their squandering their wealth.

      If, however, the men are free and equal brothers, they are making a free trade of voluntarily exchanged goods, and just as it’s not the employee’s problem whether the employer will go bankrupt paying that wage, it’s not the employer’s problem whether the employee can live on the wage. Each must use his own judgment.

      • Comment by Stephen J.:

        Interestingly, though, the efficacy of using that judgement can depend to a very large degree on how much mutual charitableness and trust (such as that coincidentally facilitated by, hm, a strong Christian faith) already exists between the parties. An employee and an employer willing to negotiate directly and honestly, and confident of each other’s word over what the employee needs and what the employer can afford, may in the end come to exactly the same financial arrangement as that hammered out by rancorous late-night yelling between union heads, management lawyers and government arbitrators… but the former workplace is likelier to be a lot nicer to work in. Sometimes the bottom line itself makes a lot less difference than the manner in which one gets to it.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      In such cases, would not the requirements of justice, as expressed above, differ from or even contradict the requirements of the free market?

      No, I think not. In that case, the employer must close his doors and find another line of work. He is not supplying his customers with sufficient value to sustain his workers: he is, in effect, leading his workers astray by promising them what he cannot deliver, for the employer promises his workers that if they follow him, he will organize their effort into a team and accomplish something that will serve his fellow man.

      • Comment by gbaker:

        If I read your statement correctly, then you are prescribing a recipe for ever-expanding poverty and want. Consider the implications:

        By the standard you lay out, in order for a wage to be “just,” it requires that the worker be able to support himself and his entire family. Otherwise, it “will not serve his fellow-man.” According to this logic, nothing is better than something, no work is better than part-time, and so forth.

        While I admire your ability to debate philosophy, faith is nothing if not practical. History shows that people who have the availability of jobs, any jobs, escape poverty at a much higher rate than those who are denied opportunity by people who insist on “living wages.” In point of fact, living wage laws in this country were passed with the idea to prevent competition by low-skilled African-Americans trying to enter the labor market. For a new worker without experience, a lower cost of labor is often the only way they can compete. If we take that away from them, we truly leave them out, for how many people are willing to take a chance on a completely untried worker who costs as much as an experienced one?

        Still, your answer was reasonable considering the flawed statement you were replying to. In the market described, if the workers could not support their families on the provided wage, they would leave. That is the basis of the free market. That is what makes it “free.” All of the transactions are voluntary. Everyone who agrees to a labor transaction feels that they are better off because of it. That does not necessarily mean happy.

        A problem with referencing such discussions to authorities from the distant past is that they equated poverty with starvation. At the time, it was a valid assumption. Today, it is not, at least not as far as America is concerned. The bulk of those in America classified as “poor” have more luxury items than the middle class did in the early 1970’s. I am not saying that their lives are cushy, by any stretch, but to compare them to the level of destitution encountered in the middle ages and before is inaccurate.

  7. Comment by gbaker:

    With regards to Ambrose, I defer to Paul, who lived by the rule “Those who do not work shall not eat.” And Christ said that life is more than food and a body more than clothes, and God will provide through faith. I agree that in many ways the church is to be that provision. I also say that many times what is classified as the “poor” are simply the idle, lazy, and entitled, and justice demands that they live in the want their efforts deserve. Perhaps that is one of the greatest evils of government charity, that it can make little distinction between those deserving and undeserving of charity, and as long as both can vote, it has no incentive to do so.

  8. Comment by Nate Winchester:

    John, I think you’d love to have this article by Jonah Goldberg amended to your post too. ;)
    http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2014/02/03/goldberg-income-inequality-washington-congressmen-column/5188399/

    Anyway, would that I could take your post here and club several Christians (both Catholics & protestants) over the head with it. But then they would just look at this and call you and me horrible people who are betraying the Man we claim to follow. For example, here’s 3 different (presumably Catholic) commentators on Shea’s site just from the past 24 hrs (give me half the time, I can provide you with probably double the Protestants):

    There is more of a case for communism as an acceptable Catholic position than libertarianism. Libertarians have not made that case. They have much work to do on this. Anarcho-communitarianism may have more access to a groudning in natural law than libertarianism. Each of these has access to Christian meanings of “the community” and one’s relationship to authority. Libertarianism is a divorce of community authority from rightful government.

    I do agree that Libertarianism is the great scourge today… moreso than anything else. At least Communism was honest in its atheism, and eventually pragmatic about religion.

    Remember, we don’t need a minimum wage because the labor market is a free market, therefore supply & demand for good employees will naturally raise wages to their appropriate levels (eye roll). The thing about this story that has me the most pissed off is that the DOJ has a ton of evidence showing a clear conspiracy, yet instead of bringing the hammer down on these companies they settled & of course the settlement included no admission of wrongdoing by the companies.

    At some point you just feel like going: “Fine, I’m a horrible, wretched atheist, and I won’t bother sullying your building any more.”

    I hear Purgatory’s nice this time of year anyway.

  9. Comment by gbaker:

    If you can show me a place in the Bible where Christ said it was good to take the goods from another person so that they can be used for the more, we would have at least a starting point for discussion. According to my reading, Christ’s call was always for personal holiness, and his emphasis was not on caring for man, but restoring fellowship with God. That in itself makes it totally incompatible with communism in any form.

    • Comment by Stephen J.:

      I believe there is at least one place in the Epistles where Paul talks approvingly of some Christian communities who hold all their property in common, but if memory serves the same passage also specifies that any who do not wish to participate in this sharing need not, which negates pretty much the entire point of socialism/communism in that the explicit goal of those systems is to make the sharing and distribution mandatory. Monasteries were also run on the same common ownership principle a lot of the time, but again, the hallmark of those arrangements was their wholly and unanimously voluntary nature.

      It occurs to me to wonder if the goal is to produce a socialist-minded culture within a capitalism-powered economy and a classically liberal body of law, such that all men labour to produce wealth as enthusiastically as they do under capitalism, but with much more cultural respect earned for the investment and donation of that wealth in public projects and services rather than in the aggregation and construction of private luxuries.

  10. Comment by robertjwizard:

    I couldn’t agree more.

  11. Comment by gbaker:

    Referring back to my statements above: Christ’s primary goal was restoring fellowship between God and man. It can and should be expected that the restored fellowship would result in greater generosity and less attachment of worldly things, but the goal was never to produce a socialist minded culture in any form. The emphasis was between God and man. Any attempt to mimic a heavenly system on earth is bound to fail simply because we are in a flawed state now. To try to impose such a system by force is to invite hell.

  12. Comment by TMLutas:

    I registered to post this small quibble with the original post, greed is an inappropriate driver as it always has unwholesome implications. It remains, after all, a sin. The appropriate term is enlightened self-interest which has both the virtue of being more accurate and more acceptable to those who care for morality.

    But as long as I’m here, a few further comments:
    The fruits of the labor and capital combined into a business has a line of claimants. The wage earner bargains to be first in line to be paid and paid on a regular basis even prior to the sale of production. This is a tremendous advantage. The tradeoff is a lowering of total income. The commission salesman essentially is paid at the time of the sale. Income is less regular, but greater because there is an increased risk of not being paid at all. The bondholder is paid next and gets regular payments from the remainder of the fruits of production and the common stock shareholder is paid last, receiving both the least predictable of income streams as well the greatest possible gains when things are managed well. The supply and demand for these four major roles and all the hybrids between them that I’ve omitted for simplicity’s sake warp and flex like anything else in a proper economy, moving in response to the conditions of the world.

    I would submit to you that in non-pathological cases (the economy of the Ukraine during the terror famine, for one nasty example of a pathological case) the reduction of wages below a sustainable just wage is due to a shortage of people in the other roles. The market is signalling the wage earners who can get out of that status to do something else, go into commission work, free lance, anything that is not part of the oversupply of this particular category of labor. Look where the highest rewards are and that’s what the market is saying we’re shortest on.

    Absent barriers to entry, all these types of work should yield about the same amount of money corrected for the difficulty, talent requirements, and time commitments of each role. If we’re still getting below living wage at that point, we’re talking lifeboat economics and things always get weird in the lifeboat. Lifeboat situations are not good examples to generalize from.

    There is a second category where there is legitimately a divergence between the wage paid and a living wage, and that is apprenticeship. These days we don’t have formalized systems to train people to get to work on time and develop a good work ethic. For this task these days we have minimum wage jobs. For clarity’s sake, we probably should return to more explicit labeling for these sorts of jobs.

    We have basically two sorts of barriers to entry for the other job categories. There is, of course, the legal issues which most free market advocates are well aware of. There is a second category though, which falls into the realm of social pressure which gets less attention. There are cultural memes that have gained currency that it is somewhat disreputable to create a company and hire others. Like any other disincentive, such pressures have their effect and people who would be able to create small businesses and somewhat increase their income do not because they are making a satisfactory amount of money working for someone else.

  13. Comment by Jay Santos:

    Anyone but Caesar. He is the only one who absolutely and positively cannot be trusted with feeding the poor.

    Mr. Wright, I completely agree with this. But I also observe that the leadership of the Catholic Church (at least here in the USA) appears to disagree almost completely.

    Is my observation entirely wrong, or have they gotten Caesar entirely wrong?

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Your observation is entirely right. The American Leadership of the Catholic Church yearns for socialized medicine, and they supped with the devil, and did not bring a long spoon, and so now the LITTLE SISTERS OF THE POOR are being sued by the Justice Department because the Nuns will not pay for whores to use condoms.

      • Comment by jtherry:

        This seems unnecessarily and uncharitably harsh. An ordinary middle-class couple may use condoms regularly as a method of contraception, as my wife and I did years ago, without the wife being a whore. She may be foolish, and she may be sinful, but she is not thereby a whore.
        I understand and appreciate your anger, sir, and even share it occasionally, but I urge you to curb your intemperate speech and ask the Holy Spirit to give you a heart of calm and charity.

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          With all due respect, you know or should know I was not speaking of your wife, or any honest woman, unless she is someone demanding as if at gunpoint that the Little Sisters of the Poor pay for her contraceptives, knowing that they are Catholic, and knowing that we find the practice reprehensible. Are you married to Sandra Fluke?

          You do not understand my anger, since I am not angry at all. I am merely colorful in my speech.

  14. Comment by KingRichard:

    Mr. Wright,
    Forgive me as I have not read each of the replies before mine, but I wished to respond ‘fresh’, as it were.
    You wrote,
    “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.”
    Indeed. The clear teachings of the Church are that while the market is insufficient of itself to provide moral outcomes purposefully that any such ‘adjustments’ are to follow the rules of authentic Catholic social teachings – authority is to be as close as possible, regulations should be as few as possible, and all activities are to be a local/personal as possible. The sovereign concerning himself with the wages of the stable boy violates all of these ideals!
    This is, of course, why the Church gently favors monarchy and aristocracy – in a proper feudal system authority is as local and personal as possible; specific people are personally responsible for the laws and their decisions affect their own lives and the lives of their own family as much as those they have authority over.

  15. Comment by Gian:

    The standard conservative discourse on political economy is simplistic in extreme, partly because of over-elevated regard of economics as a science. Pray, what has been the achievements of this ‘science’? What are the premises and what are the iron ‘laws of economics’?

    I have been reading mises.org for more than a decade by now and they have been warning of an impending hyperinflation ever since. Even the QE failed to deliver even a mini inflation.

    This view is not a leftist criticism but a conservatism that does not regard personal liberty to be end of all political endeavors. And it is shared by many on the right.
    Just an excerpt from Claremont Review of Books,

    “The alliance of Big Data and Big Government is an intellectual humiliation for those conservatives who spent the last three or four decades hammering away at the state’s taxation authority in order to unleash entrepreneurship as a countervailing power. The businesses thus “unleashed” turn out to be ones that thrive in collusion with politicians. Much as they did in Iraq, conservatives have, with the best intentions, defanged their enemies’ enemies.”
    http://www.claremont.org/publications/crb/id.2161/article_detail.asp

    • Comment by gbaker:

      The “iron laws of economics” are just that. If you increase the cost of something, you get more. If you increase the demand, it costs more. And government can never deliver as efficiently as the private sector. Obama has constantly raised the constant cost of work and increased the cost of hiring by adding benefits, raising taxes, and adding regulations, and labor force participation is down. If you could correct the inflation level against the increasing poverty rate, I’m sure that you would find it quite impressive. And far from a humiliation of conservatism, the latest collusion is a vindication of conservative theory. As leftest have drastically expanded government power into every sector of our lives, giving it power the founders never intended it to have, business has realized that its only chance to thrive is to partner with government. So now we have the worst of both: a high powered government holding the leash of a high tech business.

      If you want a study in giving aid and comfort to enemies, you need look no further than the Middle East under the most libeal Marxist president in history. If you want a study in the effectiveness of conservative economic theory, I think you will find that conservatives predicted pretty much every problem that would occur under Obamacare. The president started his term with lawless action and he is only maintaining the illusion of the ACA by delaying it one lawless act at a time.

  16. Comment by KFJ:

    If you want to be perfect, sell all you have and give it all to the poor.

    So, if everyone were perfect (according to Christian ethics), they would all throw away all their wealth, and become yet more bums in the gutter.

    So, what Ayn Rand said of Christianity is just as true as what you say of Leftism: No one can practice it consistently. They can only survive as long as they are hypocrites.

    Wealth can only be created, and poverty only relieved, by working, saving, and investing. This is the economic reality that you acknowledge, on the one hand, while you deny its ethical validity on the other.

    Check your premises, Sir. I beseech thee, by the law of non-contradiction, check your premises.

    This is not to say that the accumulation of wealth is the be-all and end-all of human existence: that is where I part company with Ayn Rand and her ilk, and turn to Aristotle. Wealth is only truly valuable as a means to an end: viz., the good life, according to reason and nature.

    • Comment by robertjwizard:

      Damn, and for a moment I thought I had a Randian to play with…

      …yet more bums in the gutter.

      Do you equate the class of poor with bums in the gutter? There are rich who are bums in the gutter. Or do you claim that wealth of itself is some form of perfection? Was not John Gotti a bum in the gutter no matter the ostentatious signs of wealth?

      Frankly I find the classification extremely offensive if meant. I have a cousin who was born with severe cerebral palsy, permanently and irrevocably in the class of the poor, utterly unable to sustain her own life by her own efforts (let alone dress herself). Does that qualify as a “bum in the gutter”?

      Also I would suggest reading the entire exchange not just the quote provided. Jesus had already answered the man saying to keep the commandments. The man said he had kept to all these things. “What more?” the man asks. He presses Jesus, and Jesus responds about the way of perfection. I think it is pretty clear from the text that one does not have to practice hypocrisy to attain life, but to attain perfection requires one thing more.

      At least that is my amateur interpretation.

      And lastly. Rand does not endorse the accumulation of wealth for its own sake, or a be all and end all. It is a means to an end. Specifically wealth is a tool for further production. The image is not Scrooge McDuck, but of a Henry Ford. Aristotle and Rand do not have differing views on this subject in essentials. It is that Rand has a different view of what the good life consists of than Aristotle. For Rand it is a life in pursuit of productive purpose(s) by means of his reason and this corresponds to his nature as man.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Surely you do not think you are the first person to see the paradox in Christ’s command to the rich man? Surely you are literate enough to recall the rest of the passage, where the disciples say, much as you just said, that if a man must give up all his money, no one can be saved; and Christ replies that with God all things are possible.

      Two thousand years of thought, contemplation, debate and furious intellectual effort pondering those words and what they mean — surely, surely you do not think you are the first man to see a logical paradox in them?

      We have been screaming that paradox from the rooftops and ringing it from the steeples for two millennia. If you want to know what they mean, I suggest you read a book, or pay attention to the last two THOUSAND years of Western history. The meaning of those words has been reflected upon in philosophy, theology, literature, politics, and everything else in the West.

      I just said that if you want spiritual perfection, foreswear earthly wealth and join a monastery. They were the most productive engines of wealth creation in the Middle Ages, so much so that they were the prime targets for looting, the way the rich are now, by the kings of the Reformation. All those monks foreswore earthly wealth.

      I was not suggesting that everyone on earth join a monastery. The Church has always held that the pursuit of extra spiritual perfect was an adventure set aside for those particularly called to it.

      Your argument is that if I do not suggest everyone follow the same career, namely, celebrate monk, I am a hypocrite, and my moral system is unworkable. There are two fallacies here: one is a formal fallacy of composition, where you assume that if I say something is perfect, this is the same as suggesting all men should, or can, or will do that something, rather than saying the highest of men do it.

      The other is a fallacy of ambiguity: you are interpreting a renunciation of worldly wealth with poverty. You call Saint Francis a bum in the gutter. The two are not the same.

      You also equate giving alms to the poor as throwing the money away. The whole point of the passage is that it is not. Only blind men see almsgiving as a waste. Is saving human life, alleviating misery, truly of no value? That is true if and only if human life has no innate value. But if human life has innate value, and money has value only as means to an end, namely, the end of rendering human life more secure and prosperous and pleasant, then it follows logically that human life is worth more than money.

      Hence we have three types of human being: a bad man is one who values money more than man; a good man is one who values man more than money; a perfect man is one who values man infinitely, as knows man to be divine, endlessly precious, above all values. To be perfect is impossible without divine help.

      This threefold division of the value of money is reflected in every platitude and story the West has produced for a thousand years. Aristotle, who was pagan, understood only the first two, and correctly saw that money has value only insofar as it leads to happiness. It is a discovery of ethics, no less important than a discovery of rocket science, when the West discovered that happiness is love, aka unselfcenteredness, and that pursuit of money entails a vast risk of selfcenteredness, which drives away love, and hence drives away happiness.

      This is not to say that there are not men who can endure the risk and prevail. How much they give to charity is a sign of that prevailing. It is less well known that the Middle Class in America routinely give far more to the poor than the rich.

      Your argument betrays an abysmal ignorance of Western culture, history and tradition. You cannot possibly be unaware of what the West since AD 500 has as a group held to be the case about the role and desirability of seeking after wealth, its material benefits and special spiritual dangers? Even philosophers who reject Christianity outright accept those basic idea that money cannot buy happiness, which is also based on Aristotle, much of whose philosophy was adopted and baptized into the Christian Church. The idea that living a productive life was better than idleness is not an Aristotelian idea (he praises the life of a leisured aristocrat) but come of Christian thinking.

      You also make a reckless accusation of hypocrisy without setting your argument in order. I have read your essays, and enjoyed them. That is how we first met: so I know you know how to express yourself without this kind of reckless statement.

      • Comment by The OFloinn:

        John, like all fundamentalists, your interlocutor prefers to ponder only the naively literal meaning of a single proof-text. He does not even note the well-known use of hyperbole in the genre of preaching. What, oh what, we are compelled to ask, does he make of the passage about plucking out one’s offending eyeball?

        Not to mention his already-noted equation of “the poor” with “bums.”

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