The conception behind minimum wage laws – and any similar notion that supposes that employees should receive payment or benefits unrelated to the transactional value which they bring to their employers – is economically unsound.
Though most people in our culture today would disagree with this point, it is at least well understood by most libertarian and anarchist thinkers, as well as by anyone who has ever run a business.
What is not widely understood, even by most Christian libertarians, is that this economically unsound principle is also deeply connected to unsound theology regarding the worth and value of the individual person before God and the nature of God’s saving grace.
Central to the philosophical blind spot allowing this to go unnoticed is a mischaracterization of justice, a flawed understanding rooted in the true meaning of justice as taught by the Christian tradition, but not fully understood and misapplied to the realities of our modern political state.
Flowing from that poor understanding of justice, our present culture also has a strong antipathy towards the language and concepts of marketplace exchange. This ill will distorts the framework with which we understand the relationship between employee and employer. Critically, that distortion and antipathy prevents us from imagining our relationship with God in terms of a transaction – an image which many Christians would find off-putting and heretical, but which is actually fully consistent with an orthodox understanding of God’s free gift of grace. Paradoxically, this image allows us to explore the divine point of view, and to see how highly we are valued by God.
This essay will give a brief overview of the economic unsoundness of “minimum wage thinking” and then explore how this way of thinking has polluted our shared “embedded theology” of salvation. Finally, I will show that God’s free gift of grace, like all relational interactions, is essentially transactional and that this transaction, rightly understood, does not reduce grace to the status of a commodity but rather exalts the human individual as the most valued creation in the eyes of God.
With regards to Minimum Wage as a social construct, it must be said that there are, primarily, two ideas which contribute to the notion that instituting a society-wide minimum wage is beneficial or moral. The original impetus for minimum wage policies grew out of a larger framework of society-planning philosophies which stated that governments could, and should, institute policies which would shape the whole of society toward some desired end. While both deeply immoral and largely ineffective, it was at least somewhat reasonable to have thought (at that time) that this sort of thing was the rightful domain of democratically elected governments. However, as the rhetoric and spirit of the political left has turned away from social engineering and towards social justice, a second justification for minimum wage policies has developed.
This newer (and now, completely accepted) idea is simply that people deserve to be paid some amount, and no less. In this conception, there is some specific and knowable dollar amount associated with an hour of a human being’s life. Paying somebody less than that amount is not just bad for society (for whatever reason), it is fraud and exploitation of an individual person. Since justice is concerned with giving people what they rightly deserve (as Aquinas defines, in part), and since people deserve some specific amount of money, the act of not paying people that amount of money is an injustice.
The core idea here – that a person’s time must be worth some specific amount of money and no less, for the reason simply that they “deserve it” – I refer to as “Minimum Wage Thinking.” While minimum wage policies are harmful regardless of the reason they are created, and while the society-planning impulse carries its own problems, I am here concerned primarily with this Minimum Wage Thinking, and the way this idea, which has now become the central theme of leftist labor ideology, negatively impacts our culture’s embedded theology of salvation.
It shouldn’t have to be said that the general effect of instituting a minimum wage is the exclusion from the marketplace of those whose labor falls below the value of that minimum wage. The main reason for this, of course, is that a declaration of what any individual person deserves — even if it is accepted and believed by all people — has very little impact on transactional monetary value. Even the most benevolent businesses do not set wages for their employees based on their intrinsic worth, but rather based on the monetary value that each employee brings to the organization (and, on average, the pay needs to be less than the value received, otherwise the business runs at a loss).
This exclusion, though hotly contested by proponents of minimum wage policies, can be seen in the disappearance of most forms of extremely low-skill service labor such as baggers at grocery stores and table bussers at restaurants. And the fact that middle-class liberals are, in practice, unconvinced by their own arguments regarding the inelasticity of the “supply” of jobs is evidenced by an almost complete absence of domestic labor in modern life.
Naturally, this exclusion carries economic burdens for the most vulnerable members of our society: women, youth, immigrants, and the uneducated. But what about the spiritual and theological burden? And what about those who manage to actually get hired in jobs that pay minimum wage?
Minimum Wage Thinking is based on a form of justice which Aquinas calls “Distributive Justice.”
The other [type of justice] consists in distribution, and is called distributive justice; whereby a ruler or a steward gives to each what his rank deserves. As then the proper order displayed in ruling a family or any kind of multitude evinces justice of this kind in the ruler, so the order of the universe, which is seen both in effects of nature and in effects of will, shows forth the justice of God.
This form of justice belongs properly to God and, secondarily, to human rulers.
(One assumes that distribution belongs to rulers inasmuch as they, like God, possess something which can be distributed to others for their personal benefit or for the benefit of the group over which the ruler has dominion. It would be a mistake, then, to use this definition as a justification for government officials to distribute that which does not belong to them but rather belongs to others. Moreover, it is fundamental to the entire conception of modern democracy that our elected officials are not rulers, but rather administrators, and so it would be improper to assign to them the privileges of rulers, in any case.)
In a Minimum Wage context, this distributive justice replaces the form of justice proper to human economic activity, what Aquinas (after Aristotle) refers to as “commutative justice.”
There are two kinds of justice. The one consists in mutual giving and receiving, as in buying and selling, and other kinds of intercourse and exchange. This the Philosopher (Ethic. v, 4) calls commutative justice, that directs exchange and intercourse of business.
Note that the practical details of commerce are not replaced by divine, distributive Justice; only the mental framework for understanding these things has been changed. The hard laws of economic reality — primarily the fact that people will not engage in transactions which they do not see as beneficial — cannot be disrupted. In fact, in any case wherein someone willingly gives more in a transaction than they receive in perceived value, we do not classify that as a higher form of justice but as a different virtue altogether – charity.
From this essential mismatch — viewing the activities of commerce through the lens of distributive justice — flow a number of deleterious spiritual effects and erroneous theological conclusions.
The most obvious problem is the equating of monetary value with human worth and dignity. This wrong-headed equation flows directly out of the basis for Minimum Wage Thinking – human beings deserve, intrinsically, some specific amount of money per unit of time. The implication here is that human life has a monetary value that can be calculated. Regardless of the monetary or transactional value that a person brings into an employer-employee relationship, they are — according to this mindset — being paid for their mere existence, because they deserve it.
How then, with this understanding, can one account for the fact that some people are paid a great deal of money, while other people are paid minimum wage? In a realistic, commutative justice framework, the answer to this question is obvious: the employer thinks it is in their economic interest to pay this employee more than that employee. But in a universe that pays people because of their intrinsic worth, the only possible answer is that some people are intrinsically worth more than others.
This notion of deserving and undeserving is a long-standing cultural problem in the United States, and is so embedded that even many opponents of minimum wage increases defend their (usually angry) rhetoric by stating that low-skilled workers don’t “deserve” any more than they are currently getting.
Obviously, the idea that some people are intrinsically worth more than other people, that some deserve more while others deserve less, is a perversion of both Christian morality and secular humanist ethics. And, while the temporal consequences of this error are felt primarily by the poor, it is largely the “deserving” rich who reap the rotten spiritual fruits.
The instances of tragically-comic irony in this whole affair are too numerous to dwell on, as is usually the case whenever there is a massive intersection between the Law of Unintended Consequences and the phenomenon of Pathological Altruism. One in particular that is worth noting is that (despite their origin in racist eugenic social engineering) our modern minimum wage partisans usually denounce both the massive class gulf that separates low-wage workers (and the unemployable) from the wealthy and the obvious difference in worth and value attributed to the exalted rich and the discarded poor. And yet, in an attempt to rectify the situation caused by all this inequality and denigration, they succeed only in reinforcing the destructive notion that one’s material wealth is related to one’s human worth.
It is not only that Minimum Wage Thinking stratifies the perception of human value in a quantitative manner (some are worth more or less), but also in a profoundly qualitative manner as well. That is, it seems that our current system, in addition to communicating that some people are better than others, also communicates that some people are an entirely different sort of person than others are.
This happens in two very related ways.
First, as stated above, distributive justice belongs properly to God and secondarily to rulers. The activities of distributive justice belong to God first and foremost because God possesses all things, so any distribution must have its source in God, and secondly because God alone is capable of knowing what each person deserves and making both absolute and relative judgments about and between people. Distributive justice belongs to rulers only inasmuch as they manifest both of these qualities to a sufficient degree. Additionally, in the context of Aquinas’ time and culture, it seems clear that the human rulers who were compelled to engage in distributive justice continued to possess, essentially, those goods which they had given to others, just as God continues to possess the land regardless of who currently occupies and tends it. Thus, the rulers spoken of were kings of nations or fathers of households, ultimate temporal owners of the property they allow to be held by those under their care.
When this paradigm is applied to the interaction between workers and employers, it sets up an implicit ontological hierarchy in which the wealthy, along with the political class, stand in the place of God, as rulers over the population. This creates a power dynamic which is too easily exploitable. Moreover, because of the underlying assumption that rulers, like God, forever possess and own the goods they distribute, the poor are robbed of their sense of personal agency, especially with regards to the one activity which could bring them permanently out of poverty – the accumulation of capital. After all, why attempt to appear to accumulate and own something which is, in reality, owned perpetually by someone else?
Secondly, even if we lay aside the notion that the employer-class is perceived to stand in place of Divine Authority over the worker class, the qualitative difference is still profound. In a transactional model of the employee-employer relationship, it is clear that — at least for the purposes of the transaction — the two parties are equal in power and dignity. That is, each side has the ability to enter into the transaction or to refuse to do so. Each side can make promises to the other, and can be held objectively accountable to the fulfillment of those promises. Each side can request whatever it wants from the other, and each side can refuse any such request.
But in a worldview informed by Minimum Wage Thinking, there is no transaction. There is no negotiation, no mutual understanding. The balance of perceived power is skewed wholly toward the employer, and the employee must rely on an efficient third-party (the Government) for protection. It’s possible to see this understanding in play in almost any conversation about “worker’s rights” with the political supporters of “Labor.” There is an almost pathological refusal to see or discuss the relationship between employees and employers as being in any way analogous to the relationship between buyers and sellers in any other context. (The weirdest manifestation of this pathology is the constant reversal of supply and demand language found on both the right and left in concepts like “job shortage” or “job creation.”)
This artificial dichotomy between the wealthy who employ and the non-wealthy who seek employment creates an impassable gulf between these two groups of people, turning a temporary economic circumstance into a permanent psychological reality. Thus we see how imposing an artificial valuation onto human beings, and insisting as a matter of justice that all people intrinsically deserve to receive some benefit which naturally would accrue to them only in exchange for equal value, perverts both justice and value, reducing the human being to little more than a “wage slave.”
It is precisely this mechanism which is also at work in modernist and liberal conceptions of salvation, particularly those incarnations of Universalism which hold that all people are saved simply because God created them good, and therefore all are deserving of heaven.
This idea, which purports to exalt humanity and individual humans as worthy – and which self-consciously stands in contrast to an orthodox understanding of sin and redemption – succeeds only in diminishing any true understanding of our real worth and value, and alienating us from the God who poured out His divinity and laid down His life so that we may be no longer slaves, but friends and heirs.
If we deserve salvation, then God – to whom belongs distributive justice – is obligated to provide it to us. There is, then, no mercy to temper justice. There is no relationship, only requirement. Critically, there is no transaction.
Aquinas, in the passage referenced above, makes it clear that commutative justice is not proper to God, because God does not engage in commerce:
Commutative justice […] directs exchange and intercourse of business. This does not belong to God, since, as the Apostle says: “Who hath first given to Him, and recompense shall be made him?”
In an absolute sense, this is accurate. And yet, the whole mystery of the Christian faith is that, through Christ, God does all sorts of things that do not belong to Him. He is born into time, he suffers and dies. Between those events, He places Himself lower than us, becoming a servant.
St. Paul had little trouble using the language of transactions to explain salvation, telling the church in Corinth that they (and all of us) have been “bought with a price.” But today, for a wide variety of reasons, we shy way from this language.
I am suggesting here that a transaction — between ourselves and God — is a legitimate and worthwhile metaphor for the giving and receiving of God’s saving grace.
There are legitimate concerns about employing this metaphor – particularly the danger of suggesting that grace and salvation are earned by us. There is also, unfortunately, a strong bias in our present culture against the notion of transactions at all – a sad result of progressive anti-capitalist rhetoric.
Regarding the danger of suggesting that salvation is something which has to be earned, we must go back to the problem presented by a Minimum Wage understanding of employment and pay. We typically talk about earning a salary, or earning our wages through our work. This is convenient shorthand in everyday life, but it carries with it the suggestion that by doing some task we then deserve to be paid some amount of money. In fact, that is precisely how most people understand employment. It is, however, completely inaccurate.
The simple act of writing a novel, or balancing some accounting books, or mowing a lawn, or developing a piece of software, or any of the other things which people find to do for employment, does not earn anyone anything. No amount of work or labor causes a person to deserve to receive any amount of money. Rather, we receive money through transactions in which some person (or organization) gives us money in exchange for some perceived value we provide to them. We might provide that value in the form of lawn mowing or software writing, but we are not paid because we mowed the lawn. We are paid because someone else, who was able to pay us, felt it would be valuable to them for that lawn to be mowed.
It is the transaction that gets you paid, not the labor.
If we understand that, and understand what a transaction is, the concerns over the inappropriateness or danger of this metaphor simply fall away.
So what, then, is a transaction?
A transaction is an exchange of value between two people. For all the paranoia surrounding buying and selling, for all the corrupting influence of money and power, the heart of all commerce is a transaction in which two people each give the other something voluntarily; something which each recipient perceives as more valuable than the thing they gave away.
In all times and in all places, transactions have knitted communities together and have bridged the gulf between one society and the next. Whenever and wherever inequality of persons has been sanctioned and enforced by government authorities, the ability for legally unequal people to transact business with each other has been curtailed or prohibited. Transactions — free exchanges of value between equal people — are a fundamental characteristic of healthy human communities. They should be seen in a fully positive light, and conceptually worthy of being employed in the service of salvation theology.
And here is the transaction that takes place between ourselves and God: we give our lives to God, and God gives to us salvation and grace.
But if we accept the heresy that we are worthy of salvation, that we deserve it, then nothing about this exchange is miraculous or even meaningful.
In this theological version of Minimum Wage Thinking, God is obligated (by whom?) to provide a benefit to us. Since this benefit comes regardless of what we give to God, one must assume that any value we bring to God is meaningless. In other words, we are without value before God. By claiming a false worth, we declare that we are truly worthless.
Moreover, just as the paradigm of Minimum Wage divides the employer and employee by replacing commutative justice with distributive justice, so too does this type of Universalism enforce a distributive relationship between us and God, a relationship such as that between a ruler and those ruled. But, however proper and right that relationship is, God has chosen to transgress the bounds of what is proper for the Almighty- pitching His tent among us, washing our feet like a slave, embracing us as friends, and promising us that we shall be like Him.
For all the feel-good arguments about the intrinsic worth of human beings, there is no reasonable way to believe that we deserve such lavishness and affection.
Rather, we can imagine that God has engaged with us in a transaction, and understand just how much God values us.
If we have received salvation and grace from God, we have received something of infinite and eternal value. And this must mean something quite amazing about how God views us.
Whereas assuming our own worth ultimately denies it, accepting the fact of our unworthiness exalts us. For, in the transaction wherein we receive all that God has to offer, we give to God the only thing we have that He values.
God allows us to enter into a relationship that is fundamental to human flourishing, to approach the throne of heaven as an equal to the One who has no equal, and finally to see our selves, our lives, as God sees and receives them – as infinitely and eternally valuable to Him.
This article was originally published on the author’s website. This slightly abridged version has been reprinted with permission.