Acton Commentary

The Minimum Wage: A Denial of Freedom and Duty


In an interview conducted by Faithful America , a website affiliated with the National Council of Churches , a man named Dan expresses some of the hardships faced when working for a minimum-wage job. “A lot of times you don't get to pay your bills,” he says. “A lot times you just stick them back, you're usually in debt. You usually don't ever get them paid.”

This sort of picture of the hard-working but struggling family man is consistently invoked in political debates about the minimum wage. “We're a proud bunch of people. I mean I go out and I give it my all. I'll tell you there ain't no slacking down. If there's a job to do I do it,” says Dan.

In his second epistle to the Thessalonians , the apostle Paul sets down a moral principle: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” But men and women like Dan are clearly willing to work, and so Paul's words seem also to imply the opposite positive principle, something like, “If you will work, you should eat.”

While I believe that this latter proposition is true, it does not necessarily follow that the government should be the agent responsible to bring it about. A good way to think about the wages of work is to consider them as the price placed on the labor by mutual agreement between the employer and employee. The price of work, then, is an important indicator of the value attributed to the work, and a freely joined contract ratifies this price.

Spheres of Sovereignty

Dutch statesman and Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper acknowledged this when discussing what role the government has in addressing these kinds of social matters. Writing in De Standaard , a newspaper he founded, Kuyper states, “The question is whether the government may directly interfere in questions involving labor. Or do the authorities overstep their bounds when they create labor or reduce competition, raise wages or shorten the work-week, and in general support manual labor by making it available only under such conditions which ensure that the manual laborer is also respected as a human being ?“

Kuyper's answer is that the government does not have an ultimate and final right of intervention in these matters, because the relationship between employer and employee has its own divine sanction. “We believe it beyond doubt that the government does not have this right, at least not in the absolute sense. State and society are not identical. The government is not the only sovereign in the country,“ he says.

Specifically regarding the question of adjudicating the appropriateness of wages, Kuyper wonders, “Should the State allow any kind of contract, or do the authorities have the right to stipulate that every contract dealing with such matters must presuppose or include certain conditions? Then the next question: is it within the government's power to set a punishment when such contractual conditions as she deems essential have not been followed?“

Again answering these questions in the negative, Kuyper says, “As this proposal attempts to intervene directly in a domain that is sovereign in its own sphere and governed by law, we think that a first step has been taken on a road that will leave every sphere of society at the mercy of the magistrate.“ In this way, Kuyper sees direct government intervention in setting the price of labor as invalid and on the road toward a socialist state.

Free to Choose?

Kuyper's concern for the sovereignty of the worker to determine for himself the wages for which he will work is shared by economists who make arguments against minimum wage legislation. Jim Cox, for example, in his Concise Guide to Economics , has a brief section on the minimum wage in which he says, “What the minimum wage law does to the poor is to deny to them the same freely chosen opportunities others follow for their own well-being.” The self-determination of low-wage workers is undermined by state-imposed wage laws.

Cox goes so far as to call the minimum wage a “civil rights issue,” and says that “identifiable segments of society are being legally discriminated against--discriminated against because their low productive value places them in a position where they cannot legally choose the combination of wages and job training they may prefer.” Minimum wage legislation does not respect workers as human beings, as Kuyper might say, in that it does not allow them to determine for themselves what price they will accept for their labor. It denies them this freedom.

Part of respecting human beings is respecting their freedom of self-determination. And the idea that a minimum wage somehow respects human dignity is itself illusory, because an arbitrary ground-floor value is placed on human labor. If the inestimable value and dignity of the human person carries over into all human work, then by that logic any minimum wage is by definition far too low!

An element of the worker's freedom can be exercised in the pursuit of self-improvement. Dan, the minimum-wage worker, complains of many common jobs, “Even if you've worked there ten or twenty years a lot of times and you're just a labor man you're not going to go very far anyway. You'd be lucky if you worked twenty years to go from minimum wage up to seven dollars around here.”

Social Capital

If there were no other variables at play beyond time on the job, Dan could well be right. But as Jim Cox notes, this goes against our common experience. He writes that most people have “made wage gains once on the job, not by way of formal training but by way of learning and proving themselves on their jobs.” Indeed, much of the research about so-called “social capital” shows that a variety of factors play significant roles in determining a person's employment success. These include things like the development of social skills, a reliable work ethic, and familial support structures. Families and churches can have vitally important impact in these areas, enabling people to improve their economic standing.

The civil government has a role in justly and fairly enforcing the contractual relationship between employer and employee. It does not, however, have the absolute right to determine the specific nature of this relationship in any and all circumstances.

Human beings do have a right to a basic level of subsistence. In fact, Paul affirms this right to charity when he speaks of “the right to such help” ( 2 Thess. 3:9 NIV ). But the state need not be the guarantor of this. It is here where private charity and the church have to play an essential role.

The church's role in assisting those in material need is asserted over and over in the Bible: “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” ( 1 John 3:16-18 NIV ). It is also affirmed in the reality of the New Testament church: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need” ( Acts 2:44-45 NIV ). Intervention of the civil government into the sphere of labor in the form of minimum wage laws undermines both the essential freedom of workers and the divinely mandated duties of the church and family.