Acton Commentary

The Minimum Wage, Family Values, and the Noted Christian Academic

During a recent visit to Twitter, I happened across a post from a noted Christian academic.  He had composed the kind of pithy remark which is tailor-made to launch a hundred admiring retweets.  Paraphrasing slightly, it was something like this:  “Conservatives, don’t talk to me about family values if you don’t endorse a minimum wage increase.”  I am sure that he thought it was a pretty high-powered zinger. 

The problem is that there is no necessary connection between family values and increasing the minimum wage.  First off, there is a vigorous, unsettled debate over the effectiveness of the minimum wage.  Economists differ substantially over whether it helps poor people, hurts them by reducing entry level job opportunities, or exerts little effect.  It would be entirely possible for a proponent of family values to rationally conclude that the minimum wage is counterproductive and to therefore take the position the aforementioned prominent Christian academic presented as completely at odds with a “family values” perspective.  This academic failed to take account of the fact that arguments about the minimum wage are not like arguments about something like gravity.  There are respectable and even compassionate arguments on both sides.

Second, the noted Christian thinker did not consider that there are fundamental questions about things like minimum wage laws.  What is a minimum wage law?  It is a demand, underwritten by the threat and/or use of government force, that employers pay no less than a stated amount for an hour of work.  It is entirely possible to think that such a power should not be wielded by the government of a free people and still be a caring person.  The retailer Hobby Lobby, for example, is well-known for paying substantially more than the minimum wage in its stores.  The owners of that corporation are devout Christians.  Would this academic suggest that the owners of Hobby Lobby be deficient in their family values if they paid their employees well above the minimum wage while opposing such an exercise of power by the government?  Perhaps they might rightly believe that if a government could dictate a wage, it could also dictate things such as the provision of birth control and abortifacients by a corporation whose owners conscientiously oppose the use of such products.  We have seen such a thing occur, have we not?

Third, the prominent Christian thinker seemed to embrace minimum wage legislation as a sort of panacea.  If law is so easy to use for wiping out problems of poverty through the stroke of a pen, then why not simply set a minimum wage close to $50,000 a year?  For that matter, why not dictate that every employee earn several hundred thousand dollars a year and enjoy 2-3 months of paid vacation?  We could end every social problem with nothing more than political will.  Of course, the problem here is that employers would not choose to hire people if they became such an expensive input.  As Jonah Goldberg has pointed out, if we ignore the concatenating consequences of our political decisions we will end up giving employers a massive incentive to do more of what they have already been doing, which is to use fewer and fewer people while employing more and more automation.  Investment dollars are like water, they flow where they are less hindered.  If we overuse our much vaunted political will to solve problems through mandates, we will chase away potential sources of prosperity.

There are other directions we could go with this complaint about the overconfident Christian academic tweeter, but at a minimum it is not too much to ask to insist upon a more rigorous consideration of the problems large government actions entail.  While the individual in question may not be moved to reconsider his position endorsing the minimum wage, he should absolutely have more sympathy for the analyses offered by his opponents for they are not frivolous, cruel, or irrational in nature.  The claim that support of family values naturally entails advocacy for increasing the minimum wage simply goes too far. 

Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D. is an associate professor of political science at Union University.  He is the author of The End of Secularism and Political Thought: A Student's Guide.