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The Minimum Wage: A Denial of Freedom and Duty

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In this week’s Acton Commentary, “The Minimum Wage: A Denial of Freedom and Duty,” I look at the concept of minimum wage legislation from the perspective of the employer/employee relationship.

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 Paul’s words seem also to imply the opposite positive principle, something like, “If you will work, you should eat.”

Even so, I argue, it does not follow that the government should be the guarantor of this reality. Drawing in part on the thought of Abraham Kuyper, I find that “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.”

Throughout the commentary, I address some of the concerns raised in an interview conducted by Faithful America, a weblog associated with the National Council of Churches. Faithful America talked with man named Dan, who gave his experiences of working for and living on the minimum wage. A transcript copy of the interview is pasted in below the jump (the audio is available here).

Dan: The only thing I can say is that if we wasn’t in a rural area around here, we would not be able to make it. We would all be on welfare, and we would all be…it’s hard to tell. I mean, I work for myself and I know that it’s hard just to make it just working for myself. But yeah, minimum wage, I know I’ve worked a lot of minimum wage jobs and once you pay your bills you pretty much, a lot of times you don’t get to pay your bills.

It’s sad, but if we didn’t live in this area where we could have a garden, where you could go hunting or fishing, and a lot of people do that, and have something like that to put meat on their table and food on their table, I tell you what there’d be a lot of starving people. And there are a lot in West Virginia that lives from hand to mouth. And a lot of people that lives in town, they don’t have that money even if they do work they’re still getting assistance from the government or the state just to live.

Q: What do you when the bills come in?

Dan: A lot times you just stick them back, you’re usually in debt. You usually don’t ever get them paid. It depends on what it is. It used to they couldn’t cut your electricity off or your gas or whatever you had. But now they just come and shut it off. They’ll just shut your water or shut your electricity. But yeah when the bills come in you just got to knuckle down and make the best of it.

Q: Do you have children, Dan?

Dan: Yeah, I got a little boy.

Q: What do you tell him?

Dan: Well, you make it a game or whatever and say, “Well, the electricity’s off,” or he shouldn’t even be concerned with it, so you just sort of make it a game, like we’re camping or something and you just make up something fun out of it. The way I feel about my kids come first, I’m going to make sure I take care of them, take care of my boy. 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. My dad always told me, you go up to demand a job you do the job. 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.

Q: What do you hope for your son?

Dan: A better life than I got. I’d like to be able to leave him a piece of land and a house where he can have a good job and go to college and be something. But the way it is here, like I told him yesterday, there was no way I could go to college because we didn’t have any money to go to college. And I told him I said if there was any way possible I’m going to get you into college and get you to make something of yourself anyway and go up and be better off than I am.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Jan Wnek

    It sickens me to hear such trash coming from an "institute" founded by a so-called Catholic priest. Go feed your nonsense to those who labor and produce goods for 75 cents that are then sold for $190 (e.g. Nike), where a Tiger Woods earns more in endorsing the product in one year than the entire labor force for the company in Indonesia does producing it. All I can say is, all you apologists for the Robber Baron Renaissance had better pray to Mammon that US Space Command puts all of its weapons up in space quickly enough to vaporize 75%% of the world’s population (which is what they plan to do by 2020) because otherwise, your heads will be handed to you on a platter……and I won’t be one to stand in the way of karma.
    I would have more respect for Sirico if he divested himself of the collar and put on a business suit like the corporate capitalist apologist he is. Mind you, I consider communism and socialism akin to corporate capitalism – all are evils which must be exterminated and replaced by proprietary capitalism.

  • Pauli

    I’ve always wondered who all the married men with families are who are making minimum wage. I’ve never met one — I know poor people who don’t make a lot, but the only real min. wage folks I know are high-school kids living at home and some college kids, maybe. I’m not doubting that these people exist , but the fact that the minimum wage article on Faithful America fails to report the number of families affected leads me to believe that it’s not very large.

    <a href="">Pauli</a&gt;

  • clay bryant

    To Pauli’s comment,trust me,they’re out here.It has a lot to do with the circles you travel in.I’m a realist enough to know that the numbers are in the millions but even one is one too many.
    Kuyper’s remarks are so far offkey,I can’t believe it.He assumes that everyone has the oratorical ability to raise themselves up over the control of unscrupulous business people.I guarantee that even in America,if you lowered the minimum wage to 2 dollars an hour,someone would take advantage of someone if we didn’t have "watchdogs".
    It has never affected me but I can give you alot of stories(true ones),not the Michael Moore half-truths type,where people have ,because they know someone is between the proverbial rock and a hard place have thrown out "morsels"to people because they knew they could get away with it.Witness where some workers(we’re all God’s children,remember)have to live in apartments or homes 7 or 8 together just to pool money to cover basics and have a little left over for non-essentials.I’ve seen that out in Suffolk County on the end of Long Island where some people can’t imagine that theres someone living within 5 miles living like that,the groundskeepers with the "contractors"just show up in the morning but as property owners say"Can’t believe they charge me so much to get that done".
    Never put down someone unless you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.
    One last thing,on Michael Moore.Never was more truth ever spoken when Katy asked him on the Today Show,"Why did you make that movie".
    Michael’s reply,"Because I wanted a bigger yacht".Enough said.
    Like Mr. Kuyper,some people just want to "hear themselves"and have never really been down in the "trenches".

  • Jan,

    If Nike’s cost $120 instead of $190, do you think workers would get the $70 difference? Don’t you think that $70 goes towards paying others in the value stream, say, shippers for example, or the guy that hangs the Nike sign on Times square, or any other uses that Nike sees fit.

    Imposing your business methods on others seems quite cruel. If you have some particular expertise in shoe manufacturing, what is it that stops you from making shoes? Go ahead! I’ll be the first to buy your shoes.


  • Fr Paul Grant

    "any minimum wage is by definition far too low!"
    I thought this a rather silly way of arguing against minimum wages. In your article You argue that it does not make sense to have a minimum wage but the above statement would seem irrelevant.

  • Pauli

    Clay Bryant: "To Pauli’s comment,trust me,they’re out here. It has a lot to do with the circles you travel in."

    OK — so groups like Faithful America better start doing some actual research and show epidemic numbers. Otherwise I’d rather see private citizens be the "watchdogs" rather than the government.

    Clay Bryant: "Never put down someone unless you’ve walked a mile in their shoes."

    Uhhh… been there, done that. Not all the poor in America stay poor. And we’ll take care of the ones who do.

  • Ben Spalink

    It seems to me that the principle of sphere sovereignty only works in a context where it is already being applied. As it is, there is a such an array of sphere interferance at work in this country that applying this principle to the specific issue of minimum wage control might do more harm than good when other interferences have already significantly decreased the quality of life for the minimum wage worker in this country and in others.

    also, jan wnek, I think you should lighten up.

  • Robert

    You know what I love? I love people who will slam people or organizations but not propose a fix. Usually folks like that are anarchists.

    If you work, you get paid. If you don’t work, you don’t get paid.

    People also forget that waiters and waitresses in some instance only make 2.35 an hour (or there abouts) and the rest of their money comes from tips.

    Tips are based on how well they do their job. If they do a bad job, they don’t get a good tip or any tip at all.

    While I agree there are sports stars and CEO’s make ridiculous amounts of money for not doing anything. I do feel that you should be paid what your worth.

  • mike Mathea

    I believe as is often the case we avoid the Christian issue of Government and charity. As I recall we were told to give to God his and the government there appropriate share. I have never believed it is the government’s responsibility to be charitable and provide for the poor and low income. That is the specific responsibility each of us in our relationship with God. This acceptance of government usurping our individual responsibility is at the heart of the issue. Until we return to God what is his we will continue to have these silly discussions.

  • J. Ankrom

    Minimum wage implies a minimum value of labor, which in an honest society should be determined not by government, but by and between the contracting parties. In turn, this minimum value should represent a minimum cost to produce that same labor, and as skill, education, and experience increase, so should the minimum production cost, but this is always ignored.

    As such, the government insists there is no cost to producing any labor, evidenced by its insistence of taxing wages and salaries as income on the very first dollar earned.

    Likewise, the government exacerbates the cost of living with its debasement of the value of its currency issued. The current ‘purchasing power’ in real American dollars is a mere Five (5) cents.

    The problem is government monetary policy (Keynesian), not companies or employers.

  • rgergerger

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