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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.

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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.

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