There has been much discussion this week surrounding the effects that Seattle’s minimum wage law has had on job creation (see PowerBlog posts here, here and here). Is it time for those Catholics who have supported substantially raising the minimum wage in Seattle and other cities to rethink their position?
In January of 2014, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote a letter to the United States Senate that urged Congress to consider any legislation that would increase minimum wages across the country. The following year, the USCCB reiterated its support for higher minimum wages in a subsequent letter to Congress.
Back when the Seattle council first announced its plan to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15, Acton Institute’s Senior Editor Joe Carter said, “anyone who isn’t already convinced that increasing the minimum wage has a detrimental impact on employment and harms minority workers will, in a few years, have solid proof.”
Well, a few years have passed, and we now have that “solid proof.”
As Philip Booth asserts in Catholic Social Teaching and the Market Economy, Catholics should constantly evaluate Catholic social teaching to ensure that it does not undermine the very objectives it aims to achieve. This is not to say that Catholics should strive to undermine the moral and theological authority of the Church, but that they should critically look at social teachings surrounding matters of economic and social policy.
In the same book, Thomas E. Woods suggests that free-market Catholics have a right, even a duty, to object to the instrumental rather than substantive features of Catholic social teaching. In other words, although all Catholics should agree on the same outcomes, they are free to disagree on the means used to achieve them. This conversation is necessary because, in a complex system, intentions have consequences that should be held to the same moral standards as the intention itself.
Therefore, the best way to achieve the morally indisputable goal of enabling the poor to live in dignity, which minimum wage laws ostensibly seek to promote, is by considering the realistic consequences of such legislation. So the authors of the USCCB letter in support of a higher minimum wage were right in saying “we write not as economists or labor market experts, but rather as pastors and teachers,” for that is where their authority lies.
Pope Leo XIII recognized this in Rerum Novarum when he said, “If I were to pronounce on any single matter of a prevailing economic problem, I should be interfering with the freedom of men to work out their own affairs. Certain cases must be solved in the domain of facts, case by case as they occur.”
Minimum wage is such a case, and the evidence is clear.