Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Justice in the Minimum Wage Debate

Brad Littlejohn


By Brad Littlejohn                                                                   

December 13, 2013

In recent months, and particularly in recent weeks, a series of campaigns and strikes by fast-food workers have put the issue of the minimum wage squarely back onto the national radar. The minimum wage, first established by law in 1938, began at the equivalent of $4.25/hr. in 2013 dollars (CPI adjusted) and rose to nearly $11/hr. (2013 dollars) by 1968. Minimum wage hikes roughly kept pace with inflation through the 1970s, but then stagnated for nearly 30 years, resulting in a minimum wage today of $7.25/hr., or only $15,000 a year on a full-time salary. Recent campaigns by fast-food workers have called for the wage to more than double to a “living wage” of $15/hr., while more sober proposals in Washington have put forth an increase to $9 or $10/hr.

Partisans on all sides have trotted out tired old talking points and slogans, with the apparent intent to score political points and discredit the opposition rather than to advance mutual understanding and do justice. Rather than trying to adjudicate all these claims in an issue of great economic and social complexity, I would like to suggest three pillars that should be part of any faithful Christian response: justice, prudence, and truth.

First, our starting point in this discussion must not be one of utilitarian pragmatism, but of principled justice. Too many discussions of the minimum wage, particularly on the Right, simply bypass this question and move straight to issues of dollars and sense, but in the present case, the demands of justice are fairly simple: (1) God created the fruits of the earth for (among other things) the material sustenance of all mankind; (2) God ordained labor as the means by which we appropriate the fruits of the earth for our use and sustenance; (3) as a corollary, since labor is a means, not an end, we are not meant to spend all our days and hours in working. 

From this, it follows that six days’ labor (and since we all have other work to do besides our salaried jobs, a five-day “work week” makes sense) ought to provide honest workers sufficient means to support themselves and their dependents for a week—assuming, at least, the society as a whole has sufficient resources, as ours surely does. Some Christian treatments of this question seem to start from the assumption that workers only “deserve” an amount proportionate to what they add to their employers’ productivity, but this is to reduce the value of human life to a cipher in an economic calculus (compare, for contrast, the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, Mt. 20:1-16).

Second, however (and this is where commentators on the Left are sometimes negligent), the pursuit of justice must always be guided by prudence. Utilitarian considerations are not our starting point, but neither can they be ignored, lest we blindly seek a “just” outcome for the poor in a way that will actually make their life worse. It may be that current economic and social realities are such that attempts to provide workers a “living wage” will backfire, specifically by employers less likely to hire low-skill workers at all. This should not prompt us to throw up our hands in resignation, but rather to redouble our efforts toward constructing the legal and ethical framework that will render just wages widely attainable, and supporting those who cannot get gainful employment.

Third, this discussion must be conducted in pursuit of truth. Advocates on all sides of the debate can distort the issues with oversimplistic punditry, failing to acknowledge the complex economic and moral forces at work. Commentators on the Right have lambasted progressives for not grasping the simple fact that raising the minimum wage hurts the poor by reducing employment. But there is no such simple economic fact, only a prediction based on flawed macroeconomic assumptions and data that remains inconclusive. Indeed, professional economists have deep disagreement and ongoing debate on the effects of the minimum wage on employment (though most, it must be pointed out, agree that the overall effect of a modest minimum wage increase would be positive). Progressives, on the other hand, have sometimes disingenuously spoken as though there is no evidence for a negative effect on employment.

Rightly pursued, this should be an honest debate among people equally committed to taking incremental steps toward justice for the disadvantaged, recognizing that the issue is complex and there will be tradeoffs to be managed. Although there are certainly naïve idealists among minimum wage proponents and hardhearted Scrooges among its opponents, there is nothing to be gained by automatically assuming the worst of our interlocutors; such hostility merely ensures that mutual understanding and political solutions will remain out of reach. 

-  Brad Littlejohn has just completed a Ph.D. in Reformation political theology at the University of Edinburgh. He writes frequently for a number of blogs (especially his own) on the history of Christian ethics and political thought and on contemporary Christian perspectives on politics and economics.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”