But Is It the Government’s Job to Ensure a Just Wage?

But Is It the Government’s Job to Ensure a Just Wage? October 4, 2016

Child laborers in Macon, GA, 1909, public domain image

Child laborers in Macon, GA, 1909, public domain image

But Alt!” a reader asks. “Isn’t the just wage a private contract between employer and employee? Does the Church really say that it is the State’s job?”

Well, you asked.

Now, if a man does not pay his hire a just wage, he commits a sin that cries to heaven for vengeance.

The catechetical tradition also recalls that there are “sins that cry to heaven”: the blood of Abel; the sin of the Sodomites; the cry of the people oppressed in Egypt; the cry of the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan; injustice to the wage earner. (CCC 1867)

This teaching the Church finds in James 5:4.

Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.

“But Alt!” “Is it really the job of the State to pass wage laws? Does the Church say that? Where? Is that not prudential judgment?

No, it is not “prudential judgment”; and yes, the Church does say that. Even Crisis Magazine, hardly a hotbed of Big Government apologetics, agrees that the Church says that. Fr. Robert Johansen says:

Workers are due their wages as a matter of justice. The Catechism tells us that “a just wage is the legitimate fruit of work” (2434). But a just wage is not that which will merely provide sufficient food, clothing, and shelter. To live at a subsistence level is to live at the minimum condition of human dignity, and, as St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in the Summa Theologica, “No one is obliged to live unbecomingly.”

“In the Catholic tradition,” Fr. Johansen goes on,

the state must, as the Catechism teaches, “defend and promote the common good of civil society, its citizens, and intermediate bodies” (1910). Furthermore, “the state has a responsibility for its citizens’ well-being” (2372). Toward these ends, the state has a legitimate role to play in the ordering of economic life.

“The state must.” “As the Catechism teaches.” The Church gives no room to wiggle on this point.

Pope Leo XIII writes on this in Rerum Novarum.

[T]he Church improves and betters the condition of the working man by means of numerous organizations; does her best to enlist the services of all classes in discussing and endeavoring to further in the most practical way, the interests of the working classes; and considers that for this purpose recourse should be had, in due measure and degree, to the intervention of the law and of State authority. (16)

Some, putting up the armor of political theory against the teaching of the Church, will object here that wages are a private contract. If a man thinks his wage is unjust, he can ask for a raise. Just like that! Or if his boss is a tightwad, he can find another job. Just like that! Simple. Bosses and magnates never exploited labor in the good old US of A, before there were laws to prevent it! That just did not happen. Not ever!

Leo XIII would find such thinking naïve. “The rich,” he says,

must religiously refrain from cutting down the workmen’s earnings, whether by force, by fraud, or by usurious dealing; and with all the greater reason because the laboring man is, as a rule, weak and unprotected. (RN 20)

He has no power to bargain without state protection. Only the civil law, in Leo’s view, has the power protect the laborer from an unjust wage. Only the civil law can make sure that the rich do not take advantage of the poor.

Pope St. John Paul II also writes on this in Centesimus Annus.

These general observations also apply to the role of the State in the economic sector. Economic activity, especially the activity of a market economy, cannot be conducted in an institutional, juridical or political vacuum. On the contrary, it presupposes sure guarantees of individual freedom and private property, as well as a stable currency and efficient public services. Hence the principle task of the State is to guarantee this security, so that those who work and produce can enjoy the fruits of their labours and thus feel encouraged to work efficiently and honestly. …

Another task of the State is that of overseeing and directing the exercise of human rights in the economic sector. However, primary responsibility in this area belongs not to the State but to individuals and to the various groups and associations which make up society. The State could not directly ensure the right to work for all its citizens unless it controlled every aspect of economic life and restricted the free initiative of individuals. [Now here is the key part.] This does not mean, however, that the State has no competence in this domain, as was claimed by those who argued against any rules in the economic sphere. Rather, the State has a duty to sustain business activities by creating conditions which will ensure job opportunities, by stimulating those activities where they are lacking or by supporting them in moments of crisis. (48)

This is the state’s duty, says John Paul II. It is not just what the state may do, but what the state must do.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church also speaks of the state’s role.

250. In order to protect this relationship between family and work, an element that must be appreciated and safeguarded is that of a family wage, a wage sufficient to maintain a family and allow it to live decently. Such a wage must also allow for savings that will permit the acquisition of property as a guarantee of freedom. The right to property is closely connected with the existence of families, which protect themselves from need thanks also to savings and to the building up of family property. There can be several different ways to make a family wage a concrete reality. Various forms of important social provisions help to bring it about, for example, family subsidies and other contributions for dependent family members, and also remuneration for the domestic work done in the home by one of the parents.

Did you see what I did? The CSD describes a just wage in terms of “the right to property.” I know of no conservative or libertarian who would deny that income is property, and that a legitimate function of the State is to protect the right to property. Even Ayn Rand says that. How such folks exclude a just wage from property rights, I can not guess.

The CSD continues.

The rights of workers, like all other rights, are based on the nature of the human person and on his transcendent dignity. The Church’s social Magisterium has seen fit to list some of these rights, in the hope that they will be recognized in juridical systems: the right to a just wage; the right to rest; the right “to a working environment and to manufacturing processes which are not harmful to the workers’ physical health or to their moral integrity.” (301)

And so on, including a right to unemployment and disability insurance, a pension, social security, and unions. But with regard to the just wage, the CSD also scoffs at any talk that this is a mere private contract.

The simple agreement between employee and employer with regard to the amount of pay to be received is not sufficient for the agreed-upon salary to qualify as a “just wage,” because a just wage “must not be below the level of subsistence” of the worker: natural justice precedes and is above the freedom of the contract. (302)

(Did you mark that last part? Natural justice trumps freedom of contract. Note that. But the CCD goes on.)

The economic well-being of a country is not measured exclusively by the quantity of goods it produces but also by taking into account the manner in which they are produced and the level of equity in the distribution of income, which should allow everyone access to what is necessary for their personal development and perfection. An equitable distribution of income is to be sought on the basis of criteria not merely of commutative justice but also of social justice that is, considering, beyond the objective value of the work rendered, the human dignity of the subjects who perform it. Authentic economic well-being is pursued also by means of suitable social policies for the redistribution of income which, taking general conditions into account, look at merit as well as at the need of each citizen. (303)

Some will object here that the person who serves you your fries at McDonald’s is not doing work worth $15 an hour. But the Church tells us that mere commutative justice is insufficient. A just wage is determined by more than “the objective value of the work itself” but by “the human dignity of the subjects who perform it.”

As much as abortion is an affront to “the nature of the human person and his transcendent dignity,” so is an unjust wage.

And is this the responsibility of the State? You bet it is.

351. The action of the State and of other public authorities must be consistent with the principle of subsidiarity and create situations favourable to the free exercise of economic activity. It must also be inspired by the principle of solidarity and establish limits for the autonomy of the parties in order to defend those who are weaker. …

352. The fundamental task of the State in economic matters is that of determining an appropriate juridical framework for regulating economic affairs, in order to safeguard “the prerequisites of a free economy, which presumes a certain equality between the parties, such that one party would not be so powerful as practically to reduce the other to subservience”. Economic activity, above all in a free market context, cannot be conducted in an institutional, juridical or political vacuum.

Above all in a free market, the Church says, economic activity can not be conducted in isolation from civil law to protect the rights of workers. And one of those rights is a just wage.

“It is necessary for the market and the State,” says the CSD, “to act in concert” (353).

In fact, the free market can have a beneficial influence on the general public only when the State is organized in such a manner that it defines and gives direction to economic development.

Does the Church tell us that the State must help ensure a just wage? You betcha.


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