In the normal arguments that go back and forth about raising the minimum wage, it’s common for our side (the conservatives) to point out that raising it actually hurts unskilled, unemployed people by making it more and more difficult to get an entry level job. We also point out the unbreakable logic concerning how an artificial increase in an employer’s cost of doing business will lead to increased retail costs of good and services to everybody else. What we don’t normally get is that there are also unintended consequences of an increased minimum wage that actually hurt the people who receive it. That may not automatically make sense, but wait for the evidence below.
This article will consist of two separate portions. First, we’ll see the anecdotal evidence from SeaTac, Washington. Then, we’ll take a moment to think about how the teachings of Jesus Christ may be brought to bear on this topic.
So here’s some real-life stuff to chew on first:
A suburb of Seattle, Washington, called SeaTac, implemented a new $15 an hour minimum wage on January 1, 2014. By as early as May of that same year, evidence was already piling in that the increase actually resulted in harmful, unintended consequences for the very people it was supposed to help.
We’ll spare you the economic numbers and reference some anecdotal evidence instead. Assunta Ng, writing for Northwest Asian Weekly.com, shares her experience when asking minimum wage workers about it:
While attending an event at a SeaTac hotel last week, I met two women who receive the $15/hour minimum wage…I met the women while they were working. One was a waitress and the other was cleaning the hallway.
“Are you happy with the $15 wage?” I asked the full-time cleaning lady.
“It sounds good, but it’s not good,” the woman said.
“Why?” I asked.
“I lost my 401k, health insurance, paid holiday, and vacation,” she responded. “No more free food,” she added.
The hotel used to feed her. Now, she has to bring her own food. Also, no overtime, she said. She used to work extra hours and received overtime pay.
What else? I asked. [sic]
“I have to pay for parking,” she said.
I then asked the part-time waitress, who was part of the catering staff.
“Yes, I’ve got $15 an hour, but all my tips are now much less,” she said. Before the new wage law was implemented, her hourly wage was $7. But her tips added to more than $15 an hour. Yes, she used to receive free food and parking. Now, she has to bring her own food and pay for parking.
Get that? The ones getting the new higher minimum are not happy about it.
Like clockwork, when an election nears, the political left calls for increases in the minimum wage. And, like clockwork, a certain number of people who claim to be on the political right have no good answer for the call, and wind up supporting it.
What might the Bible have to say about minimum or “living” wage laws? No such thing existed, that we know of, in Bible days. So the Scripture never does comment about it directly. However, there are a few places that make it plain that the Bible would not allow such a thing.
In fact, the only place I have found that imposes a command on employers with regard to wages paid to their employees is Deuteronomy 24:14-15. It says,
14 Thou shalt not oppress an hired servant that is poor and needy, whether he be of thy brethren, or of thy strangers that are in thy land within thy gates:
15 At his day thou shalt give him his hire, neither shall the sun go down upon it; for he is poor, and setteth his heart upon it: lest he cry against thee unto the Lord, and it be sin unto thee.
The requirement here is for prompt payment of promised wages in exchange for work actually performed. The Apostle James affirms the sinfulness of holding back earned wages in James 5:4, while warning unscrupulous employers that such things call down the judgment of God. However, he does not go on to castigate those bosses for not paying their workers enough. The amount is not the issue, but the timing is.
The place in the Scripture that really outlaws the imposition of a minimum wage is Exodus 20:15. It says, “Thou shalt not steal.” (See also the parallel in Deuteronomy 5:19: “Neither shalt thou steal.”)
The issue is this: What God outlawed for individuals is not somehow magically acceptable for large groups, or for the federal government.
How do minimum wage laws violate the 8th commandment? By arrogating to the government the right to tell a man (in this case, an employer) how he must spend his own money.
We’d all agree that if I took twenty dollars from you at gunpoint and then ran off, that would be an instance of theft. But what if, at the point of the same gun, what I did was demand that you give twenty dollars to the guy who lives next door to you? Once you hand over the money, I’ll lower the barrel from between your eyes. You might well consider that you had just as surely been robbed of twenty bucks in the second instance as in the first. And you would be right.
If I physically steal the money and hand it to someone I think deserves it more, that’s not ultimately different than if I force you (by threat of violence) to hand it over yourself. I’ve still commandeered the right to say what will happen to your money.
Scripture sees the relationship between employer and employee as an agreement between the two of them, as we are about to see. It’s not materially different than the relationship that exists between the buyer and seller of goods in the marketplace.
If I have a widget to sell you, and you want to purchase it from me, the price you will pay is the price you and I agree ought to be paid. It’s that simple. If you think I’m asking too much, you are free to walk away and not make the deal. If I think you’re not offering enough for my widget, I don’t have to sell it to you. I’m free to invite you to find a better widget deal elsewhere.
Now, if you and I settle on a price for my widget and we’re both willing to make the deal, then what right would a government have to interject itself into our conversation and demand, either, that you pay two dollars more than we agreed, or that I sell it for two dollars less? The answer is plain. It has no such right. Where would a right like that even come from?
Similarly, if you are trying to hire me to do a job for you, you are free to offer me whatever payment for my time, expertise, skill set, and experience that you think is appropriate. And I am perfectly free to consider your offer and then accept or reject it, or bargain with you further, or whatever. If I think you’re not offering enough payment, I don’t have to take your offer. And if I counter that I want fifty percent more than you’ve offered, you have no obligation to go ahead and hire me at that higher rate. We’re both free to either walk away or actually conclude the deal. If we shake hands and agree to terms of my employment, it’s nonsensical to think the government would then have a right to interject itself into the middle of our private deal and say, “Wait a second. That’s not enough pay.”
In fact, the Bible explicitly affirms not merely the duty of the employer to pay what he has agreed: It goes on to affirm his right to only pay what he and his employee previously agreed to! His money remains in his own control right up until the moment that the law from Deuteronomy quoted above requires him to pay his workers.
This is clear from a parable that Jesus told. It’s in Matthew 20:1-15. This is a lengthy text, but it’s important to what we’re saying, so I’ll quote it here in full:
Matthew 20:1 For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard.
2 And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard.
3 And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace,
4 And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way.
5 Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise.
6 And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle?
7 They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive.
8 So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first.
9 And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny.
10 But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny.
11 And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house,
12 Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.
13 But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny?
14 Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee.
15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?
Let’s summarize what is here. God is pictured, as routinely elsewhere in the parables, as the owner of the vineyard. As the owner, he hires workers. Some were hired first thing in the morning to go and work in his vineyard for the day. They agreed to the wage of a penny for the day. Next, the owner hired others three hours later. Then again, others at three hours intervals. Finally, when there was only an hour left in the work day, he hired more to work that one hour.
When the workday was over, he began to pay the laborers, beginning with those who worked the least. The ones who worked only one hour, he gave a penny each. Those who had worked longer obviously observed this, and thought to themselves that he would pay them more than the penny they had agreed to in the first place. But he only paid them what he agreed to pay them, and what they (conversely) had agreed to work for.
These workers who had worked the longest were upset. They complained about it. It didn’t seem fair that some only worked one hour and got paid the same as those who worked twelve.
But note the answer the owner/Jesus gives to their complaint: I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? (V.13) Take your agreed upon wages and go your way (V.14) Or, paraphrased, isn’t it perfectly legal for me to pay what I want to whomever I want? (V. 15)
Now, we would grant that the purpose of the parable was not to teach about wages for hired workers. In fact, it was meant to teach that, within the kingdom of heaven, God will reward His workers as He sees fit, and it’s not up to us to complain about supposed inequities. But the point is, the parable would not be able to teach that at all if the more earthly elements of the story (about a vineyard owner paying workers) did not ring perfectly true in the ears of those who heard it!
The whole point of a parable is to say, “Look at how this stuff works over here (often, regarding farming and agricultural principles His listeners would’ve been familiar with.) You see that? Well, that’s a lot like how spiritual things work in My kingdom.”
The whole teaching falls apart if the earthly principle is not in fact correct. His hearers in that case would have reason to say, “Wait a second. It doesn’t even work like that in real life.”
In the parable above, the more earthly principle, the one that would have needed to be accepted as obviously true for the story to work as a teaching tool, is that an employer has a right as well as a duty to pay his workers what they agreed to beforehand as a term of their employment. The money he pays them with is his until he makes it theirs by paying them. And they (the employees) have no right to be upset with how he pays other employees, as long as their own contractual agreement has been honored.
Minimum or so-called “living” wage laws violate all of this by assuming, with no argument made or evidence produced, that the government is really the one in control of the employer’s money. The government has the right to tell the man what to do with his own money, or else face legal consequences, which could conceivably include jail time. They get to threaten him with loss of livelihood and liberty unless he does what they demand.
This is nothing other than extortion, theft. It is immoral, not because I say it is but because the 8th commandment says it is. Thou shalt not steal. Even if you’re the government. Maybe especially so.
It ought not be surprising that a concept that so directly violates God’s Law would result in economic harm. We will not reproduce the plethora of articles that a simple online search for “harmful economic effects of minimum wage laws” would produce. That is redundant. Our concern is not with whether advocates of such laws can produce favorable numbers showing how minimum wage increases help everybody (which they manifestly cannot do.) Our only concern is what obedience to God in this matter would look like.
In a society that really tried to obey God, the government would keep its snotty nose out of everyone’s private business dealings. We would all be free to buy, sell, trade, and negotiate deals without the Nanny State inserting itself. It would be this free, unforced, unthreatened negotiation that sets the prices for goods and services in the marketplace. And that would include the services that you and I may offer to an employer. If we don’t like his offer, we’re free to go shop our time and labor to another.
We may find a boss willing to pay us what we think we’re worth. Or, the marketplace may tell us (matter-of-factly and without any sugar-coating) that we’re not the hot commodity mom told us we were. In that case, we may need to either increase our value in some way, or bite the bullet and take what our skill set is really worth.
Some people think that’s scary, so they want the government to come and save them from it. But the government only saves you from the scary aspects of freedom by taking it away. And thus we get minimum wage laws.
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