My colleague Jared Pincin and I have taken to the pages of the Newark Star-Ledger to make an ethical case against President Obama’s proposal to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.00:
In addition to the economics, think of what the minimum wage says ethically. It tells low-skilled workers that they are not allowed to work. Imagine a teenage boy who because of his lack of skills and work experience can only produce $6/hr. of value for an employer. Even the most kind-hearted folks can’t afford to pay someone $9/hr. to produce only $6 of value. That’s not financially sustainable. But, if someone could hire him at the $6 rate, he may eventually learn valuable skills that would make him a better, more productive employee. It is important for young people and poor people to have a chance to work at a low paying job in order to build the skills and experiences necessary to get a better one. The minimum wage says: you’re not a very effective worker, so we’re not going to let you work at all.
According to the BLS, the teen unemployment rate is currently 23.4 percent. Shouldn’t we make it easier for them to work, not harder? Labor, in all spheres of life, whether “economically productive” or not, is dignified and dignifying to the worker. As Pope John Paul II wrote in Laborem Exercens, through work man “achieves fulfillment as a human being.” As a society, we should seek to affirm the goodness of honest work.
As Nathaniel Peters observed, summarizing a recent editorial from Arthur Brooks, conservatives must not only care about those in need, they must “make the public argument that what they believe and work for is good for the poor.” If we are going to be economic conservatives, we should be so because it is humane. To be humane ascribes dignity to man and ultimately to the creator whose image man bears. Efficient economic organization is not an end in itself. What is good must be the goal.
Others have been sounding a similar note on the minimum wage. A recent Wall Street Journal editorial concludes “It’d be nice to think that some Republicans, even one, would make the moral case that the minimum wage hurts the poorest workers.”
Laborem Exercens provides a beautiful and jarringly realistic assessment of work. After noting both the creation mandate to “subdue the earth” and the toil and hardship we encounter because of the fall of man, Pope John Paul II wrote,
And yet, in spite of all this toil—perhaps, in a sense, because of it—work is a good thing for man. Even though it bears the mark of a bonum arduum, in the terminology of Saint Thomas, this does not take away the fact that, as such, it is a good thing for man. It is not only good in the sense that it is useful or something to enjoy; it is also good as being something worthy, that is to say, something that corresponds to man’s dignity, that expresses this dignity and increases it. If one wishes to define more clearly the ethical meaning of work, it is this truth that one must particularly keep in mind. Work is a good thing for man—a good thing for his humanity—because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfilment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being’.