When Religion Hurts
Most religious traditions throughout history have some concern for what is right and good. Moreover, those traditions typically hold that helping the poor is a moral imperative, because they are vulnerable and helpless to some extent. Religious organizations have a lot to contribute to improving the welfare of those at the lowest economic levels of society. It is right and laudable that they do. They have good intentions and aim to help
It is distressing, however, when religious leaders promote politicians to front and center as the saviors, using scriptural references to justify politics. The quotes cited typically are generalities forced into service of specific policy prescriptions for which they are not even relevant. Yes, you should love your neighbor. Yes, you should pay workers the wages you agreed upon. No, that does not mean you should use politicians with armed enforcers to impose your ineffective or disastrous programs at others’ expense.
Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, the Director for Public Witness of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and Rev. David Beckmann, the President of the Bread for the World Institute, co-authored a recent article entitled “What Scripture Tells Us About the Minimum Wage.” It puts in full view the economic ignorance that, as is common these days, masquerades as benevolent enlightenment. They say they want to lift people out of poverty. That is good. They imply, however, that economic laws do not exist, and that the political interventions they propose will have no negative consequences. That is not good. It is callous disregard for those who will be shut out of jobs, the young, the inexperienced, the least skilled.
What the Reverends and so many otherwise smart people propose is to make it illegal to engage in voluntary commerce with someone to do any kind of work, regardless of the willingness of the worker, regardless of the willingness or ability to pay, unless it fits the higher, arbitrarily-imposed pre-conditions. When I was a teenager, I worked for a not-very-prosperous farmer. It was often hard physical labor under difficult conditions. The pay wasn’t a lot, but it was a voluntary agreement. Was there anything unethical or wrong or exploitive about him paying me a small amount for the work I did? Absolutely not. I was free to work for anyone else who would hire me. Convenience and opportunity costs entered into the equation, even though I had no conception of it at the time, so I traded my labor for his cash, voluntarily.
In another instance, I was helping a relative scraping, prepping, and painting his house. He figured he would assist an unemployed person he knew by paying him to work. After the first morning, that person wasn’t invited back. We had to go over everything that he did. His level of productivity wasn’t worth the price.
These are simply anecdotes, but they demonstrate powerful economic principles. If I had insisted on a higher pay at the farm job, the price of labor I supplied would likely have reduced the quantity of my labor demanded to zero. Instead of making a higher wage, I would have made no wage. I was unskilled and inexperienced. My marginal productivity was low. The same thing occurred with the painting helper. His marginal productivity was low, and any wage was too high to pay him.
Regardless of good intentions and populist rhetoric, economic laws do ultimately prevail. Political manipulation, even when justified with religion, usually ends up hurting. People seem dismayed at high unemployment among the young and the unskilled. They shouldn’t be. It is the expected result of pricing them out of the market.