On Just Wages, Work, and CST (Part II)

To see the first portion of the post, click here.  In this concluding section, we discuss the duties of the state, the difference between “just wage”, “living wage”, and “minimum wage”, and a few conclusions that are my own and thus open for argument.

The Duties of the State

The state has an obligation to defend the rights of both the employer and the employee. Each has the right to the property they have worked to acquire, and so the state must ensure that right is met. It has the obligation to defend the employee when the employer offers unjust wages or reneges on his contract, and it has the obligation to defend the employer from unjust harm from employees. This harm can come in the form of breach of contract, theft, or strikes that cause more damage than good. The state also has the obligation to avoid creating situations in which the employer can abuse his employees, and the state also has the obligation to refrain from crippling employers by favoring inflated wages the employers cannot afford to pay.

These obligations strain against each other and demand focused attention. When the state has the obligation to ensure an employee receives a just wage, it must also be attentive to ensuring that the employees are not so gravely overcompensated that the employer’s livelihood is harmed. Similarly, when the state is obligated to interfere to end abuse on the part of employers, it must not then create a situation when the employers are powerless before their employees’ demands.

Finally, the state has the obligation to provide for those unfortunates who are incapable of working themselves, have no one to provide for them, and have no opportunities to hire onto charity employment. However, the state also has an obligation to avoid fostering dependence whenever possible. No one will deny that certain peoples—the mentally ill, the disabled, the elderly that have no care-providers—are in a state where they have perpetual need, and are dependent on aid regardless of who provides it. But for those whose plight is temporary, the state must ensure that its policies in providing care do not nurture indolence and sloth.

Just Wage, Living Wage, and Minimum Wage

The responsibility for a just wage falls predominantly on the shoulders of the employer. It is he that must ensure that his employees receive just compensation for their labor. Secondary responsibility for a just wage falls upon the state, once it has been determined that the employer has been greatly remiss in his duties. In the past, the federal government of the United States has had no choice but to intervene in the widespread abuse of employees by employers. One of the efforts made to rectify the situation was to mandate a minimum wage.

In the years since, and especially recently, the argument about just wages has conflated just wage with minimum wage, and the two with a living wage. This has been a grave mistake and has done much towards obfuscating the issue and widening the divide between parties. It has also led to a trend of ignoring that man, in general, must work for a living, favoring instead the narrower, incomplete view that it is unjust for a man not to acquire property necessary for survival. Let us then be clear on what these these differing wages are.

A just wage is a wage offered equal in value for the labor provided. Different types of labor have different worth, and thus are justly compensated differently. Thus labor that requires no skills or prior training is justly compensated much less than labor that requires refined skills and years of training.

Minimum wage is a wage determined to be equivalent in worth to untrained, unskilled labor. It is somewhat arbitrarily set, and in the United States is mandated federally regardless of the economic realities of particular regions. A federal minimum wage, therefore, should reflect the least compensation deserved by an unskilled, untrained laborer in the least economically demanding region in the nation. (For example, the average cost of living in many Wyoming towns is very low, and thus a worker need not earn as much. But the cost of living elsewhere, like New York City, is much higher, and thus even the cost of unskilled labor is much higher. It would be unjust, however, to force Wyoming employers to pay a minimum wage commensurable to New York City needs, because the unskilled labor in Wyoming simply is not worth that much.) States, counties, and cities can then mandate higher minimum wages depending on their economic conditions.

It should be noted that minimum wage is not necessarily a just wage. An employer offering minimum wage for a position that requires skill and training is offering an unjust wage. Even the federally mandated minimum wage is not necessarily just, even when the position requires no skill or prior training. As stated before, due regional economic factors, the compensation due even unskilled labor may be higher than what federal minimum wage mandates.

Finally, a living wage is that which an employee needs in order to provide a comfortable living. Citing Catholic ideals, this wage would enable an employee to provide for himself, his family, and save for emergencies, while still allowing time for leisure and religious observances. In accordance with justice, if an employer intends his employees to labor full time for him, the wages he offers should be commensurable to a living wage.

The bitter argument dividing parties and even Catholics is then clear in light of these definitions. The question is whether it is just to equate a living wage with the minimum wage.

On the one hand, the position advocated by the right, setting the minimum wage to a living wage is a grave offense against man’s right to private property. Raising the minimum wage can wrest more from an employer than he can afford, in essence denying him the right to what he has labored to earn. Moreover, raising the minimum wage is impractical in trying to grant the poor a living wage, for raising the minimum wage inflates the cost of labor, thus making the service the employer provides more expensive. This in turn either inflates the cost of living or diminishes the positions an employer can offer. In the former case, the inflation negates the advantage of higher wages, once again plunging minimum wage below a working wage, and in the latter, it matters not what the wage is if the poor cannot find employment.

On the other hand, the position advocated by the left, the concern about the right to private property should matter less than a man’s right to life. Indeed, the Catholic Church states in her Catechism:

2403 The right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise.

2408 The seventh commandment forbids theft, that is, usurping another’s property against the reasonable will of the owner. There is no theft if consent can be presumed or if refusal is contrary to reason and the universal destination of goods. This is the case in obvious and urgent necessity when the only way to provide for immediate, essential needs (food, shelter, clothing . . .) is to put at one’s disposal and use the property of others.

It should be obvious that refusing to equate minimum wage with a living wage is exactly the refusal contrary to reason and the universal destination of goods. The growth of individual businesses and the acquiring of massive quantities of wealth has to come second to ensuring that each employee, even if he can only work his whole life at minimum wage, can provide a living for himself.

To put it bluntly, the left in this regard is much closer to Catholic social teaching than the right. The simple argument I have briefly sketched here is devastating to the position advocated by the right. And I would continue to add to the left’s argument along the following lines. Recall that the ends do not justify the means. Even if keeping minimum wage low does result in more jobs, it is still not justifiable if the end result is to ignore the dignity of men by reducing the poor to cogs in a capital-producing environment.

However, the position of the left has to be tempered by a number of concerns. The first is whether or not all wage-earning positions are expected to provide a living for the employee. Obviously this is not the case. Various positions are meant either for part-time employment, or are temporary in nature.

Jobs of the former sort are often aimed at people such as teenagers seeking experience, but who also have no great financial obligations of their own, or secondary-income earners who only intend to provide supplemental cash. Many of these jobs require no skills, and thus justly do not offer much by way of compensation. To force employers to offer a living wage for this work forces these jobs out of the hands of those seeking experience or a side income, and into the hands of those looking to make a living from the work.

Positions of the latter sort tend to be probationary in nature. While the employer tests an employee to see if the employee is suited for the job, he offers less money in compensation, but once the employee has proved suitable, he increases wages.

The second concern the left needs to bear in mind is that it is not necessarily just for an employee to step into a business off the street and immediately earn all he needs. While there are good arguments for this to happen, it also runs dangerously close to violating man’s obligation to toil for a living. Part of that toil could involve, and perhaps even needs to involve, proving oneself capable, reliable, and diligent.

The final concern for the left is that practicality of policy does have to come into play. While the right has to be cautioned that good ends do not justify evil means, the left needs to remember that good intentions can have ill effects. Minimum wage should be rightly adjusted regularly to reflect the value of unskilled, untrained labor. However, it should never be adjusted too high, given the negative consequences. (And there are negative consequences for setting the minimum wage too high, else we could set minimum wage wherever we wanted and everyone could live in luxury.)


The question of addressing just wage can only be resolved by keeping into account the fullness of Catholic social teaching and maintaining a diligent watch on economic factors. A man’s right to private property is not necessarily inviolable, but man’s obligation to work and to be just compensated for that work makes the issue of private property a vitally important one. Resolving the conflict of man’s obligation to work for a living in light of certain individuals being unable to work for a living places man’s right to live first, provided doing so does not foster unnecessary dependence.

The question of employers offering a just wage cannot ignore the true value of the labor involved. While employers are obligated to offer a just wage, that does not force them to offer a living wage, provided that the labor is not intended for an employee to support himself without supplement. Thus there is a strong argument against equating minimum wage with a living wage. An employer can never lose sight that he offers employment for two reasons: to provide an employee with the opportunity to labor for wages, and to provide the community with a service. Since man must work for a living, an employer has a greater responsibility to provide employment from which an employee can make a living, but the employer nevertheless must be permitted to avoid endangering his livelihood as well.

Determining the exact minimum wage is matter of monitoring economic conditions, and there is a strong argument that minimum wage should regularly increase as the cost of living increases. However, forcing minimum wage too high places an unjust burden on employers. Just as an employee expects just compensation for his labor, an employer expects just labor for the wages he pays. In order to compensate for an unjustly large increase in the mandated minimum wage, he is just in expecting more from his employees and offering few positions.

The state is the final line of defense in the care for the poor, but the state has an obligation not to make matters worse in its efforts to discharge its duties to the poor. The only way to ensure that the state does not exacerbate problems is through honest examination of history and vigorous debate.

And of course, by keeping in mind Catholic social teaching.

More to explorer


  1. The argument against the minimum wage is not so much that it violates the the sacred right of private property or freedom of contract as that (to the extent it has any effect at all) it serves to increase unemployment, and thus hurts the very people it is intended to benefit. You seem to recognize this (with your comment about the folly of just raising the minimum wage to the point where we can all live in luxury) but you don’t follow the reasoning through to its natural conclusion.

  2. As BA said, I think the main question surrounding the minimum wage is whether it’s better to have more jobs that pay less or less jobs that pay more (with higher prices for everyone). I do not have a strong opinion either way on the answer, but I don’t think it is obvious that a minimum wage is always the best approach.

  3. Yes, I did seem to forget to mention that vitally important aspect of minimum wage. For those who would like to read a little more on it, there’s an excellent post over at Catholic Exchange. I’ll see if I can’t do a little digging to have some facts on minimum wage increases and the harm it does to the economy when not handled well.

  4. The utter nonsense of Catholic Social Teaching, with its implied socialist/totalitarian goals, is why I left the Church. It is this nonsense that impoverishes the backward nations of the world and enslaves a billion Chinese. No member of the hierachy has any concept whatever of economics or what elevates people above the feudal muck the Church is mired in.

  5. Bob, that’s absolutely fascinating, especially considering that CST states:

    1) A well-regulated free market (one that has some oversight to prevent abuses like monopolistic price-jacking) is the most consistent with human nature, directly corresponding with man’s need and obligation to work for a living, man’s right to private property, and man’s interaction with his fellow man;

    2) Socialism is a grave evil

    3) Charity and the care for the poor and needy is best accomplished locally first, and from the state as only a last resort.

    If you left the Church because you felt it taught socialist and totalitarian goals, I suppose that’s okay, because those views are objectively wrong.

    They just aren’t what the Church teaches.

  6. Bob – It seems to me that systemic corruption, a lack of respect for the rights of individuals, and a failure to consider the obligation we have to care for the weakest members of society is more characteristic of impoverished nations than an adherence to Catholic Social Teaching. There is very little evidence that Catholic Social Teaching is responsible for the enslavement of ‘a billion Chinese’ people.

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