Maximizing labor, minimizing wages
Religion & Liberty Online

Maximizing labor, minimizing wages

For this week’s Acton Commentary, ahead of Labor Day weekend, I write about “working harder and smarter,” lessons we can learn from Ashton Kutcher and Mike Rowe.

One of the implications of connecting hard work with smart work is that the difficulty of work on its own does not determine its value in the marketplace. It isn’t a question of how hard you are working, but how hard you are working in productive service. This is why Lester DeKoster writes,

The paycheck follows upon work. Often the harder we work, the larger the paycheck—though, as many workers know, this unfortunately is not an invariable law. That is because, as we shall see, work and wage are not related as cause and effect.

He refers to money as the “bait,” which induces us to work and which tends to direct our work in service to others. But the bait can become a “trap” if we conflate the meaning of work with the wage: “Work endows life with meaning because of what work is, not because of what it earns. Paychecks buy goods and services provided to us through the gift of selves by others, but money buys no meaning. Life’s meanings are not for sale!”

DeKoster goes on to explore the question of what a “fair” or “just” wage for a job might be, which resonates too with so much of the talk about possible increases in the federal minimum wage. Fast-food workers in particular continue to agitate for new legislation in conjunction with Labor Day.

After a brief survey of unsuccessful attempts to define a formula for determining what a fair wage might look like, DeKoster observes that practically the “wages we earn and the prices we pay” are determined, in a democracy at least, “in the free marketplace, where theoretically goods can be sold to the highest bidder, and labor power goes where wage and working conditions attract it.” In this kind of framework, which may not be perfect and yet may be the best thing we have, there are incentives to communicate what is valuable in our work to others through prices, including wages or the cost of labor.

I’ve said that the wage is something like a responsive “sign” or “token” rather than a definite measure of our labor. DeKoster describes work as a “gift” that is given “in exchange for the paycheck,” and for this reason “the measure of what wage you or I deserve is not really economic nor calculable nor scientific.” This is true in part because of the dynamic and mysterious nature of human work. As DeKoster concludes, “The issue in wages (and in prices and profits) is moral, because the basic factors involved are not things but persons, not only quantity but quality, not only the production of goods and services but in these the sculpting of selves.”

In this way, there is a sense in which the right view maximizes the significance of our work, our labor, while minimizing the significance of what we are paid, our wages. As DeKoster concludes, “The search for just wage and fair price is never-ending, for the market is always changing and so are the forms required of work.”

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Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.