“The twin tracks of work and wage do not meet, and cannot be scientifically related. They are bridged by morality, not by mathematics.” -Lester DeKoster
Low-wage workers continue to picket and protest around the country, demanding an increased minimum wage, improved access to benefits, and better working conditions. The political rhetoric has followed accordingly, with Bernie Sanders calling for an increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and Hillary Clinton arguing for $12 (due to differing magic potions, no doubt). Simultaneously, widespread angst over “excessive” executive compensation continues to fester.
But alas, prices are not play things, and we do society no favors by trying to distort market signals according to our own arbitrary whims (whether $12, $15, $100, or otherwise). Given the history and trajectory of the American economy, we ought not be stuck in the mire of such minimum-mindedness, seeking to control and micro-manage our way to peace and prosperity through top-down mechanistic means. The path to prosperity is one of creation and contribution, planted with seeds of service and opportunity, where new wealth is a natural byproduct of access to the pond.
Yet throughout all this, “market signals” are simply signals, the discernment of which requires human conscience before and after and throughout. When we think about the intersection of work and wages, “listening to the market” is not where it stops, as critics of the free market wrongly assume. The baseline of actual prices in a complex economy is where things begin, and the Christian wage-setter must be careful and attentive to how things ought to proceed.
In Work: The Meaning of Your Life, Lester DeKoster explores these “twin tracks” of work and wage, noting that the proper bridge will not be built by arbitrary government edict, but by the art of “executive stewardship,” driven by God-given responsibility and God-directed conscience. “Work and wage draw together at the point where conscience functions,” he writes, “that is to say, work and wage tracks coalesce in persons making executive decisions.” When we inhibit the freedom of the human conscience, an inhibition of the economic order is sure to follow.
DeKoster devotes an entire chapter to this topic, an excerpt of which is available at the Oikonomia blog. Those who set wages have an “awesome obligation,” DeKoster writes, and their conscience must balance a host of factors, all pushing toward a variety of goals, including (1) the best product, (2) the best working conditions, (3) the best wage for everyone involved, and (4) “reflecting the best efforts at every job, to be sold at the lowest price compatible with the requirements.” In balancing all of this, the executive also heeds transcendent signals, whether through ethics or spiritual discernment.
In pursuing a just wage, “market forces” are surely a significant input, but the Christian executive is tasked with perceiving and discerning much, much more:
The twin tracks of work and wage do not meet, and cannot be scientifically related. They are bridged by morality, not by mathematics. And it is in the self-sculpting choices of wage and price scales that managers must make the twin tracks merge — under the all-seeing eye of God. It is here that justice, as defined by the will of the Creator and revealed in his Word, comes to bear upon the economy.
The executive who seeks to avoid responsibility for his choices by seeming to let the market, or what the traffic will bear, or what necessity will oblige employees to accept become his conscience is in fact putting his choices in the service of idols—and idolatry is no more acceptable to God in board rooms and executive suites than it is in the shadowed temples of paganism. Setting wages and prices, while keeping an industry or business sound and healthy, is far from easy. Failures occur. But conscience sets before managerial executives the goal of the ideal sketched above, challenging them to make their wage and price decisions with an eye fixed on justice. Such decisions sculpt selves destined for beatitude.
Wage-setters bear a heavy moral responsibility, and unjust wages demand an appropriate response. Whether in this life or the next, the consequences are sure to come. For the Christian, our focus has to remain on stewarding this bigger picture — economic, social, spiritual, and otherwise — and that task requires freedom, properly understood.
As we look to how our laws and policies might hinder or enhance this role, we should note that good economic artistry requires capacity, and that means having the imagination to allow for some brush strokes.