What Is A Fair Wage?

People, especially those on the Left, love to talk about paying people a ‘fair wage’. This is usually code for ‘give people more money, you terrible capitalists’, but it does raise an important question, especially when Leftists in the church try to use the Bible to back up their demands. What does the Bible say about fair wages?

First, we need to define the term ‘fair’, because for a lot of people ‘fair’ just means ‘higher’, and they never consider the possibility that wages could be unfair in their favor. According to Webster’s, fair means: “consonant with merit or importance”. Since nobody uses the word consonant anymore, we could rephrase that as “in harmony or agreement with merit or importance” or “in accordance with merit or importance”. So a fair wage is a wage in accordance with the merit or importance of that for which the wage is paid.

With that definition out of the way, we can look at what the Bible says about wages, starting in 1 Timothy 5:17-18:

The elders who lead well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle the ox while it is threshing,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages.”

We see two principles at work here: people deserve to be paid for their work, and those who do better work deserve to be paid more. Pretty straightforward, but it doesn’t give us any kind of base pay rate.

In James 5:4, God condemns those who withhold wages that have been earned:

Behold, the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields, and which has been withheld by you, cries out against you; and the outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the ears of the Lord of armies.

But He’s not condemning them for not paying their laborers enough, what God takes issue with is that the ones He’s condemning have straight up not paid their workers at all.

So, we’ve established that people deserve to be paid for their work, we’ve established that withholding earned wages is a sin, and we’ve established that better work should get better pay. There is one more passage that warrants consideration. In 1 Corinthians 9:4-10, Paul defends his right to be paid for ministry:

Do we not have a right to eat and drink? Do we not have a right to take along a believing wife, even as the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas? Or do only Barnabas and I have no right to refrain from working? Who at any time serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not consume some of the milk of the flock?

I am not just asserting these things according to human judgment, am I? Or does the Law not say these things as well? For it is written in the Law of Moses: “You shall not muzzle the ox while it is threshing.” God is not concerned about oxen, is He? Or is He speaking entirely for our sake? Yes, it was written for our sake, because the plowman ought to plow in hope, and the thresher to thresh in hope of sharing in the crops.

Paul establishes, once again, the right to profit by one’s labor, including when working for someone else. He expounds on the principle of not muzzling an ox while it’s threshing to demonstrate that a worker has a right to a portion of the product of his labor, even when he works for another. Now, before anyone gets any ideas about workers of the world uniting, seizing the means of production, or other such nonsense, allow me to remind you that your wages are your share of that final product, delivered in the form of money. I’ve written more about how money is a claim on goods here, if you’re unsure of how a share in crops, for example, can be replaced with money instead of actual crops, but since I’m not trying to give War and Peace a run for its money, we’ll take it as a given that your wages are your share of the profits.

So, Paul has established that workers have a right to a share of the profits of their labor, but not how big that share should be. So how are we to know what is a fair share of the profits? Well, if we look back to the definition of a fair wage, we’ll see that a fair wage accords, or is equal to, the value or importance of that for which the wage is being paid. So the question comes down to who decides that value? Jesus’ parable in Matthew 20:1-16, while not intended primarily as a defense of free market capitalism, is nonetheless instructive in this regard.

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and to those he said, ‘You go into the vineyard also, and whatever is right, I will give you.’ And so they went. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’

“Now when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, starting with the last group to the first.’ When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. And so when those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, saying, ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day’s work and the scorching heat.’ But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go; but I want to give to this last person the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I want with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’ So the last shall be first, and the first, last.”

Now, it should go without saying that Jesus would not attribute any kind of unjust or unfair dealings to His Father; so we can safely say that the landowner, who is a stand-in for God in this parable, doesn’t do anything wrong. When the parable starts out, we see the landowner hiring some laborers. How does he go about this? He agrees with them on a wage; in this case, a denarius for a day’s work. He does the same with each successive group of workers, hiring them for the same amount of money. When everyone is paid at the end of the day and the first group of laborers starts to grumble, the landowner defends himself that he is doing no wrong, because he paid what was agreed. Keep in mind that this landowner is a stand-in for God in this parable, so he is indeed doing no wrong. He’s not exploiting the laborers by only paying them what was agreed, he’s not being unfair. So we can draw from this passage that a fair wage is one agreed to by both sides.

“Wait” you may say “that passage doesn’t say anything about the value of labor. You’re not answering the question.” Well, you’re partly right. Nowhere in the passage does Jesus mention the value of the laborers’ labor. There are two reasons for this: first, His point wasn’t a defense of free-market capitalism, and second, He assumed that His audience had at least a rudimentary grasp of basic economic principles, in this case the principle of relative value.
The value of something, whether a product or labor, varies depending on how useful it is to the person or persons to whom it is being offered, and how scarce it is. You live this every time you buy something. By paying your money in return for whatever you’re buying, you are agreeing with the seller that the item you’re buying is worth the amount of money they are selling it for. In other words, it is a fair exchange. The same thing applies when you take a job. When you take a job, you are agreeing to sell your labor, in the form of the stuff you do at your job, to your employer for an amount of money; this is your wages.

This is what the laborers did at the beginning of the parable when they agreed with the landowner on a wage of one denarius for the day. Each of the laborers valued the denarius that the landowner would pay them, more than they valued the effort they would expend earning it. The opposite was true of the landowner. He valued the work that the laborers would do, more than he valued the denarii he would pay them to get the work done. For the laborers, the denarius was worth the work, and for the owner, the work was worth the denarius. Thus, the agreement was fair to both parties.

Now, not everyone is going to make the same wage, because the amount of money someone is willing to pay you is going to depend on how much value your labor produces, and the simple fact is that some jobs produce more value than others. Having personally flipped burgers at McDonald’s, I can tell you that, while a burger-flipper does produce some value, he doesn’t produce nearly as much value as, say, a computer programmer. Both the flipper and the programmer save the end user of the product time and effort, but the programmer saves much more time and effort than the burger flipper; this is why game companies can charge up to $60 for a videogame, but McDonald’s can’t charge $10 for a Big Mac. I could make my own Big Mac in about 15-20 minutes, and it wouldn’t be that hard, even though I’m not a great cook. It would take me God only knows how many thousands of hours to make a computer game that was even remotely worth playing, even if I didn’t start entirely from scratch. It’s no big deal for me to spend an extra 20 minutes making a burger, but spending thousands of hours slaving away in front of a computer to make my own videogame holds no appeal to me. Since millions of people think the same way and are willing to pay more for a videogame than a Big Mac, thus making the videogame more profitable than the Big Mac, the programmers who made the game have contributed more value to their employer, who in turn provides value to the consumer, thus generating profit, than the burger-flippers at the McDonald’s where he had lunch. Thus, the employer will be willing to pay his programmers more than the restauranteur pays his burger-flippers, because the programmers’ work is more valuable to him, because it nets him greater profits. You can only sell your labor for what someone is willing to pay for it. Forcing them to pay more than they are willing to is unfair.

“But” you may object “what keeps an employer from paying his employees less than they are worth to him? You assume that the employer won’t try and keep as much profit as he can for himself.”

The answer is I do assume that the employer will try to keep as much money as he can. I also assume that the employees will try to get as much money as they can from the employer. This is why they need to agree on wages; so that all parties can reach a fair distribution of the proceeds of their collective labor. The enforcement mechanism God has ordained for this is not the government, but the free market. If an employer doesn’t pay a fair wage to his employees, they’ll leave him for a competitor who does. An employee who grossly overvalues their labor will be unable to find someone who pays the over-inflated wages they want, and have to sell their labor at the market rate. This forces both parties to work together to determine the value of labor and products, rather than one side imposing its will on the other.

Now that we’ve established the basis of what makes a wage fair, namely, that it is agreed upon by both parties, there’s one more principle that we, as Christians need to keep in mind: Treat people the same way you want them to treat you (Luke 6:31). This applies both to employers and employees.

For employers, this means being as generous to your employees as you would want them to be to you if your positions were reversed. For employees, it means not demanding your employer pay you more than you would be willing to pay someone to do your job. For a Christian, the question of pay isn’t about squeezing as much out of the other party as you can, it’s about coming to a mutually beneficial arrangement with another person.

Fans of big government won’t like this approach, I’m certain. Nevertheless, the Bible clearly teaches that workers should be paid a wage that is agreeable to both parties. If people really want a fair wage, that’s what they should advocate for; not government-mandated minimums.

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