Skip to content
44 Comments
  1. Mark DeFrancisis permalink*
    July 28, 2008 10:38 am

    “Far from showing them to be irrelevant, the human dimension involved in labor markets make the economic arguments against the minimum wage even more pressing.”

    What a dreamed for conclusion for some!

    With all due respect, your arguments have been far from “pressing.” Maybe you can re-summarize them for me, as I have completely missed their cogency.

  2. blackadderiv permalink
    July 28, 2008 11:06 am

    The standard economic argument against minimum wage laws is that they decrease employment. To quote Krugman again, “what are the effects of increasing minimum wages? Any Econ 101 student can tell you the answer: The higher wage reduces the quantity of labor demanded, and hence leads to unemployment.”

    If the legal minimum wage is kept low enough, any effect the law has on employment will be small, and may even be drowned out by other noise from the economy. But we shouldn’t assume that in such a case the effects of the law will be benign. Low wage jobs are often a stepping stone to higher paying jobs later on, and things like minimum wage laws are often compared to knocking the bottom rungs off a ladder, making it more difficult for those at the bottom to climb their way out of poverty. Here, for example, is a study showing that “even as individuals reach their late 20′s, they work less and earn less the longer they were exposed to a higher minimum wage, especially as a teenager,” and that “[t]he adverse longer-run effects of facing high minimum wages as a teenager are stronger for blacks.”

  3. July 28, 2008 11:31 am

    I suppose there is something of a parallel here to abortion, if you’ll bear with me for a moment.

    Treating a person as nothing but a thing is always wrong, and utilitarian arguments about outcomes – ‘fewer abortions’ or ‘less unemployment’ – gloss over the fact that if the means to the end is unjust, the argument from outcomes – even when we stipulate it in a complex environment where it is hardly obvious that it is even true – is irrelevant.

    Mind you, every economic issue is a complicated complex of questions and speculative answers. But I do think it is intrinsically unjust to treat labor as nothing but a commodity, even though labor may have commodity-like attributes. See for example this post of mine, which neither economic progressives nor economic libertarians much appreciated. The Catechism expressly requires that in determining fair pay, the contributions and the needs of the particular worker must be taken into consideration.

    None of that makes a good argument for a minimum wage as a particular and rather blunt means to that end, of course, and I suspect that it is not a particularly good means to that end; but I don’t think invoking a ‘more unemployment’ consequence works as a counter given that we are dealing with a fundamental issue of the just treatment of human beings.

  4. M.Z. Forrest permalink
    July 28, 2008 11:37 am

    A lot of this assumes policy made in a vacuum or assumes malevolence on the part of policy creators. The minimum wage was instituted because there were people being exploited. It reminds me of the fiction we have created around child labor that we became so successful that we no longer tolerated children working. Child labor laws tended to follow industrialization in many countries, and so we get a chicken and egg argument. Was it the vast improvement in living conditions that ended child labor or was it the deplorable conditions on factory floors that ended child labor?

    From a business standpoint, one could look at labor as a commodity, and many do. Comparing steel to humans though, we do see a difference. The highest calling of steel is to be used in whatever application we use it. The highest calling of the man is the achievement of heaven and communion with God. And while prosperity has accompanied the god of materialism, the effects on the condition of man have not been good based on a number of measurements. The Quite Revolution in Quebec provides a nice base case in this regard. Prior to the Quite Revolution, Quebec was a predominantly agrarian society with a strong Church. After the Quiet Revolution, she is thoroughly modern and the Church is suffering. Divorce and abortion went from being unheard of to being legally ensconced.

  5. Mark DeFrancisis permalink*
    July 28, 2008 12:12 pm

    “Any Econ 101 student can tell you the answer: The higher wage reduces the quantity of labor demanded, and hence leads to unemployment.”

    Really? This is highly disputable.

    Do they depend upon the same research as the business lobbies?

  6. Mark DeFrancisis permalink*
    July 28, 2008 12:14 pm

    And I know that Krugman is not part of the business lobby…

  7. July 28, 2008 12:21 pm

    Economics is not a zero sum game.

    Your arguments against the minimum wage are akin to the same arguments made against outlawing child labor, worker exploitation, workers paid in scrip, labor safety laws, etc.…

    Most of the studies I have seen (and nearly all when I discount those from libertarian/conservative ideologue think tanks) all disprove the notion that rising minimum wage hurts workers. In fact, if you look at states that have higher minimum wages, they are states that are economically more healthy and vibrant.

    Also, there is another aspect — that cheap labor suppresses drive to automate and realize exponential gains in labor productivity.

  8. July 28, 2008 12:37 pm

    Is the buying and selling of one’s labor somehow contrary to Catholic Social Thought? Certainly not. As Pope Pius XI stated in Quadragesimo Anno…

    The pro-capitalist omission of post-Pius Catholic social thought is impressive and daring, especially its tendency to omit the views of John Paul the Great. JPII would disagree with Blackadder’s defense of the view of work as a commodity:

    “In the modern period, from the beginning of the industrial age, the Christian truth about work had to oppose the various trends of materialistic and economistic thought.

    For certain supporters of such ideas, work was understood and treated as a sort of “merchandise” that the worker-especially the industrial worker-sells to the employer, who at the same time is the possessor of the capital, that is to say, of all the working tools and means that make production possible. This way of looking at work was widespread especially in the first half of the nineteenth century. Since then, explicit expressions of this sort have almost disappeared, and have given way to more human ways of thinking about work and evaluating it. The interaction between the worker and the tools and means of production has given rise to the development of various forms of capitalism – parallel with various forms of collectivism – into which other socioeconomic elements have entered as a consequence of new concrete circumstances, of the activity of workers’ associations and public autorities, and of the emergence of large transnational enterprises. Nevertheless, the danger of treating work as a special kind of “merchandise”, or as an impersonal “force” needed for production (the expression “workforce” is in fact in common use) always exists, especially when the whole way of looking at the question of economics is marked by the premises of materialistic economism.

    A systematic opportunity for thinking and evaluating in this way, and in a certain sense a stimulus for doing so, is provided by the quickening process of the development of a onesidedly materialistic civilization, which gives prime importance to the objective dimension of work, while the subjective dimension-everything in direct or indirect relationship with the subject of work-remains on a secondary level. In all cases of this sort, in every social situation of this type, there is a confusion or even a reversal of the order laid down from the beginning by the words of the Book of Genesis: man is treated as an instrument of production12, whereas he-he alone, independently of the work he does-ought to be treated as the effective subject of work and its true maker and creator. Precisely this reversal of order, whatever the programme or name under which it occurs, should rightly be called “capitalism”-in the sense more fully explained below. Everybody knows that capitalism has a definite historical meaning as a system, an economic and social system, opposed to “socialism” or “communism”. But in the light of the analysis of the fundamental reality of the whole economic process-first and foremost of the production structure that work is-it should be recognized that the error of early capitalism can be repeated wherever man is in a way treated on the same level as the whole complex of the material means of production, as an instrument and not in accordance with the true dignity of his work-that is to say, where he is not treated as subject and maker, and for this very reason as the true purpose of the whole process of production.”

    [Laborem exercens, no. 7]

    I think the reason why capitalists (even “anarcho-capitalists”/libertarians) are drawn to the early social encyclicals is because those documents assumed one particular social order in which human beings are supposed to find their place. The system is how it is and when we try to change it or take our place somewhere where we shouldn’t, that disorder is essentially a social sin. Thus, we get quotes like the one from QA that BA posted above. The later encyclicals (starting with John XXIII and especially Paul VI) are not straightjacketed by this unimaginative thinking. Paul VI declares that we can imagine other systems more in keeping with the Kingdom. JPII boldly declares that labor is NOT a commodity.

    These bold proclamations are of no use to folks like BA who seem to want to use historically-conditioned parts of the tradition (which are far from central) in order to defend a corrupt and demonic system, a system, of course, from which he personally benefits. There is little in this post, or the last one, that resembles the central thrust of Catholic social thought, especially in its neglected more recent developments.

  9. blackadderiv permalink
    July 28, 2008 12:51 pm

    Zippy,

    I agree that a good end doesn’t justify immoral means. I would note, however, that a) it is not intrinsically immoral to pay a worker low wages, and b) even where it may be immoral for employers to do so, this doesn’t settle the question of what the law should be. There are plenty of things that are immoral but that it would be a bad idea to legislate against because doing so would not exacerbate the problem (Aquinas gave the example of prostitution, but we may substitute masturbation or lying as other examples if we wish).

    The Kantian maxim that we should treat people as ends and not merely as means has the ring of truth to it, but applying the principle to particular situations is always a tricky business. Certainly, if we are to do so, we shouldn’t confuse a person with his labor (which is what you seem to do in your comment).

  10. July 28, 2008 12:54 pm

    Mark, the fact that higher min wages lead to higher unemployment isn’t disputed by anyone. You can’t have a $50/hour min wage without putting a lot of people out of work.

  11. G Alkon permalink
    July 28, 2008 12:55 pm

    I said this in the last thread:

    Yes, if there is cheaper labor to be found elsewhere, minimum wage will cause companies to go elsewhere, where there is no minimum wage.

    As we have seen in the US, the manufacturing sector moved overseas when it could find desperately poor people who would work for nothing. These people are in many ways enslaved.

    The solution to the problem of poverty is trade agreements that prevent companies from hiring people at slave wages. The US has the power to enforce such agreements because manufacturers need our domestic markets.

    So the solution IS minimum wage, but only if it is enforced globally.

    BA — what about this do you not understand?

    Minimum wage can, yes, it can — scare off employers, IF they can find other captive labor pools to exploit. The solution is NOT minimum wage alone, but minimum wage within an equitable trade system. If the US does not allow companies like Nike to sell products at MASSIVE profit in the US, made for pennies abroad by the desperately poor, THEN we can have effective minimum wage.

  12. July 28, 2008 1:00 pm

    “In fact, if you look at states that have higher minimum wages, they are states that are economically more healthy and vibrant.”

    States that are economically more healthy and vibrant can afford to have higher minimum wages with few, if any, ill effects.

    “cheap labor suppresses drive to automate and realize exponential gains in labor productivity.”

    There’s nothing wrong with preferring labor over technology if the technology isn’t cost-effective.

  13. July 28, 2008 1:11 pm

    G Alkon,

    It’s very easy to use $120 sneakers for your example. What about $20 vacuum cleaners? If we adopt your plan, goods at Wal-Mart would cost more. We’d see a decline in the American standard of living.

    In addition, it would make foreign companies more competitive. Wal-Mart cannot stay dominate forever if their suppliers are required to pay their assembly line employees $7/hour. Not to mention that they’d be fewer employees because of the decreased demand for the more expensive goods.

  14. July 28, 2008 1:11 pm

    What G Alkon said.

    I would add – a vigorous international labor movement is another piece of this. Truly international unions (and labor protections) could help ensure living wages and equitable wealth distribution.

  15. Morning's Minion permalink*
    July 28, 2008 1:11 pm

    The problem with basing an analysis on an “Econ 101″ understanding is that you are painting in overly-brioad brush strokes, and can be simply wrong. For example, in the Krugman review you quote, you stop just short of this line: “This theoretical prediction has, however, been hard to confirm with actual data.”

    As for Krugman’s views not on the theoretical argument but on the particular case of the minimum wage in the US today, see this column where he discusses the rising inequality and stagnating median wages that I have in the past drawn so much attention to: http://select.nytimes.com/2006/07/14/opinion/14krugman.html?_r=1&th&emc=th&oref=slogin.

    His bottom line: “Can anything be done to spread the benefits of a growing economy more widely? Of course. A good start would be to increase the minimum wage, which in real terms is at its lowest level in half a century.”

    Why does he make this argument? Because he realizes that average workers are being bypassed by economic growth, and have been for over three decades now. ANd this is where more advanced labor economics literature comes in. In this framework, wages are negotiated between capitalists and workers, and negotiated wages are set as a mark-up over the alternative income of workers, where the mark-up depends on the workers’ bargaining power. Especially with the decline of union, workers’ bargaining power has collapsed.

    We need to remember the true objections of Popes Leo and Pius: it was not against the concept of a “market for labor” but rather an imbalanced bargaining system that left workers powerless.

  16. blackadderiv permalink
    July 28, 2008 1:14 pm

    Mr. Forrest,

    1) While virtually everyone today who supports minimum wage laws does so out of virtuous motives, there was, in fact, quite a bit of malevolence on the part of many of the original proponents of those laws. At the time, many supporters of minimum wage laws believed that the laws would increase unemployment, but for them this was a feature, not a bug, as the assumed it would be disfavored groups (e.g. racial minorities) who would find themselves disemployed by the laws.

    2) I’m not sure why you refer to “the fiction we have created around child labor that we became so successful that we no longer tolerated children working.” What you call a fiction would seem to be a fairly well established fact (unless you want to assume that laws prohibiting child labor aren’t subject to the ordinary laws of causation).

    3) I agree that there are other ways to judge a society besides its material prosperity. But whatever the merits of of minimum wage laws, I doubt that they have any effect on things like religious devotion or the abortion rate.

  17. M.Z. Forrest permalink
    July 28, 2008 1:17 pm

    There are a lot of assumptions being papered over here. Take a haircut for example. No infrastructure is necessary for me to receive except for perhaps a village. A barber will however demand more money for a haircut on 5th Ave in New York City than he will in Poducah, Kentucky. There is a simple reason for this. The cost of living in NYC is greater than it is in Paducah, so the full cost of the haircut is reflected in the price.

    Now take a pair of tennis shoes. Let’s assume the country of origin is Vietnam. Vietnamese must ensure the security of the factory. They must maintain a port. The US Navy must patrol the ocean routes to ensure safe delivery of the shoes. The US must maintain a port. The port has to scan the contents to ensure nothing bad comes. The US must support a massive interestate network to make it affordable to transport the shoe from Long Beach to Chicago. That shoe is then taken to its final retail destination over locally maintained roads protected by local police services where it is sold in a private store. Comparatively I should contract a local shoe maker, but he doesn’t have the benefit of using an international infrastructure for less than cost even though he still pays the same as everyone else for it since he pays taxes and isn’t going to outsource his work to Vietnam. If you take away the security of cross country shipping, those shoes will become prohibitively expensive. And perhaps it is a benefit for everyone to share in the costs of a massive global infrastructure and have our shoes produced in Vietnam. Do understand though that many choices have to be made to make that feasible, and we aren’t speaking about a pure competition.

  18. Winston D permalink
    July 28, 2008 1:17 pm

    “Minimum wage can, yes, it can — scare off employers, IF they can find other captive labor pools to exploit. The solution is NOT minimum wage alone, but minimum wage within an equitable trade system. If the US does not allow companies like Nike to sell products at MASSIVE profit in the US, made for pennies abroad by the desperately poor, THEN we can have effective minimum wages.”

    I think you misunderstand the problem. One effect of a high domestic minimum wage is that jobs might move overseas, but that would only apply to manufacturing jobs, which are only 15% of private employment.

    A simpler, and more obvious effect, is that employers will simply higher less workers. When a commodity increases in price, then the demand for that commodity decreases. This is as true of service providers like restaurants, lawn care services, etc. as it is for manufacturing jobs.

    Also, it’s not clear to me that (absent abuses such as inhumane hours/child labor) there is anything wrong with producing goods more cheaple overseas. After all, the only reason people are taking the jobs overseas is because these jobs are an improvement in their standard of living. Unless you have some sort of nativist preference for Americans having more jobs than people in other countries, it is odd to complain that people in other countries now have jobs.

    I suppose you might dramatically increase the cost of moving the jobs overseas, but that hardly would redound to the people in other countries. Similar to the minimum wage debates, professed compassion for the ‘underpaid’ results in the advocacy of policies that would in fact hurt many of the ‘underpaid’.

  19. M.Z. Forrest permalink
    July 28, 2008 1:19 pm

    My comment doesn’t reflect any evaluation of the previous three comments.

  20. July 28, 2008 1:26 pm

    a) it is not intrinsically immoral to pay a worker low wages

    It is most definitely and without question immoral to pay a worker a wage that is too low. (The word “intrinsically” isn’t doing any work here, as far as I can tell: if it is wrong to do it, it is wrong to do it).

    b) even where it may be immoral for employers to do so, this doesn’t settle the question of what the law should be.

    I agree.

  21. July 28, 2008 1:31 pm

    Certainly, if we are to do so, we shouldn’t confuse a person with his labor (which is what you seem to do in your comment).

    That is just nonsense, by the way. I (and the Church) assert that it is always and without exception immoral to treat a person as nothing but a source of fungible labor. It isn’t confusing a person with his labor to make this assertion.

    If I say “it is always wrong to chop off a man’s hands for the meat” I am not confusing the person with his hands.

  22. July 28, 2008 1:32 pm

    MM, the decline of the labor unions can be attributed in part to the minimum wage. Countries without min wages tend to have much stronger unions.

  23. blackadderiv permalink
    July 28, 2008 1:32 pm

    The pro-capitalist omission of post-Pius Catholic social thought is impressive and daring, especially its tendency to omit the views of John Paul the Great. JPII would disagree with Blackadder’s defense of the view of work as a commodity

    That’s a new one. The usual complaint is that “pro-capitalist” Catholics focus all of their attention on JPII, not that they ignore him. (whereas those of a more anti-market bent have been known, on occasion, to ridicule more recent documents ).

  24. July 28, 2008 1:33 pm

    Negotiating a min wage (which should discriminate between industries, regions, age groups, etc), is better left to unions not the federal government.

  25. blackadderiv permalink
    July 28, 2008 1:42 pm

    I (and the Church) assert that it is always and without exception immoral to treat a person as nothing but a source of fungible labor.

    I don’t disagree. But in your original comment you moved from “Treating a person as nothing but a thing is always wrong,” to “it is intrinsically unjust to treat labor as nothing but a commodity.” (emphasis mine)

  26. July 28, 2008 1:46 pm

    GAlkon,

    Your analysis is correct, but only in reference to one factor. Yes, if we had a global minimum wage, it would keep companies from going abroad to get manufacturing done cheaply. However, that does not necessarily mean that everyone in the world would immediately vault to a US middle class lifestyle.

    In re your Nike example, you actually can buy shoes made by well paid artisan coblers in the US or UK. I buy my dress shoes from such makers — which means that they cost 200-300 per pair, and I only buy a pair every few years. If it was not possible for people in the US to buy shoes that were comparatively cheap because there was a global minimum wage, shoes would be much more expensive, and so people would buy fewer shoes and wear them longer. Now, from many points of view this would be a good thing. I generally like the tone of a higher quality, lower consumption market place. But after a point we have to ask ourselves, are people really making more? That massive increase in the price of shoes (and toys, and clothes and pretty much everything) would mean that we’d effectively experience massive inflation (as a result of the increase in wages being fed into the cost of goods) and so the wages that looked like they were much higher than before would actually have little more buying power than the unjustly low wages of before. And and fewer goods were bought, because they were more expensive, that would cut the need for production and put lots of people out of work.

    Or perhaps people would invent amazing labor saving devices so that goods would remain cheap — but that would be at the expense of massive numbers of workers becoming “unnecessary”.

    None of which is to say that we should not move towards business models which allow everyone to make a better wage — but doing so suddenly by means of legal fiat (and in a big way that would make a difference, rather than the piddling increases which are occasionally made in the minimum wage) would arguably hurt workers far more than it would help them.

    Michael,

    I think that we need to draw a distinction between an employer treating his employees as a labor commodity rather than as human beings (something which it does not appear to me that Blackadder is at all recommending) and correctly observing that the “labor market” responds to stimulus in a way that is best modeled by thinking of labor as a commodity. Just as the functional materialism of the scientific method need not stem from a philosophy of materialism — so the observation that the effects of changing labor costs upon the economy are best modeled by a commodity market does not mean that laborors are or should be treated as commodities. A business owner might have the very highest personal care and regard for his employees (perhaps, indeed, they are his own family) while at the same time recognizing that if he pays them significantly more for the same amount of work, he will directly effect the demand for his products, and thus his ability to empoy them.

  27. M.Z. Forrest permalink
    July 28, 2008 2:13 pm

    1) While virtually everyone today who supports minimum wage laws does so out of virtuous motives, there was, in fact, quite a bit of malevolence on the part of many of the original proponents of those laws. At the time, many supporters of minimum wage laws believed that the laws would increase unemployment, but for them this was a feature, not a bug, as the assumed it would be disfavored groups (e.g. racial minorities) who would find themselves disemployed by the laws.

    There are idiots behind every cause.

    2) I’m not sure why you refer to “the fiction we have created around child labor that we became so successful that we no longer tolerated children working.” What you call a fiction would seem to be a fairly well established fact (unless you want to assume that laws prohibiting child labor aren’t subject to the ordinary laws of causation).
    The article linked clearly states the child labor laws targeted factories, which was my point. The article notes the existance of child labor in agriculture. The last paragraph offers a consensus of economists without citation and which the preceding paragraphs contradict.

    3) I agree that there are other ways to judge a society besides its material prosperity. But whatever the merits of of minimum wage laws, I doubt that they have any effect on things like religious devotion or the abortion rate.
    Needless to say an argument would have to made over the matter. While not having to do with minimum wage per se, studies have shown that the propensity for divorce increases for women working outside the home. Poverty is an indicator of likelihood of abortion as well. Going deeper, a society where men largely support their families through wage labor is one that is going to be less stable.

  28. July 28, 2008 2:17 pm

    Darwin – Draw whatever “distinctions” make you feel better.

  29. July 28, 2008 3:17 pm

    Michael,

    Is that actually intended to address any of the threads of argument in play at all, or is it shorthand for, “I’m not really substantively addressing anything that those whom I disagree with have said, but I want to make it clear that I disapprove of them.”

    Are you seriously arguing that a commodity model is useless in analyzing the effects of changes in labor cost upon the economy — or that it is somehow immoral to take into account the effects of labor cost changes on workers, if a commodity model is indeed accurate in predicting what those effects will be?

  30. Winston D permalink
    July 28, 2008 4:26 pm

    Michael has learned that if you can’t argue, you can at least snear….and it’s easy!

  31. July 28, 2008 4:45 pm

    But in your original comment you moved from “Treating a person as nothing but a thing is always wrong,” to “it is intrinsically unjust to treat labor as nothing but a commodity.”

    Fair enough as a strictly semantic matter, I suppose, though I think this is really obvious. “Labor” refers to human beings doing work. To cut off a man’s labor and treat it as a commodity – as something utterly distinct from the man – is as much a violation as cutting off his hands. The Church seems to agree that you cannot separate a man’s dignity from the dignity of his work.

    A block of time that a man spends living is as much a part of himself as a block of flesh. Neither his time nor his flesh are merely commodities. It is wrong for he himself to treat them as such, let alone for others to do so.

    So the answer to the question posed by your post title is an unequivocal “no”.

  32. Policraticus permalink*
    July 29, 2008 8:28 am

    Michael has learned that if you can’t argue, you can at least snear….and it’s easy!

    Perhaps no easier than dodging what Michael wrote in the 8th comment in this thread where he effectively argued that CST does not view labor as a commodity.

    I think that we need to draw a distinction between an employer treating his employees as a labor commodity rather than as human beings (something which it does not appear to me that Blackadder is at all recommending) and correctly observing that the “labor market” responds to stimulus in a way that is best modeled by thinking of labor as a commodity.

    While this is a fine conceptual distinctions, what really matter are real distinctions, that is, those distinctions that obtain in reality. As JPII saw, and as Michael has noted, “thinking” of labor as a commodity has as a correlate the “thinking” of laborer. In other words, if labor is an expression of the dignity of man and if labor is manifestation of person, as JPII points out countless times, then the commodifying of labor is a reduction of man to a utilitarian means. Unless you want to challenge JPII’s premise on the relation of labor to man, then there is no avoiding that, in reality, treating labor as commodity implies treating employees as commodities.

  33. July 29, 2008 9:05 am

    Poli,

    Thank you for addressing my argument, as Michael seemed unable to do at the moment.

    However, I’m afraid that I’m not sure that we’re successfully talking about the same thing. I hope you will forgive my persistance, but this is rather more than an theoretical point to me, since I ran a business briefly a few years ago, and very strongly intend to start one again within the next 5-10 years. Rightly understanding the morality for employment from a Catholic perspective is thus important to me.

    Now, I’m with you that one may never morally treat laborers and as commodity, because that violates their human dignity. Where I disagree with you is on whether it is moral to analyze the labor market as if labor were a commodity. Let us imagine that I own a company that makes kitchen knives. I have a factory with 100 workers who are currently making $20/hr. Now it comes to my attention that my competitors are either moving to China and paying their workers $3 per hour, or are cutting the wages of their US workers and hiring at $7/hr.

    If I am allowed to think of labor as a commodity, I can recognize that the going market price for kitchen knives is plunging because my competitors have gone to find cheaper labor. If I’m going to keep my US workers at their current wages, I need to do something differently than I have in the past. I have a couple options. My competitors are laying off (or diving away by reducing wages) highly experienced workers. So perhaps what I decide to pursue an upmarket strategy. I talk to my best machinists and technicians and bring in outside experts and we overhaul our knife line. We buy better materials, improve our manufacturing processes, and we focus all our marketing on how our knives are vastly superior in quality to those put out by out competitors.

    Or perhaps I invest a lot of money in productivity increasing machinery. I make my current, experienced workers into the technicians on the new line and I create a new, lower responsibility job description for $10/hr workers to help them out on the more menial tasks and learn the higher skilled tasks over time. We’re able to turn out many more knives with the same number of workers, and maintain the same pricing structure as our competitors.

    But making all those decisions, even if I’m trying to do it for the benefit of my workers, requires that I think of labor as a commodity, in that I need to think about how the cost of the labor rolls into the cost of the product and how the cost of the product will compete in the market place. I’m also thinking of labor as a commodity in that I’m either using higher wages to keep a much more highly skilled workforce, or I’m splitting our job descriptions in order to have more skilled and less skilled jobs with just wages for both. All that requires thinking of labor on a commodity basis.

    Is it, thus, wrong?

  34. Winston D permalink
    July 29, 2008 10:38 am

    “Perhaps no easier than dodging what Michael wrote in the 8th comment in this thread where he effectively argued that CST does not view labor as a commodity.”

    Perhaps you misunderstood. Darwin did respond, and Michael sneered. It is clear that labor is not only a commodity, and that a reductionist view of the laborer as only “as an instrument and not in accordance with the true dignity of his work,” is inconsistent with the dignity of human persons. Nevertheless, rejecting such a reductionist view of the human person philosophically and politically does not mean that we should reject the entire field of labor economics. It may be that the insights from such studies can help us to craft economic policies that may advance the goal of treating individuals as subjects rather than objects. At the end of the day, labor economics has an enormous impact on the welfare of people, and it is important that such research is conducted.

    Catholicism rejects whole-heartedly a materialistic view of reality, but that does not mean scientists cannot assume the absence of the miraculous when conducting experiments. Similarly labor economics can perform a valuable service as long as it’s reductionist view of the laborer is not mistaken for a guiding philosophy.

  35. July 29, 2008 11:48 am

    Where I disagree with you is on whether it is moral to analyze the labor market as if labor were a commodity.

    Well, there is nothing per se wrong with analyzing human beings as bags of meat. What is wrong is treating them as nothing but bags of meat.

    I don’t know how far an analysis is going to get you if it is immoral to act on it.

  36. blackadderiv permalink
    July 29, 2008 11:58 am

    I would draw an analogy to medicine. A person is not merely an assemblage of organs and tissues, and it would be wrong to reduce a person to nothing more than same. At the same time, the practice of medicine often calls on doctors to consider a person insofar as he is made up of organs and tissues, and there is nothing necessarily improper about this. When a doctor is performing open heart surgery, say, the fact that the person on whom he is operating has an immoral soul made in the image and likeness of God does not ordinarily enter into it.

  37. Kurt permalink
    July 29, 2008 3:21 pm

    I would tip my hat to those who feel it is not inappropriate to describe labor as a commodity in that they describe this in a way significantly different than what is often meant when it is said labor is a commodity. If we can agree that human beings should not be treated by economic actors or anyone else as if they are a bushel of wheat or a ton of steel, but are human beings with human rights (if error has no rights, certainly steel has no rights!) and human considerations. One does not (generally, there is this guy in the park that does) talk to one’s best commodities about how they are best used. Commodities to not get sick, have to care for family members, have religious duties that impact on economic duties nor need the care and love of parents and the instruction of teachers rather than being put to economic productivity.

  38. July 29, 2008 7:26 pm

    At the same time, the practice of medicine often calls on doctors to consider a person insofar as he is made up of organs and tissues, and there is nothing necessarily improper about this.

    True, and there is nothing wrong with considering a man under his aspect of doing useful work. But in no case is it ever acceptable to treat a man as nothing but a functional bag of organs and tissues, or as nothing but a unit of work output. ‘Commodity’ refers to things like a gallon of gas or a bag of rice, which just are nothing but a gallon of gas or a bag of rice. It would be completely unacceptable to treat a man’s body as a commodity; it is just as unacceptable to treat a man’s work as a commodity.

  39. blackadderiv permalink
    July 29, 2008 9:28 pm

    Zippy,

    The problem is that you start out by saying that it’s wrong to treat people’s labor as “noting but” or “merely” a commodity and then end by saying that it’s wrong to treat people’s labor as a commodity simpliciter. It’s a problem Kantians often fall into when trying to apply the categorical imperative.

  40. July 29, 2008 9:46 pm

    At the same time, the practice of medicine often calls on doctors to consider a person insofar as he is made up of organs and tissues, and there is nothing necessarily improper about this.

    Nevertheless, when we refer to what human beings are made of (which we often do, as you rightly point out), we do not refer to the human being in any way as a “commodity.” Nor should we refer to the labor of a human being as a commodity, as the Pope said.

    My comment about Darwin’s “distinctions” was no sneer. It was serious.

  41. July 29, 2008 10:04 pm

    Whatever, blackadder. I’m not a Kantian, and I think “labor” as a dehumanizing concept is fundamental to the economic materialism which underlies both capitalist and communist thought.

    To the contrary, I say, labor just is a person doing work. It is never, never, never acceptable to treat a person in the performance of his work as if he were just a gallon of gas or a bag of hammers. Ever.

    But I see little point in going round and round with you on it. I’ve said my piece, and you can pretend that there is a rational error in my thought rather than just outright disagreement on the nature of things if you want.

  42. July 30, 2008 10:34 pm

    My comment about Darwin’s “distinctions” was no sneer. It was serious.

    It was also (as is typical) devoid of any argumentation that would give anyone else a reason to agree with you. Which is fine, if you care more about posturing than about convincing.

  43. July 30, 2008 11:35 pm

    SB – Sorry to disappoint you so, SB.

  44. July 31, 2008 8:28 am

    I’m not disappointed; I don’t expect anything more, and it’s no skin off my nose when you refuse to do anything more than dash off an unargued one-liner.

Comments are closed.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 524 other followers

%d bloggers like this: