Virtual Voices

Justice and mercy

Economy

How do we apply the laws of justice and mercy under the conditions of free market capitalism? Parents are to provide for their children until such time as they are able to provide for themselves. Children are to take care of their old parents. We are all to help the needy. And we should never forget that the resources to do all of this come, with God's blessings, through profitable private enterprise. God instructs His people in Deuteronomy to "not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy" and to "pay him his wages each day before sunset." Is this a command to the landlord/capitalist to pay each worker a "living wage"?

What is a "living wage"? Is it just enough to provide food and shelter for the worker's family? How about health insurance? A dental plan? A 35-hour work week? "Free" childcare? Or paid vacation? One needs a pretty vivid imagination to read into this passage more than a call to the employer to pay the employee what was agreed upon and to pay it on time. That is justice---that everyone should get what he or she deserves. In this particular case both employer and employee should play by the terms of their contract.

The trouble arises when one fails to distinguish between economic justice and mercy. Suppose you own a hog farm. You hire a man as a "wage-laborer." His efforts are adding 10 hogs to your livestock per year. The worker has a big family to feed that needs one hog per month to survive. Does God's justice require that you pay him that "living wage"? No, that would be bad stewardship over the resources that God has entrusted to you. Very soon the farm will run out of hogs and you will all be starving.

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The merciful thing to do would be to let the worker go and try other things where he can be more productive: growing corn, picking apples, fishing, etc. By hiring better swineherds you will fulfill God's mandate to be fruitful (from the creation of Adam to the parable of the talents). By running a profitable farm, you will now be able to obey God's command to provide for your dear ones. And only then you will be in a position to extend help to your neighbor in distress, to "generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks."

Alex Tokarev
Alex Tokarev

Alex is the chair of the Department of Business at Morthland College in West Frankfort, Ill., and teaches at Northwood University in Midland, Mich. The native of communist Bulgaria fanatically supports the Bulgarian soccer team, Levski.

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