Viewpoint: Minimum wage serves vital economic purpose

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By the Rev. Charles Hoffacker

Jeffrey J. Higgins offers the usual libertarian case against the minimum wage [Viewpoint, The Current, April 19], but his argument is neither moral nor realistic. Moreover, his critique of the minimum wage soon slips into an attack on government regulating the economy in any way.

Higgins rejects minimum wage laws out of a belief that government should not intervene in consensual agreements between citizens. This is a drastically reductionist view of the state’s role, one as ultimately harmful as its opposite, the totalitarian approach that sees the state as omnipotent.

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A more sensible and widespread perspective insists that the state has a legitimate role in defending and promoting the common good of society, its citizens and groups within society. To act so that workers can prosper as citizens and as participants in the economy is a necessary function of government, especially since workers often lack power relative to their employers. This disparity of power between employers and workers is also an important reason the freedom of workers to organize is a human right.

Higgins’ argument reflects a view of society where people behave as nothing other than self-centered individuals.

While selfishness is certainly a reality in the world, most humans expect something better than that from themselves and one another and often make great and admirable sacrifices due to their faith and altruism. But rather than present a dignified vision of human purpose, Ayn Rand’s followers and the so-called Austrian school of economics attempt the impossible by trying to present greed and selfishness as intellectually and ethically respectable. They thus endeavor to justify moral infantilism. Our society, indeed any society, deserves better than this. We can live in a way that is more gracious than grasping.

Higgins exalts facts and condemns emotions as bases for political action. He overlooks that facts are subject to interpretation and that emotions are an essential part of our human makeup. We do not achieve wisdom, whether as persons or as a society, without listening to both. Libertarianism, on the other hand, assumes a partial, indeed damaged, model of humanity, one that limps rather than walks.

People from diverse backgrounds are standing up against the libertarianism that is now damaging our government and society. They can find insight and encouragement from the ethical perspectives of many religions. Of particular value is this passage from “Quadragesimo Anno,” a 1931 encyclical of Pope Pius XI that is one of several encyclicals on social and economic questions issued by modern popes:

“The right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces. For from this source, as from a poisoned spring, have originated and spread all the errors of individualist economic teaching. Destroying through forgetfulness or ignorance the social and moral character of economic life, it held that economic life must be considered and treated as altogether free from and independent of public authority, because in the market, i.e., in the free struggle of competitors, it would have a principle of self-direction which governs it much more perfectly than would the intervention of any created intellect. But free competition, while justified and certainly useful provided it is kept within certain limits, clearly cannot direct economic life — a truth which the outcome of the application in practice of the tenets of this evil individualistic spirit has more than sufficiently demonstrated.”

The poisoned spring Pius XI recognized in 1931 remains a poisoned spring in our time as well.

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and lived in D.C. from 2006 to 2014.