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Anti-capitalist theologian ignores Jesus’ endorsement of wages

Theologians who oppose capitalism often complain that working for wages “commodifies” workers. Dr. Michael Frost charged in his “5 Reasons Capitalism is not Christian” that, 

“We’re okay about products and consumables being exchanged as commodities, but the commodification of human life, when selling their labor on the market to an employer, is deeply concerning because it turns people into objects. And when people are seen, and counted, as objects they are easier to exploit or dispense with…. where there are functional labor laws, it can still be argued by Christians that the very conception of the worker’s labor as a commodity reduces that worker to something less than God sees them.”

Dr. Frost sees working for wages as a form of slavery. How, then, should we reimburse people for their services? Dr. Frost doesn’t say. Had he taken an intro class to economics, he would know that people prefer regular wages to other forms of payment. There aren’t many alternatives. Business owners could pay workers by the piece, which is common in some industries. For example, a shirt factory could pay workers for each shirt they finished. On productive days they will earn more, but when they don’t feel well and can’t work as hard, or when they’re sick, they will earn less.

Or owners could pay workers a share of profits. In that case, workers would suffer losses when their company did as well as reap profits. But businesses in the past competed for workers by trying different ways of paying them and discovered that most workers prefer the security of a steady, predictable wage to the other options. That means the company pays them the same amount every hour or week regardless of how productive they are, and regardless of whether or not the company is losing money.

The business owner takes all the risk. Most people are risk averse and gladly trade a lower total income than they would receive if they were part owners, or paid by the piece, for the security provided by wages. Workers like receiving a paycheck when they’re ill and when they take a vacation. They don’t see their wages as a form of slavery, but a form of security.

Theologians who claim wage labor is slavery don’t know that this assertion came directly from Marx, who held to the labor theory of value. Marx believed that the total price of a product equals the value of the labor that produced it. He learned that from Adam Smith, one of Smith’s few errors. So, Marx thought workers should get all the profit. The owner should get nothing even though he provides the equipment, buildings, and raw materials, as well as taking all the risk. Since workers don’t get all the profit, Marx called working for wages slavery, and gullible theologians call it commodification of people.

But profits are like interest paid on loans. A lender provides a service to borrowers by giving up the use of his money for a period so that the borrower can use it. In exchange for that service, the borrower reimburses the lender by paying interest on the loan. In a similar way, business owners give up the use of their money for long periods to provide the land, equipment, and buildings to produce goods for consumers. And they must pay workers even before they've sold the products they make. If Marx was right that services rendered without pay is slavery, then denying business owners profits for their services makes them slaves.

Of course, actual slavery, like that practiced in the U.S. until the Civil War, does make a commodity out of people because slaves have no choice about for whom they work, when, or how much. In return for their labor, they get barely enough food, clothing, and shelter to keep them alive. Workers for wages can leave a job any time they think their employer is abusing them. And in a free market, other jobs will be plentiful. Does Dr. Frost honestly think there is no difference between an employee at Apple and a pre-Civil War slave?

Marx thought capitalism began with wage labor, but as with most things he was wrong. Many people worked for wages in Biblical times and Jesus approved of wages as a form or reimbursement for services rendered to others in his parable of the laborers in the vineyard. The just wage was the one agreed upon by the laborer and the vineyard owner.

Dr. Frost and Marx are wrong: working for wages is not slavery, or commodifying people. Working for wages is nothing but a peaceful exchange of services, one that enriches both parties. Workers provide a service that business owners need, and business owners pay them wages in money. Money is a store of the value for services rendered to others in the past.

Capitalism treats people as bearers of the image of God.

Roger McKinney is the author of Financial Bull Riding and God is a Capitalist: Markets from Moses to Marx.

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