Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land! ‘When will the new moon be over,’ you ask, ‘that we may sell our grain, and the sabbath, that we may display the wheat? We will diminish the ephah, add to the shekel, and fix our scales for cheating! We will buy the lowly for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals; even the refuse of the wheat we will sell!’ The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: ‘Never will I forget a thing they have done!'”
This was the First Reading at Mass this morning on the theme of the day: socio-economic justice. I always read this Bible passage as a general attack on the exploitation of the poor and so it is. But it’s worth examining exactly what’s going on here. Diminishing the ephah and adding to the shekel is pretty straightforward: It’s evil to cheat the poor. But buying the lowly for silver the the poor for a pair of sandals hit me because it speaks to the morality of living wages and paying people below them.
The free market zealots might think such an outcome is “efficient” but even so, it is not a moral one. In a post-industrial society where wage labor is the primary means by which people earn a living, we need to think about how our society makes such possible or better yet, impossible. I remember reading a disturbing statistic that 30% of the jobs in the U.S. pay less than $10.00 per hour or $20,800 a year. That’s a real problem because that means those wage-earners cannot support themselves despite the fact that they are working full time. These are not people on the welfare rolls. They are workers. If a business is only viable because it hires below living wage (full time) labor, then we have a serious problem because it’s exploitive. To argue that such an outcome is defensible is simply morally wrong. You can’t justify to “buy the lowly for silver and the poor for a pair of sandals.” Not good. Not good at all. You might retort, “Education is the answer!” If only that were so. Even if we gave a Ph.D. level education to everyone in the country for free, flipping burgers would still be low wage labor. And it’s not like the workers who fill such jobs have options because all the other jobs are taken very much like musical chairs. Only 7 out of 10 Ph.D. thus would be able to live on their wages!
This is why I’ve lost my faith in the free market. I realized it was like worshipping a golden calf. Markets are merely objects, tools. They are a means, not the end. And with all due respect to Adam Smith, “free” markets do not a utopia make. We need to be adults, collectively. We need to make responsible, moral and conscious decisions about how to organize our society. Freedom, which is the fruit of justice, demands no less.
Our hope for creative living in this world house that we have inherited lies in our ability to reestablish the moral ends of our lives in personal character and social justice. Without this spiritual and moral reawakening we shall destroy ourselves in the misuse of our own instruments.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.