Rumors continue to persist that Jesus was a socialist, despite all the evidence to the contrary. For instance, he did not believe in the involuntary redistribution of wealth. He never once commanded government to dig its hands into the wallets of its citizens to give their money to somebody else.
He did, of course, believe in the voluntary redistribution of wealth, where individuals give freely to those in need out of their own resources and motivated by compassion. His commands about feeding the poor and clothing the naked were given to us, not to government.
Also, Jesus’ parables reveal a decidedly capitalistic, free enterprise view of economic transactions. For instance, in the parable of the workers in the vineyard we find Jesus frowning on the concept of collective bargaining and even the minimum wage.
In this parable, found in Matthew 20:1-16, the main character in the story, the owner of a vineyard, hires a batch of workers at the beginning of the day and agrees with them on their wage for the day, a denarius a piece.
At 9:00 am, he recruits some additional day laborers, promising to pay them “whatever is right.” At noon and again at 3 pm he goes out and does the same, and then one hour before quitting time, he hires on some additional workers.
When day is done, the foreman begins paying the workers, beginning with the last hires on down to the first. The last hires, who worked just one hour, receive a full denarius. This leads the first hires, who’d worked all day in the hot sun, to think they’re going to make bank. But when they get to the paymaster’s window, they receive exactly what they had been promised – a denarius – and no more.
As you might expect, they grumble about this, at which point the owner says, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I now allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” Literally, this last phrase reads, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”
Notice, first of all, that the means of production here are in private hands, in the total control of the owner. Government does not own this business, which would be socialism, nor does it tell this business owner how he must run it, which is fascism. He is free to do with his business assets as he sees fit with no government interference whatsoever. That’s capitalism; that’s free enterprise.
There is no collective bargaining here. Each worker is free to strike his own deal with the owner for whatever wage they finds mutually acceptable. The bargaining over wages here is individual in nature, not collective. Each worker is free to enter into whatever contractual arrangement he wants with his owner.
The one expectation on the owner is that he pays his workers what he has agreed to pay them. Fairness is not a matter of equal pay for equal work but of receiving the pay you were promised. If a worker is paid what he has been promised, then fairness has been served, even if workers are paid different amounts.
The matter of the payment of promised wages would be the one place in this story where there would be a proper role for government. Government has two proper roles in the economy, to enforce contracts and punish theft. It is proper for government to step in if an employer does not honor his contractual agreement with his workers. A worker who is not paid what he is owed, what has been promised to him, has a legitimate complaint, and government has a legitimate role in enforcing contracts by insisting employers fulfill their promises in regard to compensation.
Government need not, in fact, should not, have a role in setting wages – that’s exclusively a matter between each employee and his employer – but it does have a proper role once an agreement on wages has been reached.
A minimum wage law is unnecessary in the economy that is painted for us here. The reality is there will always be a minimum wage, law or no. It’s the minimum wage a worker will accept to take a job. Minimum wage laws price some low-skilled employees out of the job market altogether, raise the cost of goods and services for everybody, including the poor, and reduce the overall number of jobs. Who gets hurt? The little guy looking to place his foot on the bottom rung of the ladder of financial self-sufficiency. Maybe that is why there are no minimum wage laws in the parables of Jesus.
As a side note, we can see from this story why it’s unnecessary and even harmful for employees to know what other people in the enterprise make. That kind of knowledge is a breeding ground for envy, jealousy, and resentment. Everybody’s happier when each employee strikes the best deal he can get with his employer, gets paid on time, and doesn’t fret or even know about what anybody else in the company makes.
Some will argue that I am making too much of what is just a story designed to illustrate a spiritual truth. Yet the stories of Jesus only work because they are connected to life in the real world. He is using an economic story to make a spiritual point, of course, but the story only works on a spiritual level if it works first on the economic one.
Bottom line: Jesus was a capitalist. The economy in which his stories take place is an economy predicated on the private ownership of the means of production, on the freedom of each worker to make his own wage agreement with his employer, and on the responsibility of each employer to pay his employees what he promised.
In this kind of economy, talent will naturally flow to the employers who are willing to reward it the most. Employers who pay higher wages will attract higher quality employees and employees who improve their skills will get better jobs at higher pay. Employers will be happy, employees will be happy, and economies will grow.
Those economies that do it Jesus’ way prosper. Those that don’t, don’t.