Yesterday we looked at the ancient Roman custom of the peculium and how knowing about it helps us understand what the heck (or heaven) Jesus was talking about. That’s all very nice, of course, but how does this esoteric historical knowledge have any relevance for the modern day and age? After all, it’s interesting to know that the otherwise daunting Roman pater familias with his terrible potestas that (in theory) included the power of life and death over his children and slaves would train them to enter society by letting them manage capital . . . but so what?
|Free non-owners were lower than slaves.|
Well, for starters, let’s take a look at Aristotle. In the Politics, the Philosopher just happens to mention a phenomenon that wasn’t too common in the ancient world: free men who owned nothing and who competed with slaves for the grunt work at lousy wages. These were the day laborers, the temps, migrant workers, etc., who owned nothing, sometimes not even the rags on their backs. Even the street vendors had more status, as they were business owners.
The situation of non-owning free workers was so bad that Aristotle said they were even lower than slaves. Lacking even so much as the reflection of status by being owned by an important man, the non-owning worker, while technically free, was in effect a “masterless slave.” He was nobody and nothing.
One of the most remarkable things Jesus did, in fact, was to treat such people as if they were as good as everybody else — what a concept! In a society that took material wealth as a sign of divine favor, it was revolutionary.
|"Don't edit my words to fit your actions, edit your actions to fit my words."|
That was one reason why, when Jesus said that it is as difficult for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven as it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, the Apostles were stunned. If even the rich with such clear indications of God’s special favor have a problem, what hope is there for anyone else? Jesus, of course, noted that with God, all things are possible,* putting the rich on the same level as everybody else. We’re all equally human, and human in the same way.
*That is, with God, all possible things are possible. God cannot contradict Himself and thus turn into “not-God” and still be God. God cannot make a weight so heavy He can’t lift it because that is a contradiction and is therefore nonsense. Not even God can both “be” and “not be” at the same time under the same conditions.
|Training children and slaves to enter society.|
Another thing: while not the main point of the parable, when Jesus’s listeners heard him talk about peculia (plural of peculium), they knew that assigning assets to children and slaves was one way to train children to become adults, and slaves to enter society. Judging from its success (if it had been unsuccessful, no one would have done it; it was expensive), it may have been the best way, too, and thus the most efficient way to meet the responsibility of being a parent or a master . . . assuming someone was interested in being a responsible parent or master.
Now for the problem. We’ve seen that slaves and non-owning workers (“employees”) are two different things, and not just because one is owned as a thing, and the other owns nothing. In moral philosophy, slaves come under “domestic society” (the Family), while free people, owners or non-owning, come under “civil society” (the State). Slaves are treated as children inside a family, while free people are treated as adults inside a state — at least in moral philosophy.
|Vineyard Workers: The "Everyone is Equally Human" Parable.|
Unfortunately, classic moral philosophy is somewhat lacking in how you deal with non-owning workers. Are they slaves? If so, where are their masters? Are they free adults? If so, where is their capital? Jesus made it clear that they are to be treated like anybody else, but what does that mean in practical terms? How do you treat a non-owner like an owner without either cheating someone or lying through your teeth?
Still, this was not really an issue until the Industrial Revolution forced great numbers of people into the condition of being propertyless workers. Before the Industrial Revolution, most propertyless workers who were not genuine servants (part of the household, and therefore coming under the rules of domestic society) filled positions that would have been (and sometimes were) filled by slaves.
Classic moral philosophy therefore dealt with propertyless workers by treating them as if they were, effectively, slaves or children in domestic society, not adults in civil society, albeit modified somewhat to respect human dignity as much as possible. Thus, for example, the just wage was the market rate, with allowed exceptions for unusual events and situations, and supplemented with charity based on need to ensure workers had enough on which to live.
|"Let the worker and employer make free agreements."|
This is still the basic just wage concept, as the popes have made clear, e.g., as Leo XIII said,
Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. (Rerum Novarum, § 45.)
To make certain that people did not confuse the just wage with the so-called “living wage,” Pius XI made it clear:
First, so as to avoid the reefs of individualism and collectivism. the twofold character, that is individual and social, both of capital or ownership and of work or labor must be given due and rightful weight. Relations of one to the other must be made to conform to the laws of strictest justice — commutative justice, as it is called — with the support, however, of Christian charity. (Quadragesimo Anno, § 110.)
Thus, the “dictate of natural justice” noted by Leo XIII — at least according to Pius XI — is a market-determined wage conforming to commutative justice, and fulfilled and completed with charity to make up what is needed to maintain the worker and his family. This is perfectly consistent with classic moral philosophy: charity completes and fulfills justice naturally; charity does not replace or abolish justice.
We cannot, therefore, take classic moral philosophy or Catholic social teaching consistent with moral philosophy as mandating an adequate wage and benefits as the desired end. It is, rather, a bare minimum expedient permissible on the way to something better.
It is, frankly, an offense against human dignity to take payment of an adequate wage as an end in itself. To do so acquiesces in what is clearly an unjust situation: free adults maintained in a condition of dependency suitable only for slaves and children — “a yoke little better than that of slavery itself,” as Leo XIII put it (Rerum Novarum, § 3.)
But if not wages, what?
We’ll look at that tomorrow.#30#