Dan Price, the young CEO of Gravity Payments in Seattle, generated a boatload of publicity and controversy last month when he committed to pay every one of his 120 employees an annual salary of at least $70,000. Price said he was concerned that lower-paid employees were struggling to make ends meet.
In light of our country’s growing economic inequality, the 30-year-old Christian saw his own $1 million salary as part of the problem. To fund the raises for more than half the company’s workers, he cut his salary to $70,000, and decided the company could afford to reduce profits by as much as half.
In the week after the story first broke Price got emails from nearly 100 CEOs lauding his decision. But not everyone was so enthusiastic.
The New York Times ran a follow-up piece detailing some of the criticism directed toward the company. Naysayers from the business world say the move to “overpay” workers rather than trusting the market rate could do more harm than good. They suggest the new salaries could spur resentment from once higher-paid workers and hurt long-term productivity. Some critics lambasted the decision as socialism.
These criticisms from purported defenders of free-market capitalism—from business professors and economists to talk show host Rush Limbaugh— evidence egregiously flawed thinking about both capitalism and free markets. They’re also at odds with the wisdom of Scripture.
Despite the concerns over the pay shift as socialism, Gravity Payments has every intention of continuing to operate as a business selling a service and making a profit. In fact, as a result of the recent publicity, several new clients have signed on. Dan Price and his company are practicing simple, straightforward, for-profit capitalism, not socialism.
Price’s move violates an understanding of capitalism that would require company to pay no more than the lowest price at which the market would allow them to hire appropriate workers. (Wal-Mart, to pick a prominent example, clearly operates on such a conviction.)
Scripture, though, has a very different perspective. To start with, God frequently and emphatically condemns business people who take advantage of their workers, particularly through exploitive compensation.
In Malachi, the Lord warns he will come in judgment against “those who exploit workers,” listing it among the ways people show they do not fear him (3:5). In the New Testament, James 5:4 reads, “Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.”
But God does more than condemn employers whose wages are exploitive. Through Moses and the Apostle Paul, he shows us the alternative. In 1 Corinthians 9:9-10, Paul provides a fascinating insight into something Moses wrote centuries earlier:
It is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest.
Paul makes the case for why he, like other apostles and ministers, appropriately deserves compensation for his work on behalf of the gospel. But for our purposes, it is how he makes his case that is so instructive. Paul says that it is God (not merely Moses) who commands that as oxen work to tread out a farmer’s grain they must be allowed to eat whatever supplemental grain they want. In other words, these working oxen would be allowed “bonus” feedings over and above the normal feedings (analogous to wages) provided by the farmer. Then Paul indicates that God’s real reason for this command is to instruct employers — employers of oxen, yes, but primarily of human workers — that all who help produce a harvest are meant to share in the rewards.