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July 9, 2014

CECIL BOHANON: Let's not make a false idol out of politics

Let's not make a false idol out of politics

Long before anyone had heard of the “religious right” there was a “religious left” using its resources, influence and prestige to lobby the public sector to promote so-called progressive public policies. And it continues to influence; I saw it in full force on a visit to Rhode Island last month when an ecumenical group joined forces with a national denomination’s conference to rally for an increase in the minimum wage.

As a free-market economist and a rather traditional Christian, I wish churches would stay out of politics. It gives me the willies when anyone tries to wrap their political position as God’s will — and make no mistake, a clerical collar under an activist banner sends that impression. At a substantive level, few public policy issues are simple “morality plays” where the forces of good are pitted against evil.

Advocates of an increased minimum wage, for example, argue it is a moral issue. They cite a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) study indicating that increasing the wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour “would lift 900,000 people out of poverty.”

What they fail to note is the same CBO study indicates such an increase would reduce employment by roughly 500,000 workers, which would lead to “decreases in earnings for workers who would be jobless because of the minimum-wage increase.”

Economists have known for generations the minimum wage has consequences that go beyond the simplistic rhetoric of a “living wage.” Raising the minimum wage helps some people and hurts others. The workers who keep their jobs note their lot is improved but those whose income goes to zero are surely worse off. I’m skeptical there is definitive metric, Christian or secular, to properly weigh the benefits of lifting some from poverty while driving others deeper into poverty.

Another issue that is dear to the heart of the religious left: U.S. immigration policy. “Progressive” Christians and immigrants — both legal and illegal — call for less-restrictive immigration policies. Classical liberals (aka libertarians, like myself) are sympathetic to calls for more-open borders. But please let us be clear about the trade-offs: Some domestic residents will be made worse off.

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