Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

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Workers in the Vineyard

When I first started learning about libertarian philosophy I was scared.  I was a solid Republican reading Hazlitt, Bastiat, and Rothbard.  I rationalized my statist beliefs for a while, but the property rights and non aggression stuff was making too much sense to me.  When I finally went all-in on voluntarism there was somewhat of a sinking feeling.  Could it be that everything I previously knew was a lie?  It turns out there was one part of my “education” that was completely consistent with libertarian philosophy, and it really helped me through my transition from the state.

In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that the teachings of Christ are consistent with the non aggression principle, but I think some Christians might be surprised that even property rights are illustrated several times in the gospel.  One of those passages was read during the Catholic mass last weekend: Matthew 20:1-16, The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.

The story starts with the landowner making an agreement with his workers for one denarius for the day’s work.  Those workers are the first to his fields, they start their workday early. A few hours into the day he sees some people standing around the market and tells them if they go to work in his field, he will give them one denarius.  The landowner does the same thing throughout the day at different intervals, hiring unemployed workers for a day’s wage if they go to work for him.

At the end of the day the landowner asks his bailiff to pay the workers their wage starting with the last arrivals ending with the first.  So the bailiff starts handing out one denarius to each of the workers.  As the early arrivals got closer to the front of the line they expected to receive more than one denarius since they worked all day as opposed to just a couple hours. When they received the same amount as the late-comers, they complained to the landowner.

Right now you might be thinking this is redistribution! Each worker receives the same payment regardless of what they contributed.  Why are the people who did less being subsidized by the people who did more?  The landowner’s response is key.  He says, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to the last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

What a beautiful quote! There is so much wrapped into that answer and to the story.  First; they voluntarily agree to do the work and collect the wage.  No one was forced to do anything and both sides fulfilled their obligation.

Second; after they completed their day’s work, the landowner tells them to “take what belongs to you and go.”  He is saying that property was transferred.  It is important that he didn’t say, “take my money and go.”

Third; he says he chose to give the last the same as the first.  This is clearly wage discrimination.  People who did the same job for less hours were paid the same sum.  However, the landowner might understand economics a little better than we think.  It could be possible that as the day went on he realized the work would not be done and he would not be able to sell his product to earn money to pay his employees.  realizing this he went back to the market and hired people who were not willing to work 12 hours for 1 denarius, but were willing to work less hours for the wage.  By hiring those more expensive workers the work was able to be finished and he had a product to sell.  If he doesn’t hire them it is possible the work never gets done and he has less money to hire the same workers in the future.  He’d have to lay people off.

Is this also an argument against minimum wage?  No third party interfered with the contract and said, “Sorry, you must pay a minimum .1 denarius/hour.”  The reason they were all paid a fair wage is because they agreed to it, not because some legislature decided what was fair.

Last; The landowner asks the rhetorical question, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”  If that isn’t libertarian, then I don’t know what is.  Again, no one forces him to pay anything to anyone, only an agreed upon wage.  By asking the rhetorical question it illustrates that it is obvious.  It was his money and he can do what he wants.

The parable also warns us not to be envious.  While avoiding envy isn’t one of the foundations of libertarian thought, it is critical to the state.  The state divides us and wants us to be envious of others.  That’s how they get to pass their social programs.  Do you think that maybe when people ask the state for benefits, they might be a little envious of others? Demanding other people’s property through the use of force is not Christian, and definitely doesn’t align with the parable of the workers in the vineyard.


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