Many of us are disturbed by issues of “social justice”—a term I bracket with quotation marks only because it means different things to different users—having to do with large disparities evidenced in the economic resources of our citizens. In the shorthand language of our political discourse we identify some of the issues as income inequality, the living wage, the minimum wage, equal pay for equal work. To what extent is the State authorized to coerce “justice” in the creation and distribution of wealth? To what extent is it competent? A good deal of modern history, certainly since the time of Karl Marx, has been driven by such questions. We have the hecatombs to prove it.
If we have no agreement on what a minimum wage should be we seem to have none at all about a maximum wage. I was fascinated by a recent press report from the world of art commodification. A few years ago a group of art dealers paid less than twenty thousand dollars for a Renaissance painting of Christ thought possibly to be from the “school” or “workshop” of Leonardo da Vinci. Later super-experts concluded that the artist must have been Leonardo himself. Very rarely do humanities professors make the Market quiver, but this time they did. Sotheby’s, the famous auctioneers, facilitated the sale of the re-evaluated painting to a Swiss buccaneer of the beaux-arts named Bouvier for eighty million dollars. Almost immediately Bouvier flipped the painting, as though it were a rehabbed loft in Bushwick, to a Russian billionaire collector named Rybolovlev for $127,500,000.
Now everybody is mad, and the suits are filing suits. The art dealers think they were stiffed for roughly fifty million. Ryboloviev makes a similar complaint since, he asserts, Bouvier should have been operating as his agent in the original purchase. Sotheby’s is aggrieved that their probity has been called into question. Fleming is mad because a beautiful painting of Jesus Christ as “Savior of the World”, quite possibly actually by the hand of one of the greatest Christian artists of the Renaissance, has become a talisman of obscene wealth. Read the forty-fifth canto of Pound: No picture is made to endure nor to live with but it is made to sell and sell quickly, with usura, sin against nature.
Of course “Christian social teaching,” though frequently invoked, is not exactly clear and prescriptive. Jesus did say “The laborer is worthy of his pay,” but what should that pay be? Since I was a child, I struggled with the parable of the “Workers in the Vineyard” (Matthew 20). A landowner hires men to work in his vineyard. Some start out at the beginning of the day. A few hours later he hires some more, and so on throughout the day. But at the end of the day he pays each man an equal wage—a denarius, the standard daily wage of an agricultural worker—with no differentiation between those who worked all day and those who worked an hour or two. The point of all this, according to Jesus’s cryptic conclusion, is that “the last will be first, and the first last.” (My wife, a Bible scholar, tells me not to fret about this, as it is almost certainly a posterior addition to the parable.)
Naturally those workers who began at the crack of dawn did not think this was fair, and I have never been able to figure it out myself. In 1968 we were living in the south of France, at Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, near to Petrarch’s old retreat at the Fontaine de Vaucluse, when the Revolution exploded. The Revolution, for the youngsters among my readers, was a bit of French student guerrilla theater that got out of hand. Paris was the scene of most of the action, but even the remote provinces experienced serious dislocations on account of transportation strikes and, especially, the unavailability of gasoline. The sister of the farmer on whose property we were lodged had a large cherry orchard; its annual crop was the chief source of her yearly income. The Revolution created a crisis, since her fresh, ripe cherries could not be gotten into the produce markets. The best she could do was wait in vain hope that the strikes would end. When the fruit was over-ripe, she tried to salvage something by selling the crop for a pittance to a nearby jam factory. She was so desperate for pickers that Joan and I agreed to help out gratis. It was great fun but also hard labor, and when I got tired I simply awarded myself a work-break. Several of the hired hands grumbled openly about this; but I thought my response was invincible. They were being paid. I was working for free. The landowner in Jesus’s parable asks “Why be jealous because I am kind?” But one among the cherry pickers was not silenced. I should not be allowed to work for free or to take unauthorized breaks. All cherry-picking and cherry-pickers should be the same. Egalité trumped Liberté, and to hell with Fraternité.