What is a living wage? (ox parable)

John Bailey
4 min readOct 6, 2020


“What is a living wage?” So many people ask.

Imagine you’re a farmer. You own an ox — which is your means of production for plowing your field. Imagine the health of that ox is the basis for your productivity. So, you are responsible for the health, nutrition, housing, and well being of that ox. If the ox is underfed, or fed with bad quality food, your productivity will fall . That’s not because the ox is “lazy”, but because you shirked your responsibility to care for for your own means of production. If the ox is tired from overwork, or exposure to elements , or because it has been awake all night from fear of predation because you don’t provide a proper barn for it, your production will fall. That’s not because the ox is “lazy”, but because you shirked your responsibility to care for for your own means of production. Imagine the ox gets sick, so your production falls. That’s not because it is “lazy”, but again, because you shirked your responsibility to care for for your own means of production.

In addition to being stupid in terms of productivity, such shirking of responsibility is *inhumane* to the ox. It is unconscionable to mistreat an animal by under-feeding them, by over-working them, by denying them shelter, or by failing to care for them when ill. When we treat oxen or horses in this way, our society understands this as a FELONY crime. And, it draws almost universal contempt and anger from everyone with a functioning moral compass.

What if your neighbor deals with these cost-of-productivity issues by herding their oxen into someone else’s barn in the night, subsidizing their own productivity by stealing their neighbors’ grain?

What if your neighbor kept their ox in a barn someone else pays for, subsidizing their own productivity by stealing their neighbors’ barn-building labor and capital?

What if your neighbor took their sick ox to the vet, and then falsified the bill to have it sent to you?

All of these things are stealing. In the human world, they take the form of food stamps, welfare, subsidized housing, etc. — taking from the community in order to subsidize their means of production to a profit they feel *entitled* to. When we look at the labor component of production in the form of an ox, the fact that these things are stealing and cruelty are quite clear.

It would be an insane (and legally specious) argument to defend a charge of animal cruelty by saying “I feed it what it’s worth”. It would be pathetic to try to excuse theft of the neighbor’s grain, or barn space, or money to subsidize profit by saying “I give the ox what it’s worth — and others should make up the difference for me to make as much profit as I think I deserve”.

An employer arguing they want to pay a person “what they are worth” — and not based on fully covering the actual cost of maintaining that human being as a healthy, secure means of production is making the same pathetic excuses for animal cruelty and theft.

They’re just arguing that exchanging a human being for the ox makes it OK. But, substituting a man to pull your plow does not change the facts, the math, or the principles. Cruelty and theft do not disappear because you want to treat human beings in a way that would be literally criminal if you did them to an ox.

If one’s moral compass is less considerate of human beings than our community standards are for the treatment of an ox, then their moral compass is sorely in need of adjustment. Attempting to blame the man for one’s lack of humanity, math skills, or ethical integrity holds no more water than attempting to blame the ox.

A “living wage” is nothing more than enlightened self-interest and ethical integrity.

There are two criteria to determine if someone is doing this:

1. They maintain their ox with good care of its health and well being so that it can give good service on the days they want it to plow, and without suffering infirmity or undue discomfort from wanting in fundamental needs.

2. They are maintaining the health and well being of the ox *without* shifting the costs of that well being onto their neighbors by stealing grain (food stamps), stealing barn space (welfare and subsidized housing), without stealing money for veterinary care (refusing to provide health care).

Those who meet both criteria are paying a living wage — which only means they are neither cruel nor a thief. Those who do not meet both criteria are not paying a living wage. If their workers were oxen they would possibly be guilty of animal cruelty, or theft, or both.

This isn’t really complicated; it’s not a matter of obscure philosophy or “liberal” ideas. In fact, there is actually nothing more “conservative” to be found than paying one’s own way in the world and abstaining from being cruel or larcenous.

If one has the basic human values to abstain from cruelty and theft, and can work basic arithmetic one can calculate it. If one hasn’t the courage to face that, they can return to the intellectual sloth of moralizing and willful ignorance of their actual cost of production — and whether they are taking that in an ethically excusable manner.

It’s important to know that the choice is not secret from anyone who looks, even casually — and that such choice is blatantly obvious to the people whose labor makes the profits. Some people night think about that the next time they want to say “nobody wants to work” — and see if what’s really going on is that “nobody wants to work for someone like THEM”.