Toward A Moral Economy

Vijay Violet
4 min readJun 15, 2024


Morality is a powerful idea with plenty of power to persuade, and it should not be a conservative or liberal idea. Juneteenth, a federal holiday in the US since 2021, offers an occasion to view morality in these (more liberal) terms, “Help, don’t harm! It is an ethics of care, centering around empathy together with responsibility, both for oneself and others.” This view of morality from the book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think by George Lakoff provides a perspective for all programs and issues, including the economy.

The excerpts below on the framing of our current two-tiered economy, the functioning of which requires a quarter of the population to be in a lower class by design, come to you, courtesy of a friend. They are taken from pages 418 to 422 in Afterword, 2002 of the Third Edition (2016) of Lakoff’s book, and they apply not just to the American economy.

“There is a persistent and terribly damaging myth about our economy, namely, that in the American economy poverty can, in principle, be eliminated — if only there is better education, more jobs, more opportunity, and if people will just work hard, save, invest, and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. This is simply false. Our economy as it is presently structured requires substantial poverty.

The present American economy requires that certain jobs have low wages: cleaning houses, caring for children, preparing fast food, picking vegetables, waiting on tables, doing heavy labor, washing dishes, washing cars, gardening, checking groceries, and so on. In order to support the lifestyles of three-quarters of our population, one-quarter of our workforce must be paid low wages. These are the people who make two-income families possible, because they take care of the house and the children, allow fast-food outlets, restaurants, and hotels to exist, and perform other tedious, unpleasant, unsafe, and physically difficult jobs that support middle-, upper-middle, and upper-class life.

It is a myth that all the people so employed can lift themselves up by their bootstraps, get educated, spend thriftily, save, invest, and get out of poverty — that is, to get decent housing in a safe neighborhood, adequate food, health care, and education for their children. Even if all the present lower-tier workers moved into the upper tier, the country would still need a quarter of the population, working at low wages, to take care of the children, clean the house, work in fast-food places, pick the lettuce, weed the lawns, wait on tables, wash the cars, and so on. This economy absolutely relies on hard-working people whose pay does not reflect their contribution to the economy.

In short, those on the ground floor of our economy are holding up those on the upper floors — and they work hard to do so. But the structure of our economy does not allow their pay to be commensurate with their contribution to the economy as a whole.

A free-market economy is one in which labor is seen as a commodity that people should be able to sell for what it is worth. But in our economy, individual employers cannot, for the most part, afford to pay lower-tier workers a wage that reflects what they contribute to the economy overall.

In an important sense, lower-tier workers are working for the economy as a whole, since they make upper-tier lifestyles and incomes possible. In a well-run market, people should be able to get what their labor is worth. But we do not have a well-run market. What is needed is a market correction — a way that the economy as a whole can reward those whose labor it depends on but cannot adequately pay. The mechanism is simple: a negative income tax (that is, a serious expansion of the earned income tax credit).

What do lower-tier workers deserve for making middle- and upper-class lifestyles possible? What is the least they deserve? [Adequate health care, adequate nutrition, decent housing, and full access to education.] Can the economy as a whole afford it? I suspect so, but the question has not been asked, at least not properly: Can we afford a moral economy — -a fair, well-run economy in which people are paid what they have earned, that is, what their work is worth to the economy as a whole? Can we at least provide a ‘moral minimum’ — the least that lower-tier workers deserve? Anything less is simply immoral, and a market that pays less when it could do much better is not a well-run market. This is a national discussion we need to have. It is a discussion that makes clear that markets are not forces of nature; they do not just happen; they are not totally ‘free’; they are constructed and run, and the question we must ask is how they should be run.”

Here are some previous Vijay Violet book recommendations: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Casteism and Racism, and Slaughterhouse-Five.

Enjoy your summer readings. Happy Father’s Day!

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

If you wish to be included in the mailing list to receive VijayViolet writings as they are published, please email with Subscribe in the subject line. To unsubscribe, write mail with Unsubscribe in the subject line. There will be no unwanted mails. Your email will not be distributed.



Vijay Violet

I am an American. I care about the planet, its people and animals. I care about the oppressed and marginalized. And I care about the poor, both working and not.