A Treatise on Political Economy Icon

September 30, 2015

Section 4= The Profits of the Operative Labourer. 47

Simple, or rude labour may be executed by any man possessed of life and health; wherefore, bare existence is all that is requisite to insure a supply of this description of industry.

Consequently, its wages seldom rise in any country much above what is absolutely necessary to subsistence; and the quantum of supply always remains on a level with the demand; nay, often goes beyond it; for the difficulty lies not in acquiring existence, but in supporting it. Whenever the mere circumstance of existence is sufficient for the execution of any kind of work, and that work affords the means of supporting existence, the vacuum is speedily filled up.

When a country is on the decline, and contains less of the means of production and less of knowledge, activity, and capital, the demand for raw or simple labour diminishes by degrees; wages fall gradually below the rate necessary for recruiting the labouring class its numbers consequently decrease, and the offspring of the other classes, whose employment diminishes in the same proportion, is degraded to the step immediately below. On the contrary, when prosperity is advancing, the inferior classes not only fill up their own complement with ease, but furnish a surplus and addition to the classes immediately above them= and some, by great good fortune or brilliancy of talent, arrive at a still loftier eminence, and reach even the highest stations in society.

There is, however, one thing to be observed. Man does not come into the world with the size and strength sufficient to perform labour even of the rudest kind. He acquires this capability not til the age of fifteen or twenty, more or less, and may be regarded as an item of capital, formed of the growing annual accumulation of the sums spent in rearing him. 48 By whom, then, is this accumulation effected? In general by the parents of the labourer, by persons of his own calling, or of one akin to it. In this class of life, therefore, the wages are somewhat more than is necessary for bare personal existence; they must be sufficient to maintain the children of the labourer also.

The labour of persons not entirely dependent for subsistence on the fruits of labour can be afforded cheaper, than that of such as are labourers by occupation. Being fed from other sources, their wages are not settled by the price of subsis- tence. The female spinners in country villages probably do not earn the half of their necessary expenses, small as they are= one is perhaps the mother, another the daughter, sister, aunt, or mother-in-law of a labourer, who would probably support her, if she earned nothing for herself. Were she dependent for subsistence on her own earnings only, she must evidently double her prices, or die of want; in other words, her industry must be paid doubly, or would cease to exist. If the wages of the lowest class of labour were insufficient to maintain a family, and bring up children, its supply would never be kept up to the complement; the demand would exceed the supply in circulation; and its wages would increase, until that class were again enabled to bring up children enough to supply the deficiency.

This would happen, if marriage were discouraged amongst the labouring class. A man without wife or children may afford his labour at a much cheaper rate, than one who is a husband and a father. If celibacy were to gain ground amongst the labouring class, that class would not only contribute nothing to recruit its own members, but would prevent others from supplying the deficiency. A temporary fall in the price of manual labour, arising from the cheaper rate, at which single men can afford to work, would soon be followed by a disproportionate rise; because the number of workmen would fall off. Thus, even were it not more to the interest of masters to employ married men, on account of their steadiness, they The same may be said of most kinds of work performed by females. They are in general but poorly paid, because a large proportion of them are supported by other resources than those of their own industry, and can, therefore, supply the work they are capable of at a cheaper rate, than even the bare satisfaction of their wants. The work of the monastic order is similarly circumstanced. It is fortunate for the actual labourers in those countries where monachism abounds, that it manufactures little else but trumpery; for, if its industry were applied to works of current utility, the necessitous labourers in the same department, having families to support, would be unable to work at so low a rate, and must absolutely perish by have caused many proprietors of vineyards to adopt a different cultivation of their lands; this is a permanent cause of surplus cooperage in the market. In ignorance of this cause, a general effort is made to assist the labouring coopers, either by purchasing their casks without wanting them, or by making up, in the shape of alms, the loss they have sustained in the diminution of their profits. Useless purchases, or eleemosynary aid, however, can not last forever; and, the moment they cease, the poor coopers will find themselves precisely in the same distressful situation, from which it was attempted to extricate them. All the sacrifices and expense will have been incurred with no advantage, other than that of a little delay in the date of their hopeless sufferings and privations.

want and starvation. The wages of manufacturing, are often higher than those of agricultural labour; but they are liable to the most calamitous oscillation. War or legislative prohibition will sometimes suddenly extinguish the demand for a particular product, and reduce the industry employed upon it to a state of utter destitution. The mere caprice of fashion is often fatal to whole classes. The substitution of shoe ribands for buckles was a severe temporary blow to the population of Sheffield and Birmingham. 50

The smallest variations in the price of rude or simple labour have ever been justly considered as serious calamities. In classes of somewhat superior wealth and talents, which are, in fact, a species of personal wealth, a diminution in the rate of profits entails only a reduction of expense, or, at most, but trenches, in some measure, upon the capital those classes generally have at their disposal. But to those, whose whole income is a bare subsistence, a fall of wages is an absolute death-warrant, if not to the labourer himself, to part of his family at least.

Suppose on the contrary, the cause of the superabundance of casks to be but temporary; to be nothing more than the failure of the annual crop. If, instead of affording temporary relief to the working coopers, they be encouraged to remove to other districts, or to enter upon some other branch of industry, it will follow, that the next year, when wine may be abundant, there will be a scarcity of casks to receive it; the price will become exorbitant, and be settled at the suggestion of avarice and speculation; which being unable themselves to manufacture casks, after the means of producing them have been thus destroyed, part of the wine will probably be spoiled for want of casks to hold it. It will require a second shock and derangement of the rate of wages, before the manufacture of the article can be brought again to a level with the demand. Wherefore, all governments, pretending to the smallest paternal solicitude for their subjects’ welfare, have evinced a readiness to aid the indigent class, whenever any unexpected event has accidentally reduced the wages of common labour below the level of the labourer’s subsistence. Yet the benevolent intentions of the government have too often failed in their efficacy, for want of judgment in the choice of a remedy. To render it effective, it is necessary first to explore the cause of depression in the price of labour. If that depression be of a permanent nature, pecuniary and temporary aid is of no possible avail, and merely defers the pressure of the mischief. Of this nature are the discovery of new processes, the introduction of new articles of import, or the emigration of a considerable number of consumers. 51 In such emergencies, a remedy must be sought in the discovery of some new and permanent occupation for the hands thrown out of employ, in the encouragement of new channels of industry, in the setting on foot of distant enterprises. the planting of colonies, &c. Whence it is evident, that the remedy must be adapted to the particular cause of the mischief; consequently, the cause must be ascertained, before the remedy is devised.

Necessary subsistence, then, may be taken to be the standard of the wages of common raw labour; but this standard is itself extremely fluctuating; for habit has great influence upon the extent of human wants. It is by no means certain, that the labourers of some cantons of France could exist under a total privation of wine. In London, beer is considered indispensable; that beverage is there so much an article of necessity, that beggars ask for money to buy a pot of beer, as commonly as in France for the purchase of a morsel of bread; and this latter object of solicitation, which appears to us so very natural, may seem impertinent to foreigners just arrived from a country, where the poor subsist on potatoes, manioc, or other still coarser diet.

If the depression be not of a permanent nature, if it be the mere result of good or bad crops, the temporary assistance should be limited to the unfortunate sufferers by the oscillation.

Governments or individuals, who attempt indiscriminate beneficence, will have the frequent mortification of finding their bounty unavailing. This may be more convincingly demonstrated by example than by argument.

What is necessary subsistence, depends, therefore, partly on the habits of the nation, to which the labourer may happen to belong. In proportion as the value he consumes is small, his ordinary wages may be low, and the product of his labour cheap. If his condition be improved, and his wages raised, Suppose in a vine district the quantity of casks to be so abundant, as to make it impossible to use them all. A war, or a statute levelled against the production of wine, may, perhaps, either his product becomes dearer to the consumer, or the share of his fellow producers is diminished.

government conspire to make the labourer spend in the public-house not only what he might lay by, but frequently the very subsistence of his family, in which all his comforts and pleasures should be centred. The vain and costly amusements of the rich are not always justifiable in the eye of reason;

But how much more disastrous is the senseless dissipation of the poor!

The mirth of the indigent is invariably seasoned with tears; and the orgies of the populace are days of mourning to the philosopher.

The disadvantages of their position are an effectual barrier against any great extension of the consumption of the labouring classes. Humanity, indeed, would rejoice to see them and their families dressed in clothing suitable to the climate and season; houses in roomy, warm, airy, and healthy habitations, and fed with wholesome and plentiful diet, with per- haps occasional delicacy and variety; but there are very few countries, where wants, apparently so moderate, are not considered far beyond the limits of strict necessity, and therefore not to be gratified by the customary wages of the mere labouring class.

Besides the reasons advanced in this and the preceding sections, to explain why the wages of the adventurer, even if he derive no profit as a capitalist, are generally higher than those of the mere labourer, there are others, not so solid or well founded indeed, but such as nevertheless must not be overlooked.

The limit of strict necessity varies, not only according to the more or less comfortable condition of the labourer, and his family, but likewise according to the several items of expense reputed unavoidable in the country he inhabits. Among these is the one we have just adverted to; namely, the rearing of children; there are others less urgent and imperative in their nature, though equally enforced by feeling and natural sentiments; such as the care of the aged, to which unhappily the labouring class are far too inattentive. Nature could entrust the perpetuation of the human species to no impulse less strong, than the vehemence of appetite and desire, and the anxiety of paternal love; but has abandoned the aged, whom she no longer wants, to the slow workings of filial gratitude, or, what is even less to be depended upon, to the providence of their younger years. Did the habitual practice of society imperatively subject every family to the obligation of laying by some provision for age, as it commonly does for infancy, our ideas of necessity would be somewhat enlarged, and the minimum of wages somewhat raised.

The wages of the labourer are a matter of adjustment and compact between the conflicting interests of master and work- man; the latter endeavouring to get as much, the former to give as little, as he possibly can; but in a contest of this kind, there is on the side of the master an advantage, over and above what is given him by the nature of his occupation. The master and the workman are no doubt equally necessary to each other; for one gains nothing but with the other’s assistance; the wants of the master are, however, of the two, less urgent and less immediate. There are few masters but what could exist sev- eral months or even years, without employing a single labourer; and few labourers that can remain out of work for many weeks, without being reduced to the extremity of distress. And this circumstance must have its weight in striking the bargain for wages between them.

Sismondi has suggested some legislative provisions to better the condition of the labouring classes.

He says that their low wages leads to the gain of their employers.

accrues to the benefit of the adventurers and masters who employ them; and thence infers, that in the moment of calamity, their claim for relief is upon the masters, and not upon society at large.

He proposes to make it obligatory for:

  • landowners and farmers to always feed the agricultural labor
  • manufacturers to provide subsistence for the manufacturing labourer

He also proposes that the employers can prevent or allow marriage of their workers so that they can raise their families.

It must appear shocking to the eye of philanthropy, that such is not always the case. It is lamentable to think of the little providence of the labouring classes against the season of casual misfortune, infirmity, and sickness, as well as against the certain helplessness of old age.

Such considerations afford most powerful reasons for forwarding and encouraging provident associations of the labouring class, for the daily deposit of a trifling saving, as a fund in reserve for that period, when age, or unexpected calamity, shall cut off the resource of their industry. 52 But such institutions can not be expected to succeed, unless the labourer be taught to consider these means of precaution as a matter of duty and necessity, and hold to the obligation to carry his savings to such places of deposit, as equally indispensable with the payment of his rent or taxes=

this new duty would doubtless tend in a slight degree to raise the scale of wages, so as to allow of such frugality, but for that very reason it is desirable. How can such establishments thrive in countries where habit and the interested views of the This scheme, however entitled to favourable consideration by the motive of humanity in which it originated, seems to me altogether impracticable. It would be a gross violation of the right of property, to saddle one class of society with the compulsory maintenance of another; and it would be a violation still more gross, to give one set of men a personal control over another; for the freedom of personal action is the most sacred of all the objects of property.

The arbitrary prohibition of marriage to one class is a premium to the procreation of all the rest. Besides, it is not true that low wages always leads to the the employer’s profit.

Their reduction, followed up by the constant action of competition, is sure to bring about a fall of the price of products; so that it is the class of consumers, in other words, the whole community, that derives the profit.

And if it be so great as to throw the subsistence of the labourers upon the public at large, the public is in a great measure indemnified by the reduced prices of the objects of its consumption. that he must be stimulated by the impulse of want.

Adam Smith had great experience and deep insight. He said= “The liberal reward of labour, as it encourages the propagation, so it increases the industry of the common people. The wages of labour are the encouragement of industry, which, like every other human quality, improves in proportion to the encouragement it receives. A plentiful subsistence increases the bodily strength of the labourer, and the comfortable, hope of bettering his condition, and of ending his days perhaps In ease and plenty, animates him to exert that strength to the utmost. Where wages are high, accordingly, we shall always find the workmen more active, diligent, and expeditious, than where they are low; in England, for example, than Scotland; in the neighbourhood of great towns, than in remote country places. Some workmen, indeed, when they can earn in four days what will maintain them through the week, will be idle the other three. This, however, is by no means the case with the greater part. Workmen, on the contrary, when they are liberally paid by the piece, are very apt to overwork themselves, and to ruin their health and constitution in a few years.” 54

Overpopulation is an evil both in a savage and civilized society.

It would be unjust to suppose it a creature of social institutions, and a mere fallacy to hold out the prospect of a complete remedy; and, however it may merit the thanks of mankind to study the means of palliation, we must be cautious not to give a ready ear to expedients that can have no good effect, and must prove worse than the disease itself.

A government should protect the interests of the labouring classes without deranging the course of human affairs, or cramping the freedom of individual dealings.

A wise ruler will equally protect the master and the labourer from the effects of combination. The masters have he advantage of smaller numbers and easier communication. The labourers can scarcely combine, without assuming the air of revolt and disaffection, which the police is ever on the watch to repress.

The partisans of the exporting system have gone so far as to consider the combinations of the journeymen as injurious to national prosperity because they raise the price of their exports. But what must be the character of that policy, which aims at national prosperity through the impoverishment of a large proportion of the home producers, with a view to supply foreigners at a cheaper rate, and give them all the benefit of the national privation and self-denial?


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