Popular Political Economy: Four Lectures Delivered at the London Mechanics' Institution

Hodgskin, Thomas
Display paragraphs in this book containing:
First Pub. Date
London: Charles Tait
Pub. Date

Natural Circumstances Which Influence the Productive Power of Labour.

Chapter I

Two species of labour; the labour of observing the laws of the material world, and of carrying the means suggested by observation into execution.—Illustrations of both.—Both equally useful.—All labour productive which procures the labourer's subsistence.—Opposite opinion and practice.


IT has been shown in the Introduction, that labour creates all wealth; and also, that the law which condemns us to eat bread by the sweat of our brow, is in so far imprinted on the material world, that it gives wealth and bread to labour, and to labour only. Thus we have at once two species of labour to which it behoves us to attend; viz. the labour of observing and ascertaining by what means the material world will give us most wealth, and the labour of carrying those means, when ascertained, into execution. For the sake of distinction, I shall call the former mental, the latter bodily, or muscular labour. Unless we keep this distinction in view, and are at all times aware of the equal necessity for observing the laws of the material world, and for carrying observation into practice, we shall not comprehend the complicated phenomena of production. Those also who work chiefly with their hands, may be apt to over-estimate their share in producing wealth; and those whose business it is chiefly to observe, may look down, as, in fact, they now do, with somewhat of disdain on those who execute what observation dictates. But beyond observing the laws which regulate the material world, and carrying those observations into execution by manual labour, there is no other element necessary to produce wealth.


The folly of exalting either of these species of labour at the expense of the other, as is done by literary people, and patronising governments, may be made evident, by remarking, that both of them are equally necessary to production, and are practised by almost every individual. The most familiar and, perhaps, useful example of mental labour, which leads to the production of wealth, is the continued attention required for months or years, to learn any manual art, but for which there would be neither skill nor dexterity. Mental labour frequently terminates in muscular adroitness; as for example, in the case of a silk-weaver, who, after a long apprenticeship and considerable practice, becomes able to weave all kinds of patterns: or it may terminate in adding to the powers of the mind itself; it may give, for example a capacity to invent machines, after a man has laboriously studied the laws of mechanics, observed the powers of external nature, or diligently ascertained the properties of different bodies. Unless there be mental labour, there can be no manual dexterity; and no capability of inventing machines. It therefore is essential to production.


After the weaver has acquired his skill, has ascertained the tenacity of silk, and best modes of weaving it, he sits down at his loom, and by muscular labour, combined with continued observation and attention, he produces a portion of that beautiful manufacture. The machinist, in like manner, makes the instrument he has before only thought of; or makes a model of it; repeated essays and multiplied observations being required before he can realize his theoretical conceptions in solid materials. These are examples of bodily labour: and it is unquestionably as necessary to complete the production of a piece of silk, or any other commodity, or a machine of any description, as mental labour.


As the facility or difficulty of acquiring the power to exercise different species of labour is sometimes mentioned as a reason why there should be different rates of wages; it is of some consequence to remark, that both mental and bodily labour are practised by almost every individual. Thus the statesman, the lawyer, or the physician, each of whom derives his salary principally from his mental exertions or mental skill, also labours with his body, though in a less degree than a ploughman or a shoemaker. One writes his orders, another his opinion, or he goes into court and speaks; and the third, after feeling his patient's pulse, writes a prescription. Thus also the ploughman, the cotton-spinner, or even the man who breaks stones on the road, each of whom derives his salary principally from his bodily exertions, labours, though in a much less degree, with his mind. The ploughman must note that his furrows be straight; the cotton-spinner must watch his pirns, and tack the broken thread together by his mind guided hands; the stone-breaker must exert a considerable degree of skill and dexterity in breaking all the stones of nearly the same size, and he must carefully observe that they are spread equally over every part of the road.


The meanest labourer must use some mental exertion, and much of the most common labour is now rendered easy of acquisition by the transmitted habits, knowledge, and skill of former generations; or it appears easy because acquired in youth. There is, therefore, much less reason than is sometimes imagined for different species of labour being differently rewarded. Easy labour is only transmitted skill. The parents and ancestors of common labourers served an apprenticeship for them, and handed down to them their dexterity as an inheritance. For this they are as much entitled to a remuneration as other men are for transmitted property; or for the time they employ in learning an art, which, from its comparative newness, is not so easy of acquisition.


We find, in the progress of society, that men confine themselves to different species of mental and bodily labour. One man, for example, attends only to chemistry, and another to mathematics; a third does nothing but guide the plough, and a fourth busies himself only in making perfumery. In consequence of this separation of employments, a question has been raised, as to what species of labour is productive; and long before any rational solution was offered of the question, governments, with that pre-eminently ignorant presumption for which they have ever been distinguished, began to encourage, or repress, different species of labour. Under some circumstances they have given bounties to promote the cultivation of the ground; under others, to stimulate the bringing commodities from abroad, or to the exportation of those made at home; under others again, they have endeavoured with all their power, to make their subjects manufacture the raw produce of their own or of foreign countries. The monstrous folly of this interference is fully proved, by its having been shown, that all labour, in which individuals voluntarily engage, is productive to them and the state.


"All wealth," says a French writer,*13 "is at present the result of two or more different species of industry. Without mutual assistance there could be no complete production, and the respective products of each labourer cannot be compared, because neither is complete without the other. Bread is the result of the industry of the reaper, the thresher, the miller, and of the baker, as well as of the industry of the ploughman and of the sower. Without the mutual labour of the flax-dresser, the spinner, and the weaver, the flax, which also costs the farmer much and diversified trouble to produce it, could not be converted into linen, and it would be thrown aside as a noisome pestilential weed. The inquiry to ascertain which of these species of labour is most productive or most advantageous, is like an inquiry to ascertain which of our two legs is of most service in walking."


It is impossible, therefore, to distinguish which of the various species of industry practised in a well-peopled country is most productive, or most useful. All of them seem equally necessary, and every species of labour, whether mental or bodily, must equally be called productive, if it procure a subsistence for him who practises it.


Of such labour as is intended for the labourer's own immediate gratification, which constitutes, in an advanced state of society, a very small part of the whole, nothing can be said in a political-economical point of view. It may be wicked or it may be wise; it may be frivolous or it may be important; but it has its beginning and its termination with the individual; and though the moralist may think it worthy of remark, the economist rejects it from his science. In general, however, labour is directed towards the production of some commodity for sale, and whenever it procures the individual his subsistence, it is productive to him: it supplies his wants, and it must supply some of the wants, or afford some gratification to others, or they would not buy its products. Whenever labour is voluntarily paid for, or its products are freely purchased, and the labourer can live by his labour, we must presume that it is productive both to him and the buyers. No industry is unproductive but that, the produce of which no person will buy, and which does not contribute to the individual's subsistence or gratification. This description includes nations as well as individuals. If a nation reward any species of industry, it is plainly productive to those who exercise it; and what better criterion can we possibly have of its being productive to the nation, than that the nation thus rewards it?


It will be found of importance to establish the principle of all labour being productive, which enables the labourer to subsist. The object in labouring is to supply the individual's wants. Nature gave him his faculties and powers for this purpose; for this purpose only, and not for the purpose of supplying the wants of other men whom she equally endowed. If his labour, IN ADDITION to supplying his own wants, will supply the wants of other persons, will enable him to rear up a family, and pay taxes, rent, and profit, so much the better; the society may increase the faster; but if his labour is not so productive, if it only enable him to subsist, replacing whatever tools, seed, corn, &c. he may use in the preparation of his subsistence, including, of course, his clothing, house, furniture, &c., so that his condition is not gradually deteriorated, his labour is productive. More than comfortable subsistence is not required, and Nature probably intended that each individual should subsist himself and his family. As long as his labour produces his subsistence, he may live on, and may enjoy life till the natural period of its dissolution. Fortunately, indeed, productive power is seldom so limited, and never when men labour in conjunction. Each labourer, in all civilized societies, maintains many persons. The importance of establishing the principle that all labour is productive which subsists the labourer, arises from the prevalent theories relative to capital, and the universal practice of capitalists.


It is maintained, for example, that labour is not productive, and, in fact, the labourer is not allowed to work, unless, in addition to replacing whatever he uses or consumes, and comfortably subsisting himself, his labour also gives a profit to the capitalist on all the capital which he uses or consumes, while engaged in producing; or unless his labour produces a great deal more in the present state of society, than will suffice for his own comfortable subsistence. Capitalists becoming the proprietors of all the wealth of the society, as it is produced, act on this principle, and never—as the rule—will they suffer labourers to have the means of subsistence, unless they have a confident expectation that their labour will produce a profit over and above their own subsistence. This is so palpable a violation of the natural principle above stated,—it is so completely the principle of slavery, to starve the labourer, unless his labour will feed his master as well as himself, that we must not be surprised if we should find it one of the chief causes, wherever it exists, and it exists almost universally, of the poverty and wretchedness of the labouring classes. To develope this truth belongs to another part of this book; but it was impossible to speak of productive labour without pointing out its extreme limit, and without adverting, as well to the opposite theory, as to the social practice, which condemns men to starvation, unless their labour will produce much more than they require for their own use or consumption.


Having brought before the reader the equal utility of mental and muscular exertion; and having established the fact, that all labour is productive which subsists the labourer; I shall proceed to point out the important effects which, in the progress of society, are produced by mental labour or observation; and endeavour to explain the natural law by which it increases productive power, and by which knowledge is continually augmented in society.

Notes for this chapter

The Marquis Garnier.

Part I, Chapter II

End of Notes

Return to top