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

Hodgskin, Thomas
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London: Charles Tait
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10 of 15

Chapter V

Division of labour between the sexes.—Diversity of age, talents, and disposition.—Division of labour arises from difference of organization.—Subdivision of labour from this cause as society advances.—Does not arise from barter.—Necessity of barter.—Limits to division of labour.—Extent of the market synonymous with number of labourers.—Division of labour extended by the multiplication of mankind.—Dr. Smith held a similar opinion.—Principle illustrated by England, Russia, and America.—By improved modes of communication.—Present condition of the labourer no proof that his productive power does not increase with an increase of people.—Ireland an apparent exception.—The causes of its poverty all centre in misgovernment.—Doctrine here stated not a contradiction of Mr. Malthus's principles.


ALTHOUGH we find in some stages of society, that each individual makes for himself nearly all that he requires or consumes; being, as circumstances dictate, a fisherman, or a hunter, building his own hut, constructing his own canoe, or making the rude tools he is afterwards to use, yet there is no state of society, probably, in which division of labour between the sexes does not take place. It is and must be practised the instant a family exists. Among even the most barbarous tribes, war is the exclusive business of the males; and they are in general, the principal hunters and fishers. The man takes to himself the perils and pleasures of the chase, and the woman labours in and about the hut. Different employments for the sexes may be traced in all communities, in every age of the world, and in every history, whether fabulous or true. In modern as well as ancient times, in the most civilized as well as in the most barbarous societies, we find the men, as the rule, taking the out-door work to themselves, and leaving to the women most of the domestic occupations. This primary division of labour springs from sexual difference of organization, it has its foundation in the difference of our physical constitution, in the different parental duties required of the sexes, and is co-extensive with the existence of our race.


The aptitude of the sexes for different employments, is only an example of the more general principle, that every human being, by the circumstances of age, health, bodily or mental powers, is better adapted than another to some particular occupation. In the present state of society, it often happens that a man is compelled by the circumstances of his situation, and principally from a regard to the pecuniary advantage of his children, to breed them up to his own trade; but whenever there is a liberty of choice, a predilection for certain occupations is recognized, and the liking of a youth is consulted before he is bound for life. Children are never tasked like grown persons, and the aged and the feeble perform services disdained by the youthful and robust. Among those who differ neither in sex, nor in age, nor in strength, we find peculiarities of constitution which makes each select in preference, some particular occupation. "The talents and tastes of men," says M. Storch, who also dissents from the doctrine of barter giving occasion to the division of labour, "vary so much, that no society is known, however small, in which this diversity is not observable. Each man devotes himself by preference, to that occupation for which he has a taste, and if each follow his natural disposition, the division of labour is established."*38


"In a tribe of hunters or shepherds," says Dr. Smith, himself recognizing this principle, "a particular person makes bows and arrows, for example, with more readiness and dexterity than any other. He frequently exchanges them for cattle or for venison with his companions; and he finds at last, that he can in this manner get more cattle and venison than if he himself went to the field to catch them. From a regard to his own interest, therefore, the making of bows and arrows grows to be his chief business, and he becomes a sort of armourer. Another excels in making the frames and covers of their little huts or moveable houses. He is accustomed to be of use in this way to his neighbours, who reward him in the same manner with cattle and venison, till at last he finds it his interest to dedicate himself entirely to this employment, and to become a sort of house carpenter. In the same manner a third becomes a smith or a brazier, a fourth a tanner or dresser of hides or skins."*39


This principle operates in an advanced state of society, as well as at its commencement, and is made palpable to us by its results every day. A Mr. Le Mann for example, finds that he has some superior skill in making biscuits, and he confines his business to this branch of baking. In this metropolis there are a great number of persons who have been brought up smiths, carpenters, or cabinet-makers, and who, finding they can make some particular kind of instruments, tools, or furniture, better than other men, employ themselves exclusively in making this one article. Some surgeons, though they go through the long course of study required to follow their profession in all its branches, attend only to the teeth; others attend only to the eyes, and others again apply all their skill to the organ of hearing. The difference of sex, of age, of bodily and mental power, or difference of organization, is the chief source of division of labour, and it is continually extended in the progress of society by the different tastes, dispositions, and talents of individuals, and their different aptitudes for different employments. The numberless advantages of the practice, sanction and confirm it. In these circumstances it has a more obvious origin than is supplied by the supposition of an occult propensity to barter. In fact, barter is the consequence not the cause of division of labour; and the latter must have been introduced before the instinctive propensity, if it exist, could have been called into exercise.


If there were, however, an aversion to barter, if men could not supply all their wants more easily by dedicating themselves, each to one occupation, than if each were to make every thing he requires,—if they could not exchange the products of their different species of industry for one another, division of labour could not be carried beyond the appropriation of the different members of a single family, to those different employments by which they provide and prepare the subsistence and comforts of the whole. If, for example, the nail-maker, or the pin-maker, found nobody to give him bread and meat for nails and pins, he must either starve, or, giving up his exclusive business, take to producing bread and meat. Barter, therefore, or a mutual exchange among all the different classes of labourers, of what each produces, is necessary to division of labour; and must be equally advantageous.


THE LIMITS TO DIVISION OF LABOUR are defined, according to most political economists, by two circumstances, viz., the extent of the market, and the nature of different employments. As this is one natural source for the increase of productive power, it is of importance for us to be thoroughly sensible of its natural limits. I propose, therefore, to say a few words on each of these circumstances.


Extent of market is, I take it, to most people an ambiguous phrase, meaning in reality, nothing more than a greater or less number of persons desiring the commodity for which there is said to be a market, and having something, the produce of their own labour or of the labour of other men, to give in exchange for the commodity they desire. A market does not consist in mouths to be fed or backs to be covered; not, therefore, in consumers merely, but in the circumstance that each labourer shall be able to sell the produce of his own labour, and thereby obtain what he himself desires, of the produce of other men's labour. The shoemaker, for example, exchanges shoes for money, and with the money he buys bread, meat, beer and clothing. In the same manner, the baker, the butcher, the brewer, and the tailor, each sells his respective produce for money, and with the money he buys the produce of these other labourers, including the shoemaker. If the shoemaker, the baker, the butcher, the brewer, or the tailor, could not obtain the produce of the other labourers by the sale of his own, either there could be no possible motive for men making shoes, bread, beer, and clothes, or each labourer must make them all for himself. The desire to obtain the produce of other men's labour, money being only the intervening instrument for making the exchange, and the certainty that by procuring it, other things may be obtained, constitutes in each of these labourers the motive for his confining his exertions to his own business. Thus the commodity produced by one labourer, the shoes for example, constitutes in reality and ultimately, the market for the commodities produced by other labourers; and they and their productions are mutually the market for one another. But all commodities being the produce of labour, must be plentiful as labourers are multiplied, or as their productive power increases. The extent of the market, therefore, means the number of labourers, or their productive power; and rather the former than the latter, because the wants of each one are circumscribed, and unless they were to increase in number, there would be neither motive nor means for augmenting production. If this be a correct view of the phrase "extent of the market," we remove at once to an indefinite distance, this limit to the division of labour. It is co-extensive with the number of labourers communicating with each other, and to that number it is impossible for us to foresee or to state any conceivable bounds.


To avoid misconception, it must here be noticed, that in the present state of society, the rich who do not labour, are the actual and immediate customers of most tradesmen, and are generally considered as constituting the market for the commodities of the labourer. But how do those who do not labour pay for what they consume? All wealth, including gold and silver, is the produce of labour; and those who do not labour cannot have any thing to pay their tradesmen with, which is not the produce of labour. They therefore obtain, having, in fact, a legal right to receive, the produce of some labourers, and this is what they give their tradesmen. But if they had no claim over this produce, the labourers would have so much the more; and each of any two classes, the butcher and the baker for example, would obtain the produce of the other class at a cheaper rate. There would be more to be mutually exchanged by and amongst labourers, and a proportionate extension of the market and division of labour.


According to this explanation of the phrase, division of labour may be extended as labourers or people generally are multiplied; which is a cause for its perpetual and indefinite extension. Were there only one person in existence, he would be obliged, like Robinson Crusoe, to provide for all his wants himself, and there could be no division of labour. Were two persons in existence, however, division of labour might begin; it might be extended as more grew up to maturity, and it could not be extended unless men did multiply. Different tastes in individuals, their different aptitudes for different employments, even, inventions and discoveries, were population stationary, would only cause a change of employment and no further division of labour. These circumstances exist in Asia as well as in Europe, but there population and division of labour seem both alike stationary.


In the following passage, Dr. Smith has distinctly pointed out the increase in the number of labourers, as the cause for extended division of labour. "The number of workmen in every branch of business, generally increases with the division of labour, or rather it is the increase of their number which enables them to class and subdivide themselves in this manner."*40


To illustrate this principle, I may remark that division of labour is always most extended in densely-peopled countries, like England; in manufactures, the produce of which being of a durable nature, of general utility, and of easy conveyance, commands an extensive market, whether many persons live or not on the spot where it is made. At the beginning of the last chapter it was mentioned that the produce of England was greater or more valuable than that of Russia and the United States of America, and it is well known that in those countries division of labour is not carried nearly so far as in this. For this fact as to Russia, we have the testimony of M. Storch, who resided long in that country.*41 In some parts of America every man must be a jack of all trades. He must send his corn twenty miles to be ground, he must go as far to obtain medical assistance, or find a carpenter to repair his house,—or he must be farmer, miller, doctor, and carpenter him.


In a somewhat similar manner in the remote villages of England or Scotland, one man does all the work which is to be done in wood, and another every thing that is to be done in iron, while the trade of carpenters and smiths are divided in the populous districts, and in our large towns into numerous branches. In country places, one shopkeeper sells every commodity that the people require, and can hardly obtain a living, while in this metropolis princely fortunes have been made by dealing in the single article of ham or shoe-blacking. The manufacture of pins, which are easily transported, nearly indestructible and of frequent use, has been selected to show the extent to which division of labour can be carried. Knives, watches, and other metallic articles, being, like pins, of general utility and easily transported, command an extensive market, and in the manufacture of them division of labour is almost unlimited; the tempering and burnishing watch-springs, and the annealing knife-blades being the exclusive business of some individuals.


Improved methods of conveyance, such as rail-roads, steam-vessels, canals, and indeed, all the means of facilitating intercourse between distant countries,*42 have, as far as division of labour is concerned, the same effects as an actual increase in the number of people; they bring more labourers into communication with each other, and more produce to be exchanged. In this point of view, the discovery of America and the modern application of steam to the purposes of navigation have had important effects. "A cotton-mill," says Mr. M'Culloch, "could not be constructed in a small country, which had no intercourse with its neighbours. The demand and competition of both Europe and America have been necessary to carry the manufactures of Glasgow, Manchester, and Birmingham, to their present state of improvement."*43


The conclusion from these remarks, is that division of labour is only limited by the number of labourers, and tends continually and indefinitely to extend itself as they are multiplied. Labour is the sole source of wealth, and even if the productive power of individuals were not susceptible of augmentation, the more labourers were multiplied, the more force would the spring rise with, which overflows the land with fertility. But I have shown that an increase of labourers also tends necessarily to augment knowledge and extend division of labour. As the number of labourers increases therefore, the productive power of society augments in the compound ratio of that increase, multiplied by the effects of the division of labour and the increase of knowledge. The labouring classes of society will, I am afraid, be slow to believe, when their poverty is in general attributed to their multiplying too fast, and perhaps justly attributed when that multiplication is only compared with the want of the capitalist for their services—that this vast increase in their productive power, is the result of their augmenting in number. Why they reap no benefit from it, why, when nature seems to have provided for the perpetual prosperity of society—there should be among one class indescribable and never ceasing distress—and among another, perpetual apprehension for their opulence,—how it happens that all the produce of increasing skill and knowledge, falls into the power of the rapacious landlord, the usurious capitalist, and the profligate dependants on, and profligate supporters of, profligate governments, swelling their wealth to an enormous amount, increasing the number of idlers in society, and checking its progress by checking division of labour and the progress of knowledge, must be explained, if at all, in a subsequent part of this work. I only advert to them now, to show the reader that the actual poverty of the labourer, is no argument against the principle I have endeavoured to establish. On the contrary, the immense revenue levied by our government, augmenting from year to year; the enormous and increasing amount of the sums annually paid to the pretended servants of a benevolent Deity; the increased wealth of the capitalist, and the yearly augmenting revenue of the owners of land,—all arising from the annual produce of labour, are indisputable proofs of that vast increase in productive power, the natural well-head of which is an increase in the number of labourers. When so much has of late been written against the principle of population, it is consoling to find any circumstances connected with it, like the division of labour and increase of knowledge, which appear to relieve the wise provisions of nature from the odium cast on them by the shortsighted and corrupt theories of interested men; giving us reason to suppose, that there is in these circumstances, at least an adequate compensation for that increasing difficulty of procuring the means of subsistence, which is said by most political economists to be the necessary consequence of an increase in the numbers of mankind.


There is one apparent exception to this consoling view, which could it not be explained by a reference to counterbalancing social causes, might make us doubt the correctness of the explanation:—Ireland is one of the most densely peopled countries of Europe, and that one in which population has made the most astonishing progress, yet Ireland is at this time conspicuous for the ignorance and poverty of the mass of its people. This is, however, only an apparent exception. We learn from Spenser the poet, and Sir John Davis, who are unquestionable authority, that in the reign of Elizabeth, the Irish were absolute savages. When Swift lived and wrote, they were not much better and were certainly more poor and wretched, though not so numerous as at present. In fact, since the reign of Elizabeth, they have improved considerably; but cut off by their peculiar language and still more by their political condition, from free communication with the rest of the empire, even with that part of their nominal countrymen who speak the English language and hold dominion over them—their commerce and manufactures annihilated by the trading jealousy of England, and professing a religion prescribed by the ruling party, the Catholics of Ireland have not advanced equally with the English and Protestant inhabitants of the empire. If I have rendered it probable, however, that an addition of heads and hands naturally multiplies productive power; if it cannot be doubted, that an increase of population clears the forests of America, and improves the agriculture and manufactures of Britain; if it roll the tide of civilization over the New World, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and improve the arts, though it may not add to the comfort of the labourers, in the Old; if it be a source of happiness in America, where a family, to those who are willing to labour for its support, is not a curse, but, as nature intended, a blessing,—increase of population cannot be the origin of poverty, wretchedness, and misery in Europe: and either we must reject all idea even of unity of design in the creation, and uniformity of principle in the moral government of the world, or we must seek for other causes of the poverty and distress which afflict the labourers of Europe generally, and particularly those of Ireland, than that principle by which man multiplies on the earth, and makes the material elements the instruments and the handmaids of his will.


In the case of Ireland, we have not far to seek for those causes: they lie on the surface; and when we are called on,—as the people of this country are daily and practically, on occasions of the deepest interest to us all—such as that of submitting to forced emigration, and of paying annually for a large standing army to keep the Irish obedient—to choose between the dispensations of Providence and the institutions of man, we cannot hesitate which to condemn. Whatever may be the respect due to the latter, it ill becomes us to misrepresent or calumniate the moral order of the universe, that they may retain our undiminished veneration.


It is admitted that no part of Europe, though generally misgoverned, and too much governed, has been, since the time of Queen Elizabeth, so frequently plundered and so grievously oppressed as Ireland. Confiscation, for a long series of years, followed confiscation in rapid succession, and the whole property of the country changed hands more than once. The kingdom was occupied by two parties, contending for the mastery, and was one continued scene of strife. When internal commotion ceased, which it can hardly be said to have done up to the present time, it was only by the power of England maintaining a minority in their usurped dominion. The Irish were a conquered people, and have ever been so considered and treated by the English masters of the soil, and the English Protestant government. They had no other privilege than that of maintaining out of their own resources, their own priests, in addition to being compelled to support the most extravagant and useless hierarchy that ever plundered mankind in the name of a merciful God, and inflicted ignorance and misery on those it pretended to enlighten and improve. Their landlords were in many cases unknown to them, and without bearing the name of slaves, to interest benevolence in their favour, they were mercilessly given over without appeal and without protection to the club of the Orangemen, the bayonet of the soldier, the scourge of the middle-man, and to the ecclesiastical courts of the tithe-proctor; they were without redress. The laws were made against them, by and in favour of their oppressors; animosity and hatred pervaded every bosom; and Ireland was the seat of anarchy. When the passions and intellect and time of all classes were thus occupied in maintaining usurped power, or in evading and resisting it, there were no means of improvement. A disposition to establish manufactures and to engage in trade was shown, but it was repressed by the jealous policy of England. Without examining in detail the effects of the penal laws against Catholics, of the restrictions imposed by our legislature on the commerce of Ireland, and of the people having two extravagant churches to support, when in general one has been found amply sufficient to stay the natural progress of nations in prosperity, it is abundantly evident that the causes of the ignorance and poverty of the Irish all belong to that class I have denominated social, and may all be expressed in the one comprehensive word, MISGOVERNMENT.


When by showing the natural consequences of an increase of people, we have rescued the order of the universe from the misrepresentations of ignorance and selfishness, we are enabled more correctly to appreciate the consequences of social institutions. The numerous population of Ireland, instead of giving strength and opulence, and multiplying productive power in the ratio of their numbers, as nature dictates, is a serious misfortune to every part of the empire. The Irish labourers are now pulling down to their own level of wretchedness and ignorance, the people of the country who have been instrumental in degrading them. Misgovernment, therefore, poisons at its source the natural spring of healthy existence, and turns the principle of life into disease and corruption. Under its withering, its demoniac influence, the natural principle of population, the origin of all present national greatness and the promise of all future national power, teems only with poverty and wretchedness—continually threatening present disasters, and leading inevitably to future commotion.


The reader will observe, that I only notice here the natural effects of an increase of mankind on productive power without referring to the effects of the increase of any one class on the distribution of wealth. It is, however, chiefly in this latter point of view that the increase of labourers has been in general considered. The principle I have endeavoured to establish is, that an increase in the number of labourers, including those who work with their heads as well as those who work with their hands, naturally and necessarily promotes a knowledge of wealth-creating arts and extends division of labour. Mr. Malthus and other writers contend that an increase in the number of labourers, compared with the amount of profit the capitalist, who may or may not also be a labourer, can expect to make on their labour, and consequently compared with the quantity of employment he can or will give them, has a necessary tendency to lower wages and debase the condition of the labourer. Both these propositions may be true, for they are not contradictory; but confounding them as one, leads I believe to many mistakes. The sentimental part of mankind look only at the view here taken; the Political Economists confine themselves to the relation between labour and capital. Mr. Malthus points out the effects which an increase in the number of labourers has in lessening the share which each one receives of the annual produce,—the portion of that distributed amongst them being a definite and determinate quantity, not regulated in any degree by what they annually create,—I have only endeavoured to describe the effects of that increase on the productive power of the whole.

Notes for this chapter

Cours d'Economie Politique, tom. 1.
Wealth of Nations, book I. chap. II.
Wealth of Nations, book ii., Introduction.
Cours d'Economie, book 1. ch. 8.
It may be worth while here, to remind the reader that these means of facilitating intercourse are the results of invention and discovery; thus, such inventions promote division of labour—not only as they give rise to new employments, but by bringing more human beings to communicate with each other.
Principles of Political Economy, p. 91.

Part I, Chapter VI

End of Notes

10 of 15

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