The Wages Question: A Treatise on Wages and the Wages Class
By Francis A. Walker
Francis A. Walker’s
The Wages Question is generally credited as having demolished the prior, antiquated “wages fund” theory of wages [see Book I, Chapters
IX]. In the process, Walker simultaneously laid the groundwork for
John Bates Clark’s definitive descriptions of the marginal products of labor and capital. His interest in the nature of the firm contributed to
Frank H. Knight’s work by clearly describing the factors of production and how to categorize their rewards into wages, rent, and profits.Walker’s work and influence served as models not only because he discussed production, labor, and wages with unusual clarity for his time, but also because his interest in monetary issues (influenced by his father, also an economist) enabled him to describe the
difference between nominal and real values. His clarifications of monetary issues coincided with concurrent national interests in
the gold/silver/bimetallism parity controversies of the late 1800s, and the meaning of money for an economy. Walker later wrote a textbook that was used in classrooms till the publication of
Principles of Economics.Walker became the first President of the
American Economic Association. His professorships at Yale and MIT changed the courses of their economics programs. His leadership abilities were evident in every realm of his life, including his stint as a General during the Civil War. His devotion to economics as a profession paved the way for many generations of U.S. economists.For all his contributions, Walker’s popularity may also have been one of the main sources of the promulgatation of many current misunderstandings. His views of
Thomas Robert Malthus’s writings may have been the source of the popular subsequent mis-association of Carlyle’s 1849 term, the
“dismal science,” with Malthus. (Walker’s interest in labor and wages naturally led him to consider population, but may also have caused him to emphasize pressures inherent in rapid population growth, race, and class distinctions over
Malthus’s original interest in the economic incentives that deter overpopulation.) Walker’s general views and influence may have led to other underlying divisions behind different strains in macro- and micro-economic research that persist to this day.Lauren F. Landsburg
First Pub. Date
London: Macmillan and Co.
The text of this edition is in the public domain. Picture of Young courtesy of The Warren J. Samuels Portrait Collection at Duke University.
- Front Matter
- Part I, Chapter 1
- Part I, Chapter 2
- Part I, Chapter 3
- Part I, Chapter 4
- Part I, Chapter 5
- Part I, Chapter 6
- Part I, Chapter 7
- Part I, Chapter 8
- Part I, Chapter 9
- Part II, Chapter 10
- Part II, Chapter 11
- Part II, Chapter 12
- Part II, Chapter 13
- Part II, Chapter 14
- Part II, Chapter 15
- Part II, Chapter 16
- Part II, Chapter 17
- Part II, Chapter 18
- Part II, Chapter 19
- Concluding Remarks
WE have seen that, with perfect competition, the working classes have ample security that they will, at all times, receive the greatest amount of wages which is consistent with the existing conditions of industry. The object of the present chapter is to ascertain, if we may, how far the actual mobility of labor corresponds to that theoretical mobility which is involved in perfect competition.
And first, we note that the theoretical mobility of labor rests on the assumption that laborers will, in all things and at all times, pursue their economic interests; that they perfectly comprehend those interests, and will suffer nothing to stand in the way of their attainment. Of course the men of whom this can be predicated are not real human men. They are a class of beings devised for the purposes of economical reasoning in accordance with the definition given by Mr. Mill in his “Essays on some Unsettled Questions in Political Economy,” as follows: “Political Economy is concerned with man solely as a being who desires to possess wealth, and who is capable of judging of the comparative efficacy of means to that end…. It makes entire abstraction of every other human passion or motive, except those which may be regarded as perpetually antagonizing principles to the desire of wealth, namely, aversion to labor and desire of the present enjoyment of costly indulgences. These it takes, to a certain extent, into its calculations, because these do
not merely, like other desires, occasionally conflict with the pursuit of wealth, but accompany it always as a drag or impediment, and are therefore inseparably mixed up in the consideration of it. Political Economy considers mankind as occupied solely
*24 in acquiring and consuming wealth.”
But thus to frame a system of economics upon the assumption of the perfect, unintermitted, unimpeded action of one, and that not always the most potential, of many human motives, is it not, as Dr. Whewell has said,
*25 as if the physical geographer should construct his scheme in recognition of gravitation alone, disregarding the power of cohesion in preserving the original structure of the earth’s surface, and should thus reach the conclusion that all the mountains must at once run down into the valleys and the face of nature become a plain? In much the same way the economist of the
à priori school disregards the original structure of industrial society, the separation of classes and nations, the obstructions offered by differences of race, religion and speech,
*26 the effects of strangeness and apprehension
of change, the constraints of ignorance and superstition, the attachments of home, country and friends, the helplessness of men in new occupations, the jealousy of imported labor,
*27 and perhaps more than all else, the inhibition of migration, in the case of perhaps the vast majority of the race, by the want of the supplies of food and money necessary to their removal and immediate subsistence.
Does the comparison seem extravagant? Look at China. There is found a population of three or four hundred millions, of whose mode of life and means of subsistence travellers give accounts that are simply shocking; reduced to the vilest food, the vilest clothing, the vilest shelter, or none at all of the latter two classes of assumed necessaries. Opposite their own land lies a region of great fertility, containing vast expanses with an average population of from one to four, six or ten to the square mile. Why has not this mountain run down into this valley: Why have not untold millions poured upon our shores to relieve the fearful internal pressure of the Celestial Empire? The reasons are too familiar to need to be stated. The fact is what we wish to use here. What a commentary on the political economy which has been reared on the assumption of the absolute mobility of labor! Three or four hundred million Chinese suffering the extremity of misery at home; 63,199 Chinese in the United States in 1870, and that, after the energetic recruiting of Mr. Koopmanschoop
and his emigrant-runners! The original structure of that mountain, at least, has withstood the effects of gravitation with not a little success. Popocatapetl has lost a larger proportion of his bulk, in the last one hundred years.
But we may turn to a people less strangely constituted and less strongly conserved than the Chinese; a people longer in contact with the western world, and in blood, speech and faith far less removed from the nations of Europe. The inhabitants of British India have been moved even less than those of China, by the pressure of population, to seek relief in more sparsely settled portions of the globe. With the wages of manual labor at 3d. a day in good times, and with a scarcity amounting to famine on an average once in four or five years, the East Indians respect the “original structure” by which they were placed on the great Asiatic peninsula, and meet their fate where they were born, without thought of change. Wages may rise to any height in America and Australia, but the people of India are even unconscious of any impulse to emigration; and with oriental stoicism and fatalism abide in their lot, like the everlasting hills that guard their northern frontier.
Surely we need not seek more such illustrations to justify Dr. Whewell’s comparison. In these two instances, we have seen nearly half the human kind bound in fetters of race and speech and religion and caste, of tradition and habit and ignorance of the world, of poverty and ineptitude and inertia which practically exclude them from the competitions of the world’s industry.
In turning now to consider this matter of the power of labor to protect itself, by migration or otherwise, among peoples of a higher industrial civilization, we need to proceed somewhat more analytically. Let us discuss this question under two titles:
1st. The migration of labor. Why should laborers need to migrate at all? Why not stay and work in their lot? Movement involves the expenditure of force: why should this waste be incurred?
It is the unequal development of population and industry that marks the beginning of most of the distresses of labor. Industry and population must, it is evident, fit together throughout the entire extent of both, or loss of power and of production will follow, on the one hand; destitution, squalor, and perhaps starvation, on the other. Labor will suffer both from not being where it is wanted, and from being where it is not wanted. Now in fact, there is ever found a liability in population and industry to grow apart, even though all conditions appear to remain unchanged; while no new cause can begin to operate in the social or political life of a community, which may not very differently affect them. Wherever divergence appears, there is distress. At times the effect is almost instantaneous, when sudden calamities overtake the peculiar industries of states and cities. At times the effect is wrought as gradually as the ruin of a wall into whose seams some slow-maturing vine has thrust its fibres, never to be withdrawn till stone is thrown from stone. Numberless illustrations might be drawn from history and from the statistics of production, of this tendency to divergence between population and industry;
*28and it will be not less interesting to note the incessant small vibrations of industry which require an almost daily readjustment of population, than to mark the course of those great cyclical changes which transfer the seat of commercial empire, and leave cities and countries forsaken and almost forgotten behind.
Such being the tendency of industry to occasional or periodic movement, the mobility of labor
*29 becomes, under the theory of competition, an essential condition of its
well-being. It is of course not necessary that the whole body of laborers should be organized like a Tartar tribe, packed and saddled ready for flight. The great majority of laborers will never be required to move at all; but as it will always prove that of those who could go, many will not, and of those who would go, many cannot, we may fairly say that the laboring population is never likely to be more completely mobilized by intelligence and the possession of property, than is desirable in order to render it certain that just the amount of movement from industry to industry, and from place to place, which may be required, will be effected with the minimum of loss and delay. Such being the necessity for the mobility of labor to enable it to follow the movements, accountable and unaccountable, of industry, it is not needful to go into the history of emigration to show that labor has scarcely, in any country, possessed the readiness and activity which answered the requirement. The United States
*30 perhaps afford the highest example of a body of labor prepared and equipped to seek its best market, wherever that market may be; and Americans, familiar with the prompt and easy flow of population here, are liable to under-estimate the difficulties which beset the like movements in almost any other country of the world. In part, the activity of labor in the United States is due to the generosity of nature with us, which allows so large a margin of expenditure. In still greater measure, it is due to the wide diffusion of information through the press and the postoffice.
Perhaps in still greater degree is it due to the almost perfect social and political freedom which prevails, in the absence of those barriers and restrictions
*31 which, to the inhabitant of older lands, are as much a matter of course as the limitations to his power of reaching objects with his arm. The exceptions to this readiness to follow industry in its movements, are found among three classes: the newly emancipated slaves of the south, in respect to whom no explanation is required, that portion of our women who are compelled to enter the general market for labor, and, lastly, our foreign population, and among these the disability indicated exists mainly among those who have been left in our eastern cities by the exhaustion of the immigrating force.
“No one can travel much in the East without seeing that, with no small proportion of our vast foreign element, occupation is determined by a location that is accidental, or practically beyond the control of individuals; that these people are doing what they are doing because they are where they are. And the reason for such a wholesale subjection of labor to its circumstances, is found in the miscellaneousness, the promiscuousness, and we may say the tumultuousness of the immigration to the United States since the days of the Irish famine. Of all who have come to us in the past twenty-seven years, by far the greater part have come unprovided and uninstructed for the experiences of their American life. Whether pushed fairly out of their own country by the pressure of population, or escaping from military conscription, or moved by restlessness and the spirit
of adventure, or burning with the gold fever, or allured by the false reports of relatives and acquaintances on this side the water, they have fallen on our shores, the immigratory impulse exhausted, their money gone, with no definite purpose, with no special preparation, to become the victims of their place and circumstances. There is a tendency at every harbor which lies at the debouche of a river, to the formation of a bar composed of mud and sand brought down by the current which yet has not the force to scour its channel clear out to deep water. And in much the same way, there is a tendency at every port of immigration to the accumulation, from the failure of the immigrating force, of large deposits of more or less helpless labor which a little assistance from government would serve to carry far inland, and distribute widely, to the best advantage at once of the immigrants and of the industry of the country.
“Of those foreigners whose occupations have determined their location, the most notable instances are the Welsh and the Scandinavians.
“Why should there be four times as many Welsh in Pennsylvania as in New York: Why four times as many in Ohio as in Illinois? The reason is obvious: the Welsh are famous iron miners and iron makers. They have come out to this country under intelligent direction, and have gone straight to the place where they were wanted. Quite as striking has been the self-direction of the Swedish and Norwegian immigrants. Four states, all west of Lake Michigan, contain ninety-four per cent of all the Norwegians in the country and sixty-six per cent of the Swedes. It is probably not owing so much to superior foresight or to ampler means that the British Americans “in the States” have, as it would appear, located themselves according to their industrial preferences, as to the fact of their original proximity and the advantages they found in this for obtaining information, for easily reaching
the place of their choice, and for easily recovering them selves in case of mistake…. Of all our foreign elements, the Irish is that which would seem, from a study of their occupations, to have been most subject to circumstances. The conditions of the forced and most painful emigration from Ireland must be held to account amply for this.”
With exception, then, of the three classes named, there has been, in the fortunate state of freedom from social and legal restraints, in the great generosity of nature on our behalf, and in the general intelligence of our population if not that perfect competition which the economists assume in their reasonings, at least a very active resort of labor to market. Our advantages in this respect are, however, highly exceptional. In general it is found as Adam Smith has expressed it, that “of all sorts of luggage, man is the most difficult to be transported.”
Mr. Frederick Harrison
*33 has thus set forth this difficulty of moving labor to its market:
“In most cases, the seller of a commodity can send it or carry it about from place to place, and market to market, with perfect ease. He need not be on the spot; he generally can send a sample; he usually treats by correspondence. A merchant sits in his counting house, and by a few letters or forms, transports and distributes the subsistence of a whole city from continent to continent. In other cases, as the shopkeeper, the ebb and flow of passing multitudes, supplies the want of locomotion in his wares. His customers supply the locomotion for him. This is a true market. Here competition acts rapidly,
fully, simply, fairly. It is totally otherwise with a day laborer, who has no commodity to sell. He must himself be present at every market, which means costly, personal locomotion. He cannot correspond with his employer; he cannot send a sample of his strength; nor do employers knock at his cottage door.”
Of the freedom of movement among the states of Europe, we get an approximate measure from the following Census Statistics,
*34 which are about twenty-six years old. Switzerland, a small country bordering three great nations, and having the languages of all three spoken as native tongues in her own limits, contains the largest proportion of foreigners to total population, viz., 2.99 per cent. Holland comes next of those on our list, with 2.32 per cent; Belgium next with 1.76; France with 1.06; Denmark with 0.93; the United Kingdom last, with 0.27 per cent.
But the statistics of international migration afford a very inadequate and often a very deceptive notion as to those quick and apt movements of population which anticipate industrial distress and prevent the breaking down of the labor market, with all its consequences in the degradation of the working classes. To move from one county to another, or even only from one parish to another, would cost incomparably less than to move across the sea, and would often be quite as effectual. And here the systematic writers in economics commonly assume the complete mobility of labor.
*35 Yet we find that the impulse which is sufficient to send laborers from England to Australia, is not always sufficient to send them from Devon to Durham. Prof. Senior, in one of his illustrations, supposed that, in case of
a local failure of employment, laborers would follow their landlord from Leicestershire to London, but not from London to Paris. In real life, however, the difficulty of migration is not so graded. Thus Mr. Chadwick cites instances
*36 of laborers in the south and southwest of England, who had heard of America, but had not heard of Lancashire, and could not be persuaded to go there, on offer of favorable employment.
*37 Mr. Muggeridge bears quite as explicit testimony in his evidence before the committee of 1855.
“The workman never goes out of his village, and is as ignorant as a cart-horse of what is going on elsewhere, even in his own county. I found on going into the North of England, that there was a demand everywhere for laborers; but when I got to the South and West of England I heard general complaints of the superabundance of the laboring population, and consequently of high poor rates. I then suggested to the government a plan for removing, with their own consent, the unemployed portion of the population. I think that, altogether, something like 17,000 persons who were paupers and wholly out of employment in the South and West of England were, in the North of England put into most lucrative employment.”
Q. “At the time to which you refer, there was, I presume, a great demand for labor in the North of England?”
A. “There was; but I do not think that the people in the South and West of England ever heard of it. I carried the news of it into Suffolk and Norfolk also. They knew
no more of it there, than they did of what might be going on in North America.”
This immobility of labor has of course powerfully affected wages. A century ago Adam Smith wrote:
*39 “The wages of labor in a great town and its neighborhood are frequently a fourth or a fifth part—twenty or twenty five per cent—higher than at a few miles distance. Eighteen pence a day may be reckoned the common price of labor in London and its neighborhood. At a few miles distance, it falls to fourteen and fifteen pence. Ten pence may be reckoned its price in Edinburgh and its neighborhood. At a few miles distance it falls to eight pence, the usual price of common labor through the greater part of the low country of Scotland, where it varies a good deal less than in England.
Such a difference of prices which it seems is not always sufficient to transport a man from one parish to another, would necessarily occasion so great a transportation of the most bulky commodities, not only from one point to another, but from one end of the kingdom, almost from one end of the world, to another, as would soon reduce them more nearly to a level.”
One might suppose that the vast increase in the facilities for transportation of freight and passengers, and for the diffusion of information through the post-office and the printing-press, would have gone far in this century to remove the obstruction which then retarded the flow of
labor to its market;
*41 but the force of ignorance, timidity and superstition is not so easily broken. Prof. Fawcett writes: “During the winter months, an ordinary agricultural laborer in Yorkshire earns thirteen shillings a week. The wages of a Wiltshire or Dorsetshire laborer, doing the same kind of work, and working a similar number [???] hours, are only nine shillings a week. This great difference in wages is not counterbalanced by other considerations; living is not more expensive in Yorkshire than in Dorsetshire, and the Dorsetshire laborer does not enjoy any particular advantages or privileges which are denied to the Yorkshire laborer.”
But while, in modification of the assumption of the complete mobility of population under economical impulses, we find such great and permanent differences in the remuneration of labor in neighboring districts, if we look to the condition of the lowest order of laborers in many European countries, we shall see reason not to assert many and large exceptions to the rule of mobility, but to deny the validity of the rule altogether. If we consider the population of the more squalid sections of any city, we can only conclude that, contrary to the assumption of the economists, the more miserable men are, the less and not the more likely they are to seek and find a better place in society and industry. Their poverty, their ignorance, their superstitious fears and, perhaps more than all, the apathy that comes with a broken spirit, bind them in their place and to their fate. To apply to human beings in their condition, maxims derived from the contemplation of the Economic Man, is little less than preposterous. Such populations do not migrate; they abide in their lot; sinking lower in helplessness, hopelessness and squalor; economic forces have not the slightest virtue either to give them higher wages, or to make them deserving of higher wages.
2d. I have spoken of change of location as a means of restoring the due relations of population and industry which have, as has been shown, an incessant tendency to grow apart. Let us now consider the change of occupation, within the same locality, as a second means to that end. Not only may the industry of different places or sections develop with great irregularity relatively to their respective populations; but in any place or section the proportions borne by the several branches of industry are liable to frequent and extensive alterations, from the effects of changing fashions, from the exhaustion of the
materials which have formed the basis of production, from the invention or discovery of substitutes, or from the growth of other habits of living in the community. Indeed, as between the two great divisions, agriculture and manufactures, there is not only a constant tendency to change, but there is the highest improbability of the proportions long remaining the same, the reason being the more rapid and extensive introduction of machinery, and the more minute subdivision of work in the latter than in the former department.
Again, as between any two mechanical pursuits, the demand for labor is likely to be differently affected by change of fashion, by the application of new arts and the discovery of new resources. Thus, to consider a single cause, the productive power of a hundred hands engaged in the manufacture of boots and shoes was increased thirty per cent by the introduction of special machinery between 1860 and 1870. This is by no means an extreme example. The wholesale discharges of laborers from employment in the textile manufactures during the last quarter of the last century and the first quarter of the present, as the result of the successive inventions and improvements of machinery, required a readjustment of population to industry which amounted almost to a continuous revolution. In a greater or less degree, the need of such readjustment is constantly pressing upon labor, and if it fails to be effected or is effected partially and tardily, there will be a loss to labor, a two-fold loss, first, in that the laboring class will miss, in whole or part, the advantages of the opening employment, and second, in that the body of laborers remaining in the crowded occupations will trample each other down in their individual eagerness to obtain work and wages, with all the consequences in the degradation of labor, which have been depicted in Chap. IV.
A similar result may be brought about by changes in
the comparative demand for the products of the severa branches of manufactures. These changes are literally in cessant, sometimes amounting only to a temporary quickening of production in some, and corresponding dullness in other departments: sometimes amounting to the slow decay or even to the sudden destruction of industries which have engaged large bodies of workmen. In instances of the former sort, the laborers concerned in departments which suffer depression, simply hold on, in expectation of returning demand and reviving business; while if certain branches of manufactures are peculiarly liable to such disturbances, that fact comes to be reckoned among the considerations
*43 which determine the real, as contrasted with the nominal rate of wages therein.
But not infrequently such change of demand exhibits a persistency which brings to the body of laborers traditionally engaged in these industries the choice of encountering a general failure of employment, bringing them sooner or later to the condition of hopeless pauperism, or of seeking in some other department of industry, perhaps in some other land, the means of supporting themselves and their families.
But while the irregular growth of different branches of industry would thus require a frequent readjustment of labor, if we assumed an equable growth of the populations which furnish the natural supply of such branches of industry, severally, there is the possibility of a further and more urgent need of a readjustment arising out of the irregular growth of the latter.
By the population which furnishes the natural supply of labor in each branch of industry, I mean, simply, the offspring of families engaged therein. It will not be questioned that there is at least a strong tendency within each trade to supply its own labor by its own increase. That tendency may, according to circumstances and character,
be slight, or it may be very strong, or almost irresistible. It differs from some of the asserted tendencies on which we have had occasion to comment, in that it is a real and not an ideal tendency: all the weaknesses of human nature minister to make it powerful and effective. Now, there being an admitted disposition of children to settle down in their parents’ occupation, the need of a readjustment of labor, which can only be effected through positive efforts and sacrifices, becomes greater on account of the irregularity in the natural increase of population within the different branches of industry, which is wholly additional to the irregularity in the growth of those branches themselves, viewed as furnishing employment to laborers. The rate of effective increase varies greatly within each such natural population, through differences both in the average number of children to a family and in the proportion of children who survive infancy.
*44 In agriculture, for instance, the social and vital conditions of the occupation encourage births, while pure air and food give the children born on the farm a better chance of life. On the other hand, in some occupations, domestic increase is almost practically forbidden. Occupations range all the way between these extremes, in this respect of their natural supply of labor. Thus the census of Scotland, 1871, shows that there are 177 dependents to 100 bread-winners
within the agricultural class, while there are but 122 dependents to 100 bread-winners within the manufacturing class.
*45 Doubtless, some portion of this relative deficiency in the manufacturing class is due to the larger opportunity for the employment of children productively in mechanical industry; but doubtless, also, a considerable remainder testifies to the superior fecundity of the agricultural population, and the greater vitality of children bred in the country.
Such being the occasion for a frequent readjustment of population within the several occupations, arising from great irregularity of growth in both population and industry, how far is labor able to respond to such economical necessities?
Adam Smith’s treatment of this subject constitutes one of the most extraordinary phenomena of economical literature. No man has dwelt more strongly than he on the difficulties which embarrass and delay the movement of laborers from place to place. It is his own phrase that man is “of all sorts of luggage, the most difficult to be transported.” He saw in his own little island the wages of common, unskilled laborers ranging from eighteen pence to eight pence a day, while in the islands, just a bit smaller, to the west, he saw them lower by from twenty to forty per cent; he saw “a few miles distance,” make a difference in the remuneration of the same sort of labor of “a fourth or a fifth part;” he knew that such differences had existed for generations without any adequate movement of labor, new causes continually creating divergence faster than population could close up the intervals; and he exclaimed that a difference of prices which proved insufficient to carry a man to the next parish would be enough to carry the most bulky commodities “from one end of the kingdom, almost from one end of the world, to the other.”
Yet the same philosopher, a few pages on, treats the differences which appear in the remuneration of the different occupations as either imaginary or else transient. It is thus he writes: “The whole of the advantages and disadvantages of the different employments of labor and stock must, in the same neighborhood, be either perfectly equal or continually tending to equality. If in the same neighborhood there was any employment evidently either more or less advantageous than the rest, so many people would crowd into it, in the one case, and so many would desert it, in the other, that its advantages would soon return to the level of other employments. This, at least, would be the case in a society where things were left to follow their natural course.”
It would almost seem as though Dr. Smith deemed the obstacles which beset the movement of laborers from place to place, to be physical merely, and, since no physical difficulties stand in the way of a change of occupation by the laborer while remaining in the same place, he saw no important, no note-worthy, obstacles to the free movement of labor from employment to employment. But if the obstacles which beset migration were physical merely, man, instead of being “of all sorts of luggage, the most difficult to be transported,” would, with his own consent, be the easiest to be transported. It is because the difficulties which beset migration are, after all, mainly moral, that the statement quoted above is true.
Economists writing since Adam Smith’s time have generally followed his lead in regarding the obstacles which hinder the movement of laborers within the several branches of industry as of little or no account. Some exceptions appear, but as Prof. Cairnes remarks, it is commonly assumed in treatises of political economy that between occupations, as between localities, in the same
country, the freedom of movement, for labor or for capital, is perfect.
*47 In 1874, however, that eminent economist brought forward his theory of “Non-Competing Groups” in industry, a contribution of so much importance that I insert his statement substantially entire. The form of Prof. Cairnes’ opening is due to the fact that he is replying to a “school of reasoners” of whom Mr. F. D. Longe was, we may assume, the individual most conspicuously in his view at the time, who hold the movement of labor as between occupations to be practically
“Granted, that labor once engaged in a particular occupation is practically committed to that species of occupation, all labor is not thus engaged and committed. A young generation is constantly coming forward, whose capabilities may be regarded as still in disposable form…. The young persons composing this body, or others interested in their welfare, are eagerly watching the prospects of industry in its several branches, and will not be slow to turn toward the pursuits that promise the largest rewards…. On the other hand, while fresh labor is coming on the scene, worn-out labor is passing off; and the departments of industry in which remuneration has from any cause fallen below the average level, ceasing to be recruited, the numbers of those employed in them will quickly decline, until supply is brought within the limits of demand, and remuneration is restored to its just proportions. In this way, then, in the case of labor as in that of capital, the conditions for an effective competition exist, notwithstanding the practical difficulties in the way of transferring labor, once trained to a particular occupation, to new pursuits. But as I have already intimated,
the conditions are, in this case, realized only in an imperfect manner…. Each individual laborer can only choose his employment within certain tolerably well-defined limits. These limits are the limits set by the qualifications
required for each branch of trade, and the amount of preparation necessary for their acquisition. Take an individual workman whose occupation is still undetermined, he will, according to circumstances, have a narrower or wider field of choice; but in no case will this be co-extensive with the entire range of domestic industry. If he belongs to the class of agricultural laborers, all forms of mere unskilled labor are open to him, but beyond this he is practically shut out from competition. The barrier is his social position and circumstances which render his education defective, while his means are too narrow to allow of his repairing the defect, or of deferring the return upon his industry, till he has qualified himself for a skilled occupation. Mounting a step higher in the industrial scale—to the artisan class, including with them the class of small dealers whose pecuniary position is much upon a par with artisans—here also within certain limits there is complete freedom of choice; but beyond a certain range, practical exclusion. The man who is brought up to be an ordinary carpenter, mason, or smith, may go to any of these callings, or a hundred more, according as his taste prompts, or the prospect of remuneration attracts him; but practically he has no power to compete in those higher departments of skilled labor for which a more elaborate education and larger training are necessary, for example, mechanical engineering. Ascend a step higher still, and we find ourselves again in the presence of similar limitations; we encounter persons competent to take part in any of the higher skilled industries, but practically excluded from the professions.
“It is true indeed that in none of these cases is the exclusion absolute. The limits imposed are not such as may not be overcome by extraordinary energy, self-denial and enterprise;
*48 and by virtue of these qualities individuals
in all classes are escaping every day from the bounds of their original position and forcing their way into the ranks of those who stand above them. All this is no doubt true. But such exceptional phenomena do not affect the substantial truth of our position.
What we find, in effect is, not a whole population competing indiscriminately for all occupations, but a series of industrial layers superimposed on one another, within each of which the various candidates for employment possess a real and effective power of selection, while those occupying the several strata are, for all purposes of effective competition, practically isolated from each other.*49
The consequences economically of this practical isolation of large industrial groups, must, on the first statement, strike the mind of the reader as very important and far-reaching. If this isolation exists, then there is not a tendency, through the operation of economical causes alone, to the equalization primarily of wages throughout the several groups: and, derivatively, of the prices of the corresponding products of such groups. Prof. Cairnes does not flinch from carrying his theory to its proper consequences. Citing Mr. John S. Mill’s law of International Values,
*50 he declares that this doctrine is manifestly applicable
to all cases in which groups of producers, excluded from reciprocal industrial competition, exchange their products. Such cases, as I have shown, occur in domestic trade, in the exchanges between those non-competing industrial groups of which I have spoken.” As applied to such groups, the law formulated by Mr. Mill would leave the average relative level of prices within each group to be determined by the reciprocal demand of the groups; or, to abandon technical language, we have the result of large groups, each of which is left to meet its industrial fate by itself, without sharing in the advantages of other groups, or contributing to their welfare out of its own abundance; a condition in which it can no longer be claimed that if one group be exceptionally prosperous, labor will flow into it from the outside, till the rate of wages therein is reduced to an assumed general average, and
vice versa. What then, becomes of the Economic Harmonies, and of the assumption that the “Laws of Trade” only need to be left to their unimpeded operation to bring out the best good of the whole industrial community?
Is this doctrine, bringing with it such vast consequences, true? I answer, there is, in my judgment, a great deal of truth in it, otherwise I should not be justified in having introduced it at such length; but that it will be finally accepted in the form in which Prof. Cairnes left it, I do not believe, though it is not unlikely that his statement, overstrained as it is, will compel the attention of economists to considerations of real importance heretofore overlooked, or avoided on account of their difficulty, more effectually even than a more measured statement would have done. Certainly after so emphatic an utterance, by an economist
so distinguished, writers in economics can hardly continue to assume a perfect freedom of movement on the part of labor, as between localities and occupations within any country, an assumption as mischievous as it is false.
Instead of asserting, as Prof. Cairnes has done, the practical isolation of certain great groups, with entire freedom of movement within these groups, I believe that a fuller study of industrial society will establish the conviction that nowhere is mobility perfect, theoretically or even practically, and nowhere is there entire immobility of labor; that all classes and conditions of men are appreciably affected by the force of competition; but that, on the other hand, the force of competition, which nowhere becomes
nil, even for practical purposes, ranges from a very high to a very low degree of efficiency, according to national temperament, according to peculiarities of personal character and circumstance, according to the laws and institutions of the community, and according to natural or geographical influences.
And first, briefly, of the assumed isolation of certain great groups, as of skilled or unskilled labor. Here Prof. Cairnes asserts that not only will adult laborers, once engaged in unskilled occupations, not go up into skilled occupations in any appreciable numbers; but that the transfer will not take place in the next generation, by the passing of the children of unskilled laborers into skilled occupations, to an extent which will practically affect, in any appreciable degree, the numbers of the class into which or out of which, such children, if any, shall go.
It cannot be denied that there is a strong constraint, made up of both moral and physical forces, which keeps the vast majority of children not only within the great industrial group into which they were born, but even within the very trades which their fathers individually pursue. I shall have occasion hereafter to dwell on this as of great importance in the philosophy of wages. But that this
constraint is so powerful and unremitting that those who escape are so few as not in any appreciable degree to relieve the class which they leave or to influence the class into which they thus enter, I must doubt. It is not so in the United States, in Canada, in Australia. I seriously doubt whether it is so in Germany, with its universal primary instruction for the young and its admirable system of technical education. It surely is not so in Scotland.
If Prof. Cairnes’ generalization remains sound for his own country, it is still true that the humblest English laborer has only to emigrate to the United States, as tens of thousands do every year, in order to place his children in a situation where they can pass into a higher industrial group, not by the display of “extraordinary energy, self-denial and enterprise,” but by the exercise of ordinary social and industrial virtues.
On the other hand, how is it with the assumed freedom of movement within the industrial groups which Prof. Cairnes has in view? Let us recur to his own statement of the case. He does not claim that laborers who have once become engaged in any occupation are practically free to leave it for any other which may seem more remunerative. He admits, perhaps too fully if we have regard to the United States, Canada, and Australia, that the mass of laborers are held in their place and lot by a constraint from which it is practically beyond their power to escape. But he does claim that the rising generation of laborers furnishes a disposable force—a disposable fund, he terms it—which can be and will be directed freely within the great groups he defines, according “as remuneration may tempt, in various directions. The young persons composing this body, or others interested in their welfare, are eagerly watching the prospects of industry in its several branches, and will not be slow to turn towards the pursuits that promise the largest rewards.”
Now let it for the moment be granted that Prof. Cairnes’ proposition is true to the full extent, how far does the mobility thus given to labor answer the requirements of the case? Reference to tables of vital statistics will show that the number of persons annually arriving at the age of twenty is from two and a half to three per cent of the population twenty years of age and upwards. This then is the extent of this “disposable fund.” Now in Chap. IV. we have sought to show how serious often is the evil effect upon those elements of character which go to make up the efficiency of labor, of even a brief failure of employment; how almost certainly extensive mischief results from “hard times” protracted through months and years; how easily and quickly harm is done; how slowly and painfully industrial character is built up again. In view of such possibilities of disaster, always imminent from the very nature of modern industry, the question becomes one of great importance, whether this “disposable fund,” which Prof. Cairnes adduces, is large enough for its purpose, whether it secures the needed mobility of labor. But before finally answering this inquiry, let us ask whether Prof. Cairnes is justified by the facts in assuming that the whole of the rising generation of laborers is thus disposable, “fulfilling the same function in relation to the general labor force of the country which capital, while yet existing as purchasing power, discharges in its relation to its general capital?”
One would not lightly speak in terms of ridicule of anything which Prof. Cairnes has written; yet there is something ludicrous in the picture which his words suggest of a weaver, with half a dozen children and fifteen shillings a week, earnestly pondering the question, to which of the various trades of the group to which he belongs he shall devote the opening talents of his nine-year-old boy, now just able to earn three-pence a day in the mill; or of protracted and frequently adjourned family councils in which
poor Hodge, his wife and eldest daughter, discuss the industrial capabilities of the younger members of the family, and the comparative inducements of the several hundred manual occupations recognized in the tables of the census. The picture is ludicrous only because the truth of the case is so pitifully the other way. We know that mill owners are harassed with applications from their hands to take children into employment on almost any terms, and that the consciences of employers have required to be reinforced by the sternest prohibitions and penalties of the law to save children ten, seven, or four years old, from the horrors of “sweating dens” and crowded factories, since the more miserable the parents’ condition, the greater becomes the pressure on them to crowd their children somehow, somewhere, into service; the scantier the remuneration of their present employment, the less becomes their ability to secure promising openings, or to obtain favor from outside for the better disposition of their offspring. Once in the mill, we know how little chance there is of the children afterwards taking up for themselves another way of life.
We know, too, that in the agricultural districts of England, gangs of children of all ages, from sixteen down to ten or even five years, have been formed, and driven from farm to farm, and from parish to parish, to work all day under strange overseers, and to sleep at night in barns huddled all together, without distinction of sex. We know that the system of public gangs required an act of parliament ten years ago, to break it up, and we have the testimony of the commissioners of 1867, that, in spite of the law, it is still continued in some parts of the kingdom; while the system of private gangs,
*52 only less shocking
to contemplate, is still continued without rebuke of law. Surely, such facts as these are not consistent with the assumption that the comparative merits of a large number of occupations constituting a “competing group” are carefully and intelligently canvassed by parents, anxious for the highest ultimate good of their offspring, and willing and able to take advantage of opportunities afforded in branches of industry strange to them and perhaps prosecuted at a distance. So late as 1870, children were employed in the brickyards of England, under strange task-masters, at three and a half years of age.
*53 Account is given us, sickening in its details, of a boy weighing fifty-two pounds, carrying on his head a load of clay weighing forty-three pounds, seven miles a day, and walking another seven to the place where his burden was to be assumed. Perhaps his mother was eagerly “watching the prospects of industry in its several branches,” with a view to selecting a thoroughly agreeable, remunerative, and at the same time improving occupation, where he could at once earn a handsome living and secure opportunities for the harmonious development of his physical, intellectual and spiritual faculties, but I scarcely think it. John Allinsworth tells Mr. White, Asst. Commissioner, how he and his son, aged nine years, earn their daily bread. “Work in the furnace. Last Saturday morning we began at two. We had slept in the furnace, being strangers to the town. We live at Wadsley, four or five miles off. We have to be here by six A. M. It is a long way for the boy to come and go back each day, though I can manage it. I should like to get some place in the town for him to stay in.”
there is a father who
out for his son, according to Prof. Cairnes’ assumption; yet Mr. Commissioner White would probably, from his large experience, give heavy odds that John Allinsworth’s little son, aged nine, will be found twenty years from this, if still alive, working in the furnace, perhaps sleeping in it, stunted and blighted, the father of a nine-years-old boy, for whom he too, “would like” to get a better place to work and sleep.
I have not called up such pictures of human misery with the object of exciting compassion, much less with a view to obtain an advantage in controversy, but to show graphically the error of Prof. Cairnes’ assumption that parents who are tied down hopelessly to an occupation which affords but the barest subsistence can freely dispose of their children to the best advantage among a large class of occupations. Especially when we consider that, in the development of modern industry, trades become highly localized, entire towns and cities being given up to a single branch of manufacture, shall we see the practical fallacy of this assumption. Even if we suppose the parent to be advised of better opportunities for employment opening in some trade prosecuted at a distance, and to be pecuniarily able to send his child thither and secure him a position, yet, years before the boy or girl would be fit to send away from home, the chance of earning a few pence in the mill where the parent works would almost irresistibly have drawn the child into the vortex.
May we not then question Prof. Cairnes’ assumption that the children of the working classes constitute “a disposable fund” to be distributed to the highest advantage of labor among those occupations which at the time are most remunerative? The truth is, that
until you secure mobility to adult labor you will fail to find it in the rising generation, and that among an ignorant and degraded population four-fifths, perhaps nine-tenths, of all children, by what may be called a moral necessity, follow the occupations of
their parents, or those with whom their fortune has placed them. The great exception is that which Prof. Fawcett has indicated,
*55 that of the children of agricultural laborers in the immediate vicinity of flourishing manufactories.
We have now reached a position where we can judge of the adequacy of the force which Prof. Cairnes invokes to secure to labor its needed mobility, and we must pronounce it wholly insufficient. Even were the whole mass of labor coming each year into market to be reckoned as “disposable” in the sense in which he uses the term, it would yet sometimes fall short of effecting that redistribution which is required by changes which, as we have seen not infrequently amount in a few years almost to a revolution of industry; but when we consider how partial and doubtful is the mobility thus claimed for the rising generation of laborers, we are constrained to say that unless more can be adduced than Prof. Cairnes has shown, the freedom of movement within industrial groups which he has claimed to be practically perfect, is in truth very inadequate to effect that object of supreme importance to labor—the free and quick resort to the best market.
But it may be asked, is not the ubiquity of the “tramp” a proof that you have over-estimated the difficulty which besets the movement of labor? Is there not a large adult population which is constantly shifting its place, here today and there to-morrow? What more could you ask?
I answer, there is no more virtue to relieve the pressure upon honest self-respecting labor in the forces which direct the movement of the “tramp,” than there is of virtue to save men from drowning in the forces which bring a human body to the surface after a certain period of putrefaction. The body comes up, indeed, but only when
swollen and discolored by the processes of corruption; and so the laborer, who has lost his hopefulness and self-respect and become industrially degraded, whether by bad habits for which he is primarily in fault, or by the force of causes he had no strength to resist, wanders about the country begging his food and stealing his lodgings as he can; but his freedom, thus obtained by being loosed from all ties to social and domestic life, does not so much relieve labor as it curses the whole community, rich and poor alike.
solely as occupied in acquiring and consuming wealth,” the statement would have been unexceptionable. But if “Political economy considers mankind
as occupied solely in acquiring and consuming wealth,” Political economy considers mankind most falsely; and the results in economical reasoning of that unwarranted assumption have been most mischievous. Political economy is not bound to consider mankind so far as they are occupied in anything else than in acquiring and consuming wealth; but it is bound in simple honesty not to consider them as occupied in acquiring and consuming wealth when they are not, and to a degree they are not.
The commissioners of the Scotch Census of 1871 found the influence of this cause very powerful in preventing emigration from the northern and western parts of Scotland, including the Isles, where the Gaelic is still spoken. [Report p. 20. cf. 4th Report (1870) on the employment of women and children in Agr., p. 117.]
The practice of travelling or “wandering” as it is called, which has come down from this period, still prevails extensively in Germany among the younger journeymen (“Herbergen”)—see Mr. Petre’s report on the condition of the industrial classes, 1870, p. 56. The ease with which the German artisans are “metamorphosed into Frenchmen, Englishmen, Italians, Americans or Turks” (Mr. Strachey,
Ibid p. 507) has doubtless contributed to the freedom of their movement. Not less than 8,000 German workmen were reported at Mulhouse before the war of 1870.
Consul Wilkinson reports that the settled population of the province of Macedonia is augmented in winter by five or six thousand itinerant artisans who quit their native mountains in central Albania, and distribute themselves over the province in quest of employment, [ibid p. 248]. M. Ducarre’s report to the French assembly of 1875, notes the considerable proportions of the annual migration from Italy into Corsica. [p. 247.]
proportion of males born varies greatly in the different occupations. Thus, among the workers in chemicals there are but 85.2 males to 100 female children under five years of age; among operatives in silk factories, there are 93.9, in cotton-factories, 95.3, in woolen factories 97.8; while among the agricultural population there are 105.2, among fishermen, 107.5, among general out-door laborers, 106.6, among quarry-men and brickmakers, 107.8, and among railway laborers and navvies, 117.1. See Report, p. 44. Of course the greater the proportional number of males, the greater the supply of effective labor.
exchanging proportions—or, let us say, whatever be the state of
relative prices—in different countries, which is requisite to secure this result, those exchanging proportions, that state of relative prices, will become normal—will furnish the central point toward which the fluctuations of international prices will gravitate.”—”Some Leading Principles, etc.” pp. 99, 100.
Pol. Econ., p. 170.
Part II, Chapter XII