Page images
PDF
EPUB

landholders the increased rent which would be the consequence of that measure, as it would render them better customers, by increasing their demand for the produce of labor ;" and Mr. Curwen now proposes a regulation for still further increasing the price of corn, which he says will have the same effect. By'a new method of taking the averages, he thinks the price of wheat might be increased six shillings a quarter ; and this, without noticing the other classes of the community, upon whom of course the measure would be equally burdensome, he acknowledges would cost one shilling a week to every laborer having three children, or would act as a tax upon his wages, equal to two pound twelve shillings a year. Yet of this he affirms, the laborer will have no right to complain, as by increasing the wealth of the agriculturists it will increase their demand for labor, and consequently raise the price of wages. But an increase of income to any other class of society would unquestionably produce similar effects, and I therefore most confidently appeal to every unprejudiced mind, whether it would not be much more agreeable to the principles of justice and humanity, that society should be taxed for the benefit of the laborer than for the benefit of the landholder ? Whether it would not be more consonant both to reason and justice, first to increase the wages of the laborer, which, by increasing his demand, would increase the price of agricultural produce, than first to increase the price of produce and consequently heighten the distress of the laborer? Whether in short the poor ought to be relieved in the first instance though at the expense of the rich, or the riches of the rich be increased at the expense of the poor ; even supposing that the result would prove equally advantageous to society at large? Such however I shall show would be far, very far from being the

Justice and expedience will in this instance at least be found in perfect unison. But in order to ascertain what are the necessary effects of a rise or fall in the price of labor, let it be supposed that the society is divided into three classes ; that is to say, 1st, master producers of every description ; endly, laborers; and 3dly, consumers, who are neither master producers or laborers : and let it further be supposed that the aggregate income of each class is equal to one hundred millions; in that case, the whole produce might be sold for three hundred millions. But, as the price of all the productions can never' exceed the amount of all the incomes, if the price of labor were reduced one-half, it is evident that, either the price of commodities must be reduced nearly twenty per cent., or that an equal proportion must remain unsold, so that the reduction would be nearly as prejudicial to the master producers as to the laborers. On the contrary, should the wages of labor be increased one half, or to one hundred and fifty

case.

millions, whilst every thing else' remained as before, the price of commodities would be raised twenty per cent., and consequently the masters would be benefitted by the rise of wages, as much, and perhaps even more than the laborers; for an increase or diminution in the demand frequently produces more than a proportionate increase or diminution of price. Yet it has been asserted, that every rise of wages must be at the expense of the masters! This, however, on the least reflection will appear a most egregious mistake! With as much truth, indeed, might it be asserted, that the duties levied op malt, beer, spirits, or any other articles, were at the expense of malsters, brewers, distillers, or producers or venders of any other excisable commodities! No, every increase of expense in bringing a commodity to market, whether it arises from taxes, rent, profit, labor, or any other circumstance, must, and always dues, come out of the pocket of the consumer. It is indeed generally understood, that every impost levied by the government, far from being injurious, is an advantage to the dealers, as they always make a larger addition to the price of the commodity than the amount of the tax. And this they are enabled to do by an effect of taxation that appears to have escaped the notice of those who have treated of the subject. The indirect taxes levied by government do not reduce the nominal amount of the incomes of individuals ; but they increase the income of government, and consequently increase the nominal amount of the aggregate income of the state considered as a whole. But the whole demand is measured by the whole amount of the income; and the price, every thing else being equal, is regulated by the demand. It is evident therefore that by the increased competition the consequence of increased income, the prices must, or at least may, be increased. But even if such were not the consequence of every increase of income, still the immediate effects of an increase of income from labor would not be in the least doubtful. For income of any other species may be, and often is, hoarded; but income from the wages of labor is immediately brought to market, and consequently its increase must be advantageous to dealers and producers of all descriptions. Every increase indeed of wages acts as a bounty on production, and is in truth the natural, and only bounty that ought ever to be granted. Did master producers therefore study the interest of their laborers as much as their

own,

it would evidently contribute to their mutual advantage and would ensure the general happiness. But such is never the case.

On the contrary every opportunity that offers for oppressing the laborers is eagerly laid hold of by the masters. No sooner, for example, was peace made than master producers of all descriptions, availing themselves of the increase of the number of laborers, in consequence of

the great numbers discharged by government, made, in every branch of employment, great reductions in the price of wages. But by thus lessening the wages of labor, they lessened also the demand for the produce of labor of all kinds, and more especially for agricultural produce, which consequently reduced prices greatly, and was the principal cause of all the embarrassments since complained of; and hence it is evident that the masters for the sake of a temporary and trifling advantage, incurred a serious and a permanent loss, so that they were ultimately as much injured by the measure as the poor laborers'; and all the advantage remained with the inactive portion of the consumers, the only class who are indeed either injured by high prices or permanently benefitted by low prices. For as to all those who are in active life, either as agriculturists, manufacturers, or producers, or dealers of any kind, it is of very little consequence what the actual state of prices are : but a rising market is always encouraging for the dealer; and the surest way to have a rising market is to give liberal wages to the laborer.

Such is the case in every line, but more especially to all concerned in agriculture. For although they are benefitted by the increase of every species of income, yet they are benefitted by none so directly or essentially as by the increase of the income from labor. For the portion of every income immediately exchanged for agricultural produce will always be in the inverse ratio of the whole. Whilst the poorest class consume perhaps three-fourths of their incomes in the purchase of bread; the next class do not consume more than one-half; the next perhaps not more than onefourth : and thus the portion of income destined to the purchase of bread goes on diminishing in proportion as the whole amount increases. And this proves beyond a doubt, that every regulation by which the price of bread is increased affects the poor

much more than the rich; and, unlike in its effects, to the taxes levied by government for the benefit of the public, always presses with the greatest weight on those the least able to support it. But it also proves, that the price of agricultural produce is more affected than any other species of produce, by an increase or diminution of the wages of labor. And as the laborers in agriculture form but a small portion of all the laborers, and as the wages in agricultural labor are generally lower than in any other, although they must in the first instance pay a share of the increase, nothing certainly could be more advantageous to the proprietors of agricultural produce, than an advance in the wages of labor.

It seems indeed now to be generally suspected by all who have considered the subject that a rise in the price of wages might prove beneficial to all concerned either in paying or receiving. No man certainly has ever propagated errors more mischievous in their

[ocr errors]

tendency; or better calculated for hardening the heart against the claims of humanity than the author of the essay On Population. Yet even he admits, that wages are generally too low, and recommends it to those who wish to benefit the poor, to endeavour to raise the relative proportion between the price of labor and the price of provisions; but still with his usual inconsistency he refuses to adopt any just nieans for effecting so desirable an object. According to the usual jargon, labor is to be left to find its level. But a very little attention bestowed on the subject will be sufficient to show, that in the present state of things in this country labor never can find its just level, as the masters possess advantages against which the laborers are wholly unable to contend.

The division of labor which has been productive of so much advantage to the community at large, has rendered the laborer infinitely more dependant on his employer than where such division does not exist. For when he can perform several different species of labor, if he cannot obtain satisfactory employment in one species he pay have recourse to another, and thus find at least some support until he can bring his employer to hear reason.

But conversant, as is generally the case, in only one limited branch, he must either submit to whatever terms are proposed, or starve ! For in regard to combination among workmen, they must, both on account of the numbers engaged, which must always prevent unity of action; and of their total inability to procure the means of subsistence, always prove abortive ; even if not necessarily interrupted by legal interference. Whereas combinations among the masters, which from the comparative paucity of their numbers, are conducted with so much secrecy as to be out of the reach of the law, have always succeeded. But nothing so effectually aids the masters in oppressing their laborers as the facility with which they can obtain credit. For by this means they are enabled to keep on hand a much larger stock of goods than are requisite for the current demand. They can therefore say to their workmen as they often do, « We have more goods than what we can dispose of, you must therefore work for less, or we will discharge you." Yet that they actually can dispose of their goods is most certain. For although some hands are thrown out of employment, yet as those who are retained are obliged, from the lowness of the wages, to work an unusual number of hours in the day, as great, or perhaps a greater quantity of goods still continue to be fabricated. But that combinations among them although they may not admit of legal proof, are constantly in existence, must appear evidevt to every person, who reflects upon events which are of frequent recurrence. When for example we hear all the iron-masters, all the coal-owners, all the ship-owners, in short, whole classes of every description saying to their people, “We must reduce your wages,” is it possible for a moment to doubt that com bination exists ! Independent however of actual combination, it is in the power of a few in any particular line, to compel in a manner all the other masters to follow their example. For in consequence of the competition that prevails for the sale of their commodities, every fabricator is anxious to bring his goods to market at the lowest possible price: and as the cost of the materials is upon the whole equal to all, the principal difference must be in the cost of fabricating ; and although labor forms in general the smallest part of the price, yet as a very small difference in the sale price gives the seller a great advantage in the market over his competitors, it is the constaçt endeavour of some of the masters to beat down the wages of their laborers, and if any one succeeds, all the rest in the trade are obliged, however well disposed, to do so likewise. And this in fact has lately become an event of frequentrecurrence. The masters in the manufacturing districts have several times entered into agreements amongst themselves, for raising the wages of their workinen. But soon after the agreement has been made, it has been discovered that one or more of their number had again reduced them, when of course all the others have found themselves obliged to do so likewise, and this circumstance of itself indicates very clearly the propriety of regulating the wages of labor, or firing its assize like that of bread, as it would prevent one master from obtaining an undue advantage over others, by means at once injurious both to the laborer and to the trade itself, without being permanently beneficial to any one. For the moment the reduction becomes general, they are all again on an equal footing; and the price of goods is permanently lowered without at all increasing the amount of sales.

In regard to the pretence of necessity for these reductions, it is directly falsified by these very arguments. Independent however of this, a very little attention to the circumstances under which these reductions were at first commenced will show that the

pretence is wholly without foundation.

It is well known, and indeed a general complaint, that all commercial transactions are attended with much greater expense during war than in time of peace. In respect to shipping in particular, as the convoy duty and war insurance ceased on peace being made, it is evident, the ship-owners could then have afforded to have, given better wages to their seamen. Yet it was precisely at that time, that they lowered them more than one-half. All imported, raw materials being also freed from war expenses, must of course, have cost less to the manufacturer, and therefore goods might have been manufactured cheaper, had it been necessary, without affect-, ing the price of labor. But as the community at large had been

« PreviousContinue »