To the Editor of the Times
The movement for diminishing the time at present devoted to labour by the workmen is a most important one, and well worthy of the attention of economists as bearing upon the industrial interests of the Empire. Let us suppose that the labourers in every trade and department were to work nine hours instead of ten. This would be tantamount in its effects on the production of commodities and on the labour markets to an emigration of one-tenth of the whole workmen of the country, while the consumers and the demand for commodities would remain the same. There is no doubt that the effect of this would be, in the first instance, to raise the rate of wages -- that is to say, to maintain for nine hours the same rate which had been previously paid for ten hours. The employer, however, would not lose by this, for, from the diminution of the supply and continuance of the demand, he would be enabled to sell the articles fabricated at a higher price.
Such would be the first effects of a diminution of the hours of labour. The workmen would be greatly benefited and the employer would not lose. The consumers alone would suffer. They would be obliged to pay the same price for a smaller quantity that they had previously done for a larger. This, I repeat, would be the first effects of a diminution of the hours of labour; but this position of affairs would not continue long. There would arise immediately a demand for more produce and a demand for additional labour. All the idle hands in the workhouses and throughout the country would be called into requisition. The effect of this would be to restore the gross produce of the country to its previous amount and to diminish the demand for labour. Prices would fall and so would wages. The workmen would no longer be able to get ten hours' pay for nine hours' work. A great benefit, however, would be conferred upon the community. The largest part, if not the whole of the unproductive labourers maintained out of the public rates would be brought into employment. It is true the old workmen would receive less pay, but which would be amply compensated for by an hour's less work, and it is infinitely better for the community that the whole labourers should be employed than that higher wages should be given to a part and that another part should be without either work or wages.
There is a doctrine started by Malthus, and which has been adopted by Mr. Stuart Mill -- viz., that production has a tendency through machinery, division of labour, and other improvements, to increase beyond the demand, so that labour will be no longer in demand from what they call over production. This I consider a most absurd doctrine; but I will not enter into any argument upon the subject just now. Let us suppose, however, for the moment that it be a correct one; what better remedy could there be for such a state of things than the diminution of the hours of labour to eight, or even to six hours a day? The wages would be less, it is true, but so also would be the price of commodities, and the labourer working six hours a day would be able to purchase as much as he did when working ten. and that without the wearing out fatigue which is certain to bring on premature decrepitude, if it does not shorten life.
Reform Club, Sept. 16. James Aytoun