Sunday, May 8, 2011

"Only a Certain Amount of Work to be Done"

Curiouser and curiouser. The page clip below is from William Thornton's 1846 Over-population and its Remedy or, an inquiry into the extent and causes of the distress prevailing among the labouring classes of the British Isles and into the means of remedying it. In the passage cited below, Thornton actually asserts that "there is only a certain amount of work to be done, and only a certain amount of capital to pay for it." But there was a context for the claim: the restriction on the movement of workers imposed by the administration of the Poor Laws.

Thornton, recall, was also the author of On Labour: its wrongful claims and rightful dues, its actual present and possible future, the essay that prompted John Stuart Mill to recant the wages-fund doctrine. According to the promotional blurb for the five-volume set, The Economic Writings of William Thornton, "The writings of William Thornton (1813-1880) are central to the history of the laws of supply and demand and seminal in understanding the rise of neoclassical economics." In the earlier writing, Thornton is obviously assuming a fixed wages-fund.

Thornton does briefly discuss the limitation of the hours of labor of women and children in connection with relief of distress among town labourers. His position is hedged by the precautions that the simultaneous extension of free trade would lower the cost of subsistence goods and that reduced fatigue may maintain output of the ten hour day and prevent a reduction of wages. This could hardly be considered a diabolical trade union plot for raising wages, as the Tufnells and F.H.J.s  would have it.

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