Thomas Chalmers, Edinburgh Review, May 1820
In the first place, then, it ought to be kept in mind, that there are particular lines of employment, where a given excess of workmen is sure to create a much greater proportional reduction in the rate of their wages. Should twenty thousand labourers, in a given branch of industry, so meet the demand for their services, as to afford to each of them a fair remuneration, then an additional thousand coming into competition with those who are already at work, may very possibly lower, by much more than a twentieth part, the price of their labour. In other words, the consequent deficiency of wages might go greatly beyond the fractional addition that had thus been made to the number of labourers.
It is thus that, in certain kinds of work, a very small excess of hands may bring a very heavy distress and depression upon a whole body of operatives. The urgency of a few more than are wanted, soliciting for employment, and satisfied with any terms, rather than be kept out of it, may bring down the terms to the whole profession, in a ratio so large, that the entire maintenance of these additional applicants for work would not nearly cost so much as is lost, upon the whole, by the body of their fellow workmen in the shape of reduced wages. For example, should two shillings a-day be a fair remuneration for labour, and should it be the actual remuneration earned by twenty thousand workmen at some particular kind of it, an additional thousand might be maintained at this rate daily for an hundred pounds. But we should not be surprised to find that the effect of their appearance and of their competition was to bring down the daily wages to eighteen-pence. Now, this would degrade beneath the average of comfort, twenty-one thousand workmen, by sixpence a-day to each, or by five hundred and twenty-five pounds a-day to them all, taken collectively. In other words, a certain redundancy of men might entail a calamity upon their profession, which, when measured arithmetically, will be found to exceed, by upwards of five times the whole expense, either of maintaining them in idleness, or of giving them full and adequate wages at another employment.
The above statement, we are persuaded, will recommend itself to the experience of all practical men;—nor do we think it difficult to apprehend the rationale of it. Men must have a subsistence for themselves and their families; and if this is only to be had through the medium of employment, men must have employment. If they cannot earn thereby a plentiful subsistence, they will rather put up with a scanty subsistence than have none at all. And thus it is that a surplus thousand of labourers may cheapen work, by a fraction greatly larger than the excess of their own number, over the former number of labourers;—and thus, from the necessity of a few, may there emanate an adverse influence which will spread itself over the many— and, with a very slight importation of more hands into a branch of industry already sufficiently occupied, may there be imported an evil so weighty, as to overbear for a time the whole profession, and to call forth from all the members of it a general outcry of apprehension and distress.
This view of the subject, if it contain in it matter of regret, that a cause so trivial should operate a mischief so extensive, contains in it also matter of consolation. As we have already travelled from the cause to the effect, we have only to travel back again from the effect to the cause; and if the cause be trivial, it may be remedied by a trivial exertion. The actual magnitude of any present or existing distress amongst a body of workmen, will not alarm us into a fear of its perpetuity, if we are right in tracing it to a cause so remediable, as to a small fractional excess in the number of these workmen. Should the addition of a thousand men on a branch of industry which affords sufficient maintenance to twenty thousand, have the effect of reducing their maintenance by one-fourth, then, when a case of such grievous reduction actually occurs, it is fair to infer, that the transference or removal of a single twentieth part of these labourers, would operate as a restorative to the comfort and circumstances of them all. And, when one thinks of the many natural securities which there are for bringing about an adjustment of those partial and temporary differences that obtain between the demand for labour and the number of labourers, he may both admit the severity of an existing pressure, and be foremost in every sound and practicable measure for its alleviation, without reading in it the symptoms of any great national catastrophe, or losing his confidence in the stability of his country's wealth and greatness.
It is proper, however, to remark, that there are certain kinds of work where these fluctuations are far more sudden than in others—where the appearance of a given excess of hands will tell on the reduction of wages in a shorter time—and where the withdrawing this excess would also operate more speedily in restoring these wages to their former and ordinary level. Were the opus operandum a certain definite task, like the cutting down of harvest, the amount of which could neither he increased nor diminished, the effect would be quite immediate. The same holds true, though in a less degree, of the employment of household servants, and of the employment of ground labour in most of its varieties. In these instances, there is a certain quantity of work to be done; and this quantity, generally speaking, does not admit of being much extended, merely on the temptation of labour being offered at a cheaper rate; and in as far as the possible extent of a work is an element that is invariable, in so far will either an excess or deficiency of labourers for that work tell instantly on the wages of their employment. The same effect would follow in any manufacture, where the raw material out of which a commodity is worked could not be raised or accumulated to a degree much exceeding the annual consumption, and where the commodity itself did not admit of being so accumulated. The employment of baking exemplifies this. Speaking generally, the grain of one year is consumed in the year following; and if the grain does not admit of being stored beyond certain limits, the bread that is manufactured admits still less of it. A steady number of operative bakers will thus suffice for the need of a country. So that, should a number of good journeymen in that profession suddenly appear amongst us, though only amounting to a twentieth part of their whole, the effect in bringing down their wages would both be great and instantaneous; while the full and speedy restoration of these wages, on the transference of a small portion of these operatives to other lines of employment, would convince us, how a cause, seemingly weak and disproportionate, may work for a time a serious and alarming depression in the comfort of an industrious class of the community.
Now, it so happens, that in the manufacture by which cotton is turned into muslin, there are many circumstances which serve to affect the law of those fluctuations to which the wages of the operatives are liable. There is, in the first place, a very great facility of learning the work; so that, in a short period of prosperity, an indefinite number of additional hands can be turned to the loom. In the second place, the raw material of successive seasons may be stored to any amount in warehouses; and, should it be necessary, the annual quantity of cotton raised in the world could be far more easily augmented a hundredfold, than the annual quantity of corn could be doubled. There is no limit, therefore, to the bringing in of workmen in this particular line. And, in the third place, what they do work may also be stored. The muslin of very many months may lie in reserve for future demand—while bread cannot lie in reserve for as many days. Additional bakers, therefore, can never be admitted beyond what are sufficient for supplying the current consumption of this article: But additional weavers can be admitted for the purposes of future as well as of present consumption; and, to add to the elasticity of the latter concern, the wages of the operative weaver form a far larger ingredient of the price of muslin, than the wages of the operative baker do of the price of bread; so that if the wages of the former become much lower by the increase of the number of weavers, the muslin that they work becomes much cheaper, and the wearing of it becomes much more general; for, in the nature of things, the cheapness of an article of fine and ornamental dress will add much more to the consumption of that article, than the cheapness of bread can ever add to the consumption of bread.
Put together all these considerations, and it will be seen, how, though when an excess of competitors appears for any employment that requires a distinct and definite number of hands, the effect in reducing its wages is quite instantaneous—yet the same excess might appear for the weaving of muslin, without so instantaneous, or, at least for the time, so great a reduction in the wages. There ought, of course, on the very first appearance of this excess, to be a descending movement in the price of this labour; but, ere it has completed its course, it is met by a counter-movement on the part of capitalists and master manufacturers, who will feel encouraged, for a time, by this cheapening of labour, and will store up its produce beyond the present demand of the market, and will accumulate goods for distant and future sales, under the present advantage of having these goods wrought at a rate which is gradually sinking. In this way, an increase in the supply of labour may for a time increase the demand for it; not so as to keep up its price, for then the very stimulus of the augmenting demand would be done away—but so as to prevent the depression of wages from coming suddenly to its maximum—so as to smooth, and to graduate the descent by which the operatives are conducted from the level of sufficiency to an abyss of most pitiable degradation. Had their work been of such a nature, that, like that of cutting down the harvest, no more than a given quantity could be admitted within the limits of each month, then all at once would the excess of workmen have had its full effect in lowering the price of their work. But it is the power of producing and heaping up to any extent, which, apart from sudden fluctuations in the demand for the article, causes the price of the work to descend, not by a desultory, but by a continuous movement; and postpones the period when the remuneration of the workmen arrives at the lowest point in the line of its variation.
And when the price has arrived at this point, there are two peculiar causes why it should linger obstinately there. The article produced by operative bakers is carried off in a single day; and there is always a fresh recurring demand for the same quantity of work from them. Their work does not admit of being much extended; and therefore an excess of workmen must cause an immediate and certain fall of wages. But neither does the produce of their work admit of being accumulated, so that there is no intervening stock of their article between them and their consumers; and therefore, in parting with the excess of their hands, the restoration of their wages would be just as sudden as the fall. But the work of weavers does admit of being extended, and therefore the fall of their wages may be gradual. The produce of their work admits also of being accumulated; and for this reason the reviving of their wages is gradual also. The stock on hand may be a barrier for many months between the need of the purchaser, and the work of the operative; and, in the declining prices of a glutted market, the inducement for keeping up this stock may be done away. In these circumstances, a much larger excess of weavers must go out of employment, that the matter may be righted speedily. It is not enough that the quantity of work be reduced to the current demand for the article. It must be reduced beneath this demand, so as to permit the stock to clear away. If more operatives can be taken on in this line of industry than in most others, without so immediate a reduction of their wages, more also must go off, for the purpose of bringing about a speedy restoration. So that we are not aware at present of any branch of employment whatever where the circumstances of the operatives, both in respect of the price of their work, and the number of workmen, are doomed to alternate along so extended an arch of vibration.
But there is still another cause by which this ascending process must be retarded. If the price of labour is reduced, while at the same time it is paid according to its quantity, the workmen will naturally strive to make up by the latter, what they lose in the former. It is in vain that a small fraction of the labourers be withdrawn, if they who remain shall, by increased application to their work, continue to throw off the same quantity of the article upon the whole. There may, in this case, be fewer workmen, but not less work than before; and, in such a state of things, it obviously requires a much larger reduction of hands, ere the supply of their labour can be so far diminished, as that the stock of goods should clear away, and the demand of the consumer come again into contact with the work of the operative. So much is there in this cause, that when it was understood in Glasgow that the number of working looms was only reduced from eighteen to thirteen thousand, it was feared that the - supply of work would still be as great as ever, and that the process of clearing away the piled and accumulated produce could not yet begin. In the mean time, there cannot be conceived a more cruel dilemma for the poor operative, than that, in eking out a subsistence for his family, he should thus overwork himself, and, by that miserable effort, should only strengthen the barrier that lies in the way of his final deliverance; that for the relief of the present urgencies of Nature, he should be compelled to put forth more than the strength of Nature, and yet find, as the direct result of his exertion, a lengthening out of the period of his distress; that the necessity should thus be laid upon him of what may be called a self-destroying process,—accumulating as he does, with his own hand, the materials of his own wretchedness, and so annoying and overwhelming the earth with the multitude of his commodities, that she looks upon his offerings as an offence, rather than an obligation, and refuses to sustain him. Misery like this may appear singular in its origin; and therefore is it of importance to know, that it is so frequent and extensive in its operation, as to be realized amongst us in the form of a periodic visitation, and often prolonged for months, or even for years together—lest it should be left to pine in neglect, or, what is still worse, should be aggravated by mischievous and misjudging interferences.
We have not here taken into account that fluctuation of demand which arises from a change in the state of foreign markets: though this, of course, will aggravate all the effects that we have now adverted to. But independently of this new and powerful element, we conceive that the phenomenon of our present severe and lengthened depression is sufficiently explained. Nor ought it to be a matter of wonder, that the great accession of hands which came in upon the body of our operative weavers at the breaking up of the war establishments, should gradually have conducted them to this extremity of distress; and that now, though at the distance of several years, and certainly with a few intermediate vibrations in their state of comfort, they should have arrived at a degradation from which assuredly nothing but a reduction in their numbers can either permanently or effectually deliver them.
There appear to be three ways of meeting such a calamity. The First is, to supply the defective wages, by a direct charitable allowance. This looks the most obvious way of it. Should a family be starving on five shillings a week, there is not a more obvious and straight forward method of relieving them, than simply to eke out for them, say three shillings more, and thus enable them to live on eight shillings a week. This is just what a kind and wealthy neighbour would do with a destitute family at his door; and much of what is tantamount to this, is done by generous individuals going forth unseen on the territory of such a visitation. But what may be done in detail, by the distinct and separate liberalities of the charitable, is often attempted to be done in the gross, by means of a public, and, therefore, visible combination. No one can question the amiableness of such a proceeding; but if truth be permitted to have a place in the argument along with tenderness, it will soon be acknowledged, that what is compassion at the origin, is cruelty in the result: For a fund raised to supply a defect in the wages of any class of labourers, has the sure effect of keeping many at their employment, who would else have cast about for another mode of subsistence. Wherever there is such a fund, there will not be so free or so copious a dispersion of hands away from a branch of overstocked industry; insomuch that, had a plan of this kind been adopted previous to the month of August, there would not have been nearly so great a reduction in the number of working looms, as from eighteen thousand to thirteen thousand, in the neighbourhood of Glasgow. The glut, would have been longer perpetuated in the market; and either a further, or a more lengthened depression of wages would have resulted from such an interference. We have sometimes known, as the effect of a subscription fund, that the argument employed by the manufacturer, in the higgling which obtains between him and the operative, is, that the latter has his recourse upon the fund. But at all events, and whether there be any such avowal or not upon the subject, the fund which is raised to supply wages, is sure in the end to reduce them: This indeed, is its precise function and necessary operation: So that, after all, the individual cases of alleviation which it produces, are far more than counterbalanced by the general and protracted sufferings which it brings upon the whole;— the consequence infallibly being, that that fractional excess of Workmen, which it is of' so much importance to detach from the mass, still adheres to it; till the nominal wages and the charitable allowance put together, come in fact to make out no more than the scanty remuneration which is ever attendant on an overdone employment. Thus it; is, that men who, with the clearing away of goods from the market, might in a few months have been earning an adequate subsistence for their families, and that in the shape of a fair and honourable recompense for their work, be forced to drivel out a much longer period in a penury composed of two stinted ingredients and rendered more degrading by the contribution which charity has made to it.
This is just the operation of Poor-rates in England, when employed in supplying the inadequacy of wages. They ultimately, displace as much in the shape of wages, as is rendered in the shape of charity; and men who, if the regulation of their numbers had been left to natural causes, would have continued scarce enough to have dictated the remuneration of an entire maintenance for their work, have been collected in such multitudes as to have stripped themselves of all control over this matter, and brought the question of their subsistence under the determination of Church-wardens and overseers. It is thus that this fallacious system has inflicted on the labouring, classes of that country a permanent degradation. What the Legislature intended as a boon, has turned out to be a sore bereavement. Had they confined it to one class of labourers,, as weavers for example, then weavers would just have sunk under the oppression of this apparent privilege, and been singled out to public notice as the miserable and degraded caste of our nation. They would thereby have descended beneath the level of all other labourers, and been, in our land, what hewers of wood, and drawers of water were in the land of Judea. And these are not the judicious friends of the poor, but their unwise advocates, or perhaps their designing agitators, who would plead, as a right of theirs, for that which passes in the first instance into the pockets of their employers, and then goes to stamp an unnatural cheapness on the produce of their employment. Such works as those of Mr Cleland are of great value, and are well fitted to pioneer the way of the economist to a sound and experimental conclusion on questions of great interest. He has extended his survey beyond the precincts of the immediate neighbourhood of Glasgow; or rather, instead of a survey, he has given an estimate of the country looms now employed by the manufacturers of Glasgow, and compares it with the number employed antecedently to the present depression in that branch of our manufactures. We should like to see a similar estimate for Manchester and its vicinity; as nothing could be' more important than to learn the proportion between the em" ployed and unemployed looms in the great weaving districts of England, and thus to ascertain what effect the Poor-laws have had in fixing the labourers of a declining branch of industry down to their employment, and so in increasing and accelerating its declension. It is quite clear, that neither the feeling nor the clamour of distress were at all less in the country where a compulsory provision has a full, than in the country where it has yet only obtained a partial operation. But it were desirable to know in how far, allured by the promise of their own institutions, the 'weavers of England were kept together at their work, instead of going off by those outlets which, in times of fluctuation and distress, enable the people of every country, in a certain degree, to -shift their wonted employments. .
And here we may state an inequality between Scotch and English operatives, to which many of our Southern neighbours may never perhaps have adverted. Should the Poor-rates of England reduce the nominal price of weaving there to five shillings a week, that becomes the real price to the operative in Scotland. This at least holds true, without any qualification, in as far as the Poor-rate for manufacturing workmen is contributed, not by the capitalists who employ them, but by other capitalists, or by the landed interest of the country. The manufacturers of Glasgow must be undersold by those of Manchester, if the latter can hire their workmen with a bounty upon their work, in the shape of a legal provision; and, to put the capitalists in both places on a footing, the whole hardship of the difference must fall on the weavers whom they employ. To obtain an equalization, there are only two methods; cither to extend the Poor-rate to Scotland, or to abolish that part of the English practice, by which the fund is made applicable to a defect of work, or to a defect of wages. We are quite satisfied, that the effect of the former method would be, to sink the whole profession, as by a death-warrant, into a state of helpless and incurable degradation—and that the effect of the latter method would be, to raise the price of weaving to .the rate of allowance that is now made up of its present nominal price, and of the supplemental charity which goes to the English operative. It would ultimately work out a great and a glorious emancipation for the weavers of England; and, to Scotland, it would come with all the force and charm of an immediate deliverance. And, placed as we are, in the pestilent neighbourhood of our sister country, we would plead for this partial abolition of her whole charitable system, as the prelude to a gradual and entire abolition,; so that this worthless and pernicious nuisance which her mistaken policy has entailed upon our empire, may, in time, be utterly swept away.
There is another, and certainly a better, way of meeting this distress. Instead of supplying the deficient wages of the operatives in their employment, take so many of them away from their employment. Provide other work for them, where they may have a somewhat better remuneration than they have at their own work. In this way you will disengage so many, for a season, from a line of industry that is already overdone, and perhaps may transfer a number of weavers permanently to other employments. Thus may the supply of goods be reduced beneath the consumption, and the market, relieved of its superabundant stock, return to natural prices, and a fair remuneration for the operative. This, certainly, is a far more legitimate object for a public subscription, than the former; and the only hazard is, that after it is once started, and is obtruded on the view of the workmen as a likely expedient for their deliverance, it may not be supported with enough of vigour and liberality on the part of the benevolent. For, to pay the difference between bad wages and better, is not nearly so expensive as to pay the better wages altogether:—And it is this which tempts the charitable to the first method of supplying, rather than to the second method of withdrawing; and, even when the second method is entered upon by any public or combined movement, it is scarcely ever done in such a style of magnitude as to work any sensible effect. There will, no doubt, be a certain fraction withdrawn; but probably a very small proportion of the number that would need to be withdrawn, or of the number that would withdraw themselves, if left to prosecute their own expedients, without any delusive influence being set up to deceive and to detain them in their present situation. Government, for example, has held out the resource of emigration. But this they ought not to have done, unless they were in a condition to prosecute the enterprise on so great a scale as to work a national effect. Otherwise, they have only diverted individuals from their own measures for emigration, and in fact have lessened the relief of this expedient to the whole country—for many have trusted in this way to facilities which have not been realized. The city of Glasgow, in like manner, employs a few hundred operative weavers at a public work, the expense of which is in part defrayed by a public subscription. But, by this very measure, she has detained within her territory many more operatives than she employs. 8he has held out a prospect of employment at home which she has not been able to realize; and has so slackened the emigration to Ireland and other parts of the country, that we have at this moment more occupied looms in consequence of the public work thus provided, than we would have had without it. When the transference was left to itself, we find that there was an abandonment of looms to the extent of three thousand and upwards. The whole public work takes up scarcely as many hundreds. But the name and the expectation of it detained a great many more; of whom, a few were admitted to the privilege of this extra employment, and the rest were obliged to hang on under the chance either of an enlargement or a vacancy. So that all which has been publicly done in this way, is rather an apology for a good thing, than the good thing itself. It was great, perhaps, in reference to the sums contributed by several individuals; but quite of Lilliputian dimensions in reference to the evil to be combated. And it were well that all corporations, and move especially Government, the greatest corporation in our land, were more aware of the insignificance of all that they have done, and, perhaps, of all that they can do, to moderate the evils of a deranged and distempered commerce.
But the same powerlessness of effort cannot be charged on the benevolence of wealthy and enlightened individuals. Government is one, and city corporations are few; but rich individuals are many: and, were a wise direction given to their charity, there is no doubt of a great and valuable result coming out of it. The efforts of landholders and country gentlemen to procure extra work for our weavers, have created a most important and salutary diversion in our present emergencies. A list of all the individuals who have thus signalized themselves, would furnish a most gratifying record of the kind sympathy that is to be found, in our day, under the guidance of wisdom and just discernment. The names of the Duke of Hamilton, and Lords Belhaven and Douglas, in Lanarkshire, and of Mr Maxwell in the county of Renfrew, have a foremost place in this history of pure and honourable patriotism.
There is another and a far more excellent way— not to be attained, certainly, but by a change of habit among the workmen themselves—yet such a change as may be greatly promoted by those whose condition or character gives them influence in society. We have always been of opinion that the main use of a Savings Bank was, not to elevate labourers into the class of capitalists, but to equalize and improve their condition as labourers. We should like them to have each a small capital, not wherewith to become manufacturers, but wherewith to control manufacturers. It is in this way (and we can see no other) that they will be enabled to weather all the fluctuations to which trade is liable. It is the cruel necessity of overworking which feeds the mischief of superabundant stock, and which renders so very large a transference of hands necessary ere the market can be relieved of the load under which it groans and languishes. Now, this is a necessity that can only be felt by men on the brink of starvation, who live from hand to mouth, and have scarcely more than the day's earnings for the subsistence of the day. Let these men only be enabled, on the produce of former accumulations, to live through a season of depression while they work moderately, or, if any of them should so choose it, while they do not work at all,—and they would not only lighten such a period of its wretchedness, but they would inconceivably shorten its duration. The overplus of manufactured goods, which is the cause of miserable wages, would soon clear away under that restriction of work which would naturally follow on the part of men who did not choose, because they did not need, to work for miserable wages. What is now a protracted season of suffering and discontent to the lower orders, would, in these circumstances, become to them a short but brilliant career of holiday enjoyment. The report of a heavy downfall of wages, instead of sounding like a knell of despair in their ears, would be their signal for rising up to play. We have heard, that there does not exist in our empire a more intellectual and accomplished order of workmen than the weavers of Paisley. It was their habit, we understand, to abandon their looms throughout the half or nearly the whole of each Saturday, and to spend this time in gardening, or in the enjoyment of a country walk. It is true, that such time might sometimes be viciously spent; but still we should rejoice in such a degree of sufficiency among our operatives, as that they could afford a lawful day of every week for their amusement, and still more, that they could afford whole months of relaxed and diminished industry, when industry was underpaid. This is the dignified posture which they might attain: but only after the return of better times, and through the medium of their own sober and determined economy. Every shilling laid up in store, and kept in reserve for the evil day, would strengthen the barrier against such a visitation of distress and difficulty as that from which we are yet scarcely emerging. The very habits too, which helped them to accumulate in the season of well paid work, would form our best guarantee against the vicious or immoral abuse of this accumulation, in the season either of entire or comparative inactivity. We would expect an increase of reading, and the growth of literary cultivation, and the steady advancement of virtuous and religious habits,—and, altogether, a greater weight of character and influence among the labouring classes, as the permanent results of such a system. Instead of being the victims of every adverse movement in trade, they would become its most effective regulators.