Economic Development in Denmark Before and During the World War/Condition of the Agricultural Labourer

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Condition of the Agricultural Labourer

It cannot be said that the Danish government has done much for the betterment of agriculture. The question of the parcelling out of land was acted upon by the legislature in 1897 and again in 1906, when it was determined how much of a parcelled-out property must be left to preserve the integrity of the estate. Only a third of the Hartkorn was restricted, while the rest might be freely disposed of. This ruling must be considered in connexion with the modern efforts for procuring access to the establishment of small holdings. As early as the eighteenth century efforts had been made to better the condition of the farmers, but little attention had been paid to that of the cottars. The right of a landlord to punish his cottars was abolished in 1848, and a law was also passed providing that a contract for the lease of a house must contain no provision for payment in labour. But the question of small holdings was not taken up until the end of the nineteenth century, when an agricultural commission (appointed in 1894) considered conditions of allotments. Five years later an act was passed by which the state might lend to applicants who fulfilled the conditions for becoming state cottars an essential part of the total value of the holding at a very moderate rate of interest. About 9,000 small holdings have thus been created, and at the same time other ways of furthering allotments have been devised. In 1906 an act was passed granting government loans to societies or associations which would buy large properties for allotment purposes; and an act of March 20, 1918, created a fund of 5,000,000 kroner to be loaned to small farmers and traders for the defrayal of operating costs. But public opinion was not satisfied with this. The desire for further changes, such as the abolition of restrictions, such as entails and fiefs, on the sale of land, the forced sale of land held by the Crown or by the established church, etc. had become very strong, and a new agricultural commission was accordingly appointed in 1910. Its proposals will be dealt with below.

The above-described revolution in the status of the agricultural classes has greatly broadened the base of the social pyramid. As the lower classes have increased in numbers far more rapidly than the upper classes, not a few who might have preferred to gain their livelihood on their own farms have flocked, as in other countries, into the towns, with many petty trades, men and manufacturers. Many philanthropists would fain see them back on the farms again.

To form an idea of the condition of the lower classes of the agricultural population, we must have recourse first to the statistics of wages. In 1872 the annual income of an agricultural labourer who paid for his own food was about 407 kroner ($109). Food was dear, though certain other necessaries of life, such as lodging, were comparatively cheap; but on such an income it was practically impossible for a family to live, unless the head of the house had some land of his own, or unless his wife and children were able to eke out his earnings. But far worse was the condition of a labourer who boarded at the farmhouse. The supporter might live comparatively well; but the better he lived, the worse the other members of his family lived. An agricultural labourer who boarded at the farmhouse received, on an average, 216 kroner ($58) a year, so that the value of his food might be estimated at about half of his income. Under such circumstances he had barely enough for his daily needs; for insurance against sickness or accident there was little left over, and still less for pleasures or for newspapers or other reading. The custom of boarding the farmhand seemed too deeply rooted to be changed. As an author wrote some years later in regard to it: 'It was based on the idea that a man could not work on such food as his family had to be content with.' This view may still be found among workmen in the towns, where it is a matter of course that the head of the family gets more abundant and more nourishing food than his wife and children; but for the farmhand of forty years ago who owned no land, it was misery. Generous employers sometimes supplemented the terribly inadequate wage by gifts, such as milk; but these gifts were not sufficient to insure even a tolerable living, and the worker had no legal right to claim them.

If the farmhand was so poor that he could barely make the scantiest living under the most favourable conditions, he was still worse off in the case of sickness or accident; and his only recourse in old age was the poorhouse.

But toward the end of the century the condition of farmhands began to improve. By 1892 their wages had risen to 486 kroner ($130) when they provided their own food and to 315 kroner ($84) when they boarded at the farmhouse. This was a greater advance than the figures would seem to indicate, for the price of food had greatly declined during the preceding twenty years. Moreover, that social legislation had begun, which in various ways secured a labourer, if misfortune came upon him. The statistics for 1910 show a further advance in the annual wages to 689 kroner ($185), and in spite of the higher price of food the farmhand could now get more for his money. On the other hand, the wages of the farm labourer were considerably lower than those of the city labourer. It is not surprising, therefore, that dissatisfaction arose in the rural districts and that socialistic ideas began to spread rapidly.

Meanwhile, a new influence had arisen in certain agricultural circles, namely, that of Henry George, whose doctrine was received with great favour by the middle classes, especially by the small farmers, who saw in the introduction of the single-tax system great possibilities for a happy social life. But it did not take root in the towns, where the workmen based their views of life for the most part upon purely socialistic ideas. There was some agitation on the question of the unearned increment in the towns, but it did not exert much influence upon the course of legislation.

As stated above, the Agricultural Commission of 1910 brought forward proposals to release land held in tail and in fief from these restrictions and to enjoin the sale of lands held by the Crown and by the church. At this point we meet with an interesting turn in the tide of public opinion. Toward the middle of the last century the old-fashioned leaseholds had been abolished. Free proprietorship had come to be considered the best guarantee of social happiness, and there are many people to whom this principle still seems indisputable. Its application brought about, in 1903, the abolition of tithes; in 1918, of leaseholds and other land restrictions, a fixed sum being paid annually instead of the contributions according to the price of grain. Of late, however, the pendulum of public opinion has swung in the opposite direction. Fear has been expressed that if the public lands are sold for cash legitimate interests will be injured by reason of fluctuations in the value of money. A new principle has therefore been advanced, namely, that land, instead of being sold for the full amount in cash, should be subject to an annual assessment to be revised at regular intervals so that it should correspond to the current purchasing power of gold. On these terms the church and other institutions may part with their land without misgivings. This principle was presented by the Agricultural Commission of 1910 in its reports, and the government accepted the principle.

This is the point which we have now reached in Denmark, and apparently without any influence from without. The new ideas would have made their way even if the war with its enormous revolutions had not come.