Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 41.djvu/665

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647
THE WAGE-CONTRACT AND PERSONAL LIBERTY.

means of their utmost exertions, earn sufficient wages to purchase the necessaries of life.

That the great mass of wage-earners favor State regulation of some sort will probably be conceded. Scarcely a month passes that Congress and the State Legislatures are not asked by labor interests to restrict the freedom of contract in one way or another. They believe that their wages may be increased by legislation, just as the price of commodities is increased by tariff laws. If legislation can lower the rate of wages below the contract rate, it is difficult to see why it can not also raise the rate of wages above the contract rate. For centuries the employing class of England legislated in its own interest and kept the rate of wages below the contract rate. This they did, first, by various Statutes of Laborers, passed by Parliament, giving the employing class power to fix wages, and punishing laborers who asked or received higher wages; secondly, by laws abolishing trade guilds and confiscating their property; thirdly, by acts of Parliament and decisions of the courts holding that peaceful combinations among workmen to raise wages were conspiracies and punishable by fine or imprisonment; and, fourthly, by acts of Parliament debasing the currency, by which the purchasing power of the laborer's shilling or penny was greatly lessened. Prof. Rogers, in his great work entitled Six Centuries of Work and Wages, shows how by these various legislative means the English laborer's condition was reduced from that of comparative comfort in the fourteenth century to that of semi-starvation in the eighteenth. This system was inaugurated in 1350, shortly after the Great Plague, which destroyed one third of the entire population of England. At that time the employing class, which, of course, controlled legislation, seems to have had some excuse for passing the Statute of Laborers. The supply of labor being thus suddenly reduced one third, the demand was intense, and the laborers could get exorbitant prices for their work. The contract rate depending upon supply and demand was abnormally and unreasonably high,[1] and therefore the employing class brought all the machinery of the State to bear upon the situation, and finally succeeded in reducing the rate below the contract rate. This policy was pursued by England into the dawn of the nineteenth century, when, the conditions having changed and there being an oversupply of labor and the contract rate correspondingly low, the Statutes of Laborers were magnanimously repealed.

During all this time of State regulation of wages in favor of the employing class we look in vain for any philosopher to arise


  1. The preamble to the statute recites that wages had risen to double or treble the rate that prevailed immediately before the plague.