Popular Science Monthly/Volume 11/September 1877/The Labor-Question

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IN sociology, the "personal equation," if not eliminated, distorts men's view of Nature's workings more than in any other department of thought. Despite this, nowhere else do they cling so tenaciously to this distorting factor. Shallow conclusions, based upon traditional notions of right and wrong, tinctured with the bias of class or education, is the sum total of the majority of attempts at making clear this vexing but important subject. Scientific methods are unthought of, and scientific conclusions either ignored or denounced as cold, hard, and unsympathetic. They never trouble themselves about ascertaining what it is possible to do under the circumstances, but, without a minute's consideration, set up their Utopian standards of right, and at once proceed to bend everything in that direction. Should they deem it right to reverse the course of the Mississippi, we might almost expect to see them undertake the impossible task, careless of all disastrous consequences. They have wasted power by asking what ought to be done, instead of inquiring what can be done.

If ever this problem receives an accurate solution, it will come from viewing it physically rather than morally. As the bone and sinew of man is the stored energy of sunbeams, so property or capital is the same energy re-stored after being unlocked as work. As the former is the potential energy of physical life, so the latter is the potential energy of social life. Any attempt at viewing the matter by ignoring this law of the conservation of energy, which is at the foundation of social order, can only result in false opinions and lead to dangerous measures.[1] When men were savages, and bone and sinew ruled, he who had most physical power was chief. Now, a vaster magazine of energy is accumulated in capital, and whoever has most of it rules. This is but a plain statement of fact. The power is there lodged by the very constitution of society, and no attempts at realizing the dream of communism can wrest it away. What can the man of muscle do?

In early stages of human development, the accumulation of bodily vigor and strength was the main object of life. Natural and sexual selection conspired to pick the strongest, best-formed specimens, while driving the weak and worthless to the wall. Strategy soon competed with strength, and, when victor, intellect was picked with it. From among all the strategic devices of intellect property was selected as the fittest, and society became a necessity for its protection. As at first men found that such life as they sought could only exist when bodily waste was balanced or overbalanced by accumulation, so now we cannot long maintain physical health if nutrition fails to keep pace with waste. Some form of phthisis may take hold of us and increase the waste beyond the normal, or our supply of food may be withheld, and we die of inanition. Social life is subject to two just such sets of dangers. In a machine we have friction and interference answering to similar ideas. These must each be brought to the minimum if we would have things work smoothly.

Are working-men, as a class, frugal and provident? Do they curb self-gratification, and make present sacrifice for future advantage? How many mechanics or day-laborers calculate their annual waste of means on such unnecessary articles as tea, coffee, tobacco, beer, whiskey, etc.? How many, instead of selecting plain, wholesome, cheap food, spend their extra dollars on pastry, rare fruits and vegetables, etc.? The business done in this line by the grocers and bakers of the lower wards of New York will answer this. I have eaten at the tables of rich and poor in many States, and my experience teaches me that, as a rule, the well-to-do mechanic lives better than many merchants, bankers, and professional men, as long as his wages hold out. The same prodigality is manifested in dress and ornament. They will make any sacrifice to ape the rich or vie with each other. Servant-girls often dress better than their mistresses. Who will calculate the dollars wasted by that mechanic's family, before sickness or accident drove him to the poor-house? How much did he throw away on rent, that he might live in a better house than he was well able to afford? How many dollars were spent on theatres, balls, sociables, fairs, or excursions, that might have been saved? How much did superstition extort from him? These are a few of the many avenues through which his hard-earned wages escaped. Add to these the physician's bills, for attending to himself and family when overwork and uncleanliness brought on sickness; and, last though not least, consider the number of mouths he is himself the cause of having-to till, and the number of backs to clothe. If his income had overbalanced this expenditure, when the crisis arrived he would have been safe. With how many of our present paupers and tramps was this the case? Are the careful to be forced to bear the load of the careless? Self-restraint is more important to the poor man than legislation. This will give him a fitness for the battle of life, while that but unmans and effeminates him.

Again, are these men now out of employment the best types of laborers or mechanics, and the most trusty and efficient servants their employers had? Are they the honest, careful, thoughtful working-men who labored most earnestly for their employers' interests? Are those who have been retained the stupid and dishonest?—the unprofitable servants? Are they—but why proceed? The case is only too clear against the unemployed, as a class. Of course, there are exceptions. Unavoidable circumstances have doubtless thrown adrift the worthy. When a crisis comes, employers will retain those who have labored most faithfully and honestly for their interest. All others must lose employment. The improvident at once become paupers, demanding a living from their already heavily-burdened but careful fellow-workmen. If, during the age of muscle, lazy, puny men with diseased bodies, brought on by excess and vice, had demanded of the stalwart and vigorous that they must carry them on their backs, even though at their own peril, what could have been thought of them?

An array of unemployed men is clamoring for work, and the sympathetic urge their claims, "Fate is dealing hard with them," say they; "can we not alleviate their distress?" They would invoke state aid in behalf of these social failures, and thus increase the burdens upon the employed, forgetting that "the last straw breaks the camel's back." They would increase the number of officials, and lose thousands of dollars of the people's money by theft, while only tens or hundreds were bestowed as charity. They forget that the poor millions who are the consumers are the real tax-payers. All experience has shown that only abortive effort and theft can be hoped for when the state interferes. It is already overloaded with such work, and its officers are men subject to temptation where cash is concerned. A change of these has been advocated, but this would only be a change of thieves. No one class has a monopoly of morality. There are moral and immoral men in all classes; and, unfortunately, men of light specific gravity are more apt to swim in the sea of politics than their more solid fellows. Shall we, then, resort to an indiscriminate bestowal of alms? Statistics have again and again shown that, in the direct ratio of alms-giving, there is an increase of pauperism and crime. The easier you make the pauper's life, the more of that restraint you remove which now hinders many from choosing pauperism as a profession. If you have money to spend upon them, demand an equivalent in work of some kind for every cent bestowed. This leaves them with a spark of manly feeling, and satisfies your desire to relieve their wants. I have seen philanthropic men and women refuse to purchase a cane, toy, or newspaper, from a really suffering and needy person in the street, because they either did not want the article offered or would not be troubled with it; and I have then seen them go a few steps and drop as much money as would have made the purchase into the hat of a professional beggar, who was less worthy and less needy. It was hard to escape the conclusion that the sympathetic feeling which could only be satisfied by giving without requiring aught in return was here tinctured with the unhallowed self-righteousness of the Pharisee.

In these unemployed workmen we have a vast amount of energy wasting itself in uselessness or crime. In the bank-vaults lie unused large stores of the potential energy of society. Rich and poor are suffering from the inactivity. What is the cause of this? The capitalists will make no new investments, as they will not pay. Business is stagnant. People refuse to purchase. Such is the general cry, and over-production takes the blame. Over-production of what? How can an over-production of wheat and potatoes produce an over-production of everything else? How happens it that all the industries appeared to collapse together? Was there over-production in all? Has each person in these United States got all the clothing and articles of comfort and luxury he can possibly desire? How can overproduction be chargeable with this state of affairs, when, by a little thought upon the matter, we might see that the evidence points to the fact that every increase of goods brings a corresponding increased demand for such goods?

If there is one thing more than another working-men long for, it is high wages. To keep up their pay they unite in trades'-unions and analogous combinations. The employer wages war against this effort. While the former would demand all the profit of his labor, leaving the latter nothing for his pains, he in turn would like to retain it all for himself. If these were the sole factors of this battle, wages would steadily ascend, the balance of force ranging upward. Unfortunately (?) for the workman, this is not the case. His own unconscious efforts to pull wages down outweigh his conscious efforts to keep them up. Can he not see that every time he deserts a dear dealer to buy from a cheap one he is thoughtlessly creating a tendency to lower the wages of all who take part in the manufacture of such articles? This eventually, and through a variety of channels, works around to his own. This move on his part likewise creates a necessity for dishonesty and adulteration, which still further reacts against him. His employer, on the other hand, does more toward keeping up wages by seeking dear markets for his goods than his conscious efforts amount to in pulling them down. As the heaviest strain on the produce of the workman is the downward one, since all consumers take part in it, wages must fall. All the world clamors for cheap goods. Eventually a point of stable equilibrium must be reached, where very low wages precede very cheap goods. As capitalists, studying the cost of production, hold on to goods, refusing to sell at a sacrifice, their sales descend or cease, and wages are thrown down first. Could working-men be made to realize the fact that high wages mean correspondingly high food, clothing, fuel, rent, with all else he would purchase, while low wages mean the opposite, I think they would agree with me in saying that the amount received per diem for their work was of secondary importance. Some laborers must take the shrinkage in advance of others.

That there are more goods in the American market than is at present demanded, under existing conditions, is a certainty. But if over-production has glutted one market, why not seek another? Why stop mills and factories? Why turn laboring-men into the street? Is there no channel of least resistance for business to travel in? An over-production of goods is an over-production of wealth. Has the nation more wealth and comfort than it can manage or knows what to do with? The thing is perfectly absurd. When railroads came they brought an over-supply of accommodation for stage-coach travelers, but this extra amount of room found a use for itself in making travel cheaper and more comfortable, so that immensely more people traveled. Every labor-saving machine has done the same for the articles it produces. But suppose the price of travel had kept up, and the comforts remained the same, while the means of carrying passengers had rapidly increased, what would have occurred? Suppose the cotton machinery had turned into the market millions of yards of cotton, where hundreds answered before (as is actually the case), and the manufacturers had charged the old prices, what would have happened? It is obvious that in the first case not one extra traveler would have gone from home, and the much-needed railroads would have been a nuisance; while, in the second, the manufacturers would have been deluged with their own stock, been compelled to close their factories and howl "Over-production!" Whatever arrests the descent of prices, entails upon society just such a state of affairs as we are passing through. It stops wide distribution, as the owners of such goods are unable to cope with the traders of foreign markets. Protectionists aid in this part of the trouble. It accumulates a heavier supply than is demanded in the home-market. It overwhelms factories with their own goods, and drowns the manufacturer in bankruptcy, unless he stops work. It turns worthy, as well as unworthy, working-men adrift. It brings on all the horrors so piteously complained of. What can avert such consequences? There are, doubtless, factors in this problem unnoticed here, but this to me appears to be the main one. Allow wages to descend steadily, as the market demands, instead of holding them up till a crisis is reached. When crises come, they hurl them down like an avalanche far below the true level at which they should rest. Let the machinery of society have free, unimpeded action. Teach laborers to give way to the inevitable, without clogging the wheels by "strikes." They must learn to give in to the decrees of Fate without a murmur. They frighten themselves with a bugbear of starvation from low wages, and bring in a real bear with their acts. "O ye of little faith!" Will they never learn that eight hours' work at one dollar, with goods at half-price, is far better than four hours' work at the same, with goods at full price? Trades'-unions are waging war against natural law. Wages must come down! Profits must decrease! It is absolutely impossible to keep these up and have business proceed. If not satisfied with the pay offered by one employer, seek another. Unions, when other than a council of working-men aiming at the common good, are positive evils. Society must learn to frown down every interference on their part with the workings of trade, or we will be continually subject to recurrences of business stagnation and violence. They thwart their own purposes and entail the very miseries they profess to cure. Labor, like everything else in the market, is worth neither more nor less than supply and demand put upon it. It is sheer madness to battle fact by saying it should be worth more. Imagine an astronomer as insane as this, insisting upon it that the sun ought to revolve around the earth, and therefore refusing to reason upon the fact that the earth revolves around the sun! Merchants have no right to force each other, by mob violence, to maintain high prices upon their wares. No more have working-men this right when selling their labor. When they find it necessary to employ each other, they are just as exacting as the capitalists in demanding well-done work at low rates.

The capitalist will gladly welcome all unemployed laborers when the prices of his goods can be regulated by the demand for them, instead of, as now, by the high wages he is compelled to pay his men and high prices for his raw materials. He will have no fear of overstocking the markets of a world where men's wants are so numerous and insatiable. But it will not do to let him toy with men's wages at every whim he has. Men must seek for the highest remuneration without combination, compulsion, or restriction. Business-men must seek the highest prices in the same way. Excessive selfishness on the part of employé, as well as employer, lies at the root of the matter. When this is toned down, and each works for the other's interest, things will go better with both. Till then we may expect to see misery, and hear the wail of want from many quarters. Relieve this by giving the laborer something to do, however trifling, and not by alms. Ask the state to do nothing, or you will impose extra burdens upon the worthy, and sink them to pauperage. Teach working-men to live more economically, and practise self-restraint. Advise them to compete with each other in doing the most and best work they possibly can for their employer while in his employ. Teach them that they bring down their own wages, and that this is not their employer's doings. Show them that, if the wages descend slowly and steadily, it will avoid a crash of business, and, making goods correspondingly cheap, do them good rather than harm in the end. Train them into that true spirit of freedom and faith that will enable them to allow fellow-workmen, who are in need, to sell their labor for what they choose. Teach the employers to work for the interests of their men. Teach them to be less avaricious in demanding high profits for themselves. Teach them to give the working-men the highest wages the market will allow. Teach them to be honest and truthful with each other, and the public. Teach each class these points, and the highest substantial advantages to the working-class will soon be realized as a living fact. The present and past troubles are the legitimate fruits of our social immorality. The poor are not the only sufferers. Things, as they now exist, are about the best possible to our present stage of development. With improvement of men's natures will come a corresponding improvement of society. All that we can do is to search after the laws governing such matters, and remove obstructions from the way. With this done, leave all else to the vis medicatrix naturæ.

  1. When this was penned the writer did not suspect it would be so quickly verified.