Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/July 1888/Fallacies in the Trades-Unions Argument

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By J. B. MANN.

THE errors which prevail in relation to certain foundation principles of the labor movement seem to justify an attempt to illustrate the subject, in a more commonplace way than is customary, by citations of such familiar incidents as meet the ordinary experience and thought of men in the common walks of life. The labor question is like any other, in respect to its dependence upon laws which can not be repealed by man or overthrown by organizations of classes or individuals. Everything in the world is subject to laws of its kind, from which there is no escape, whatever we may wish or attempt. Labor is no exception, and we must, therefore, ascertain what the laws pertaining to labor are, and then conduct the discussion in the light of them.

At the beginning, the most obvious thing concerning labor is, that it is a commodity. It is a thing bought and sold, and is of little value except under that condition. There is no such thing as society where labor is not bought, sold, or exchanged, and we can not conceive of a civilization which does not make labor a commodity and treat it as such.

The reason why another condition of things does not exist is, that natural law comes in and will not permit it. Man has need of very many things but he has time to acquire the skill to make only a few of them. He can learn and become expert in only one or two trades, and unless he is expert his trade will be of little use. The carpenter who builds but one house in his lifetime can not be much of an expert, especially if he has to raise his corn and potatoes, make his clothes, his tools, his household utensils, and whatever else is required while he is building the house. It would take a single man so long to learn the trades necessary to supply himself with comforts, that he would and could have no amount of comforts without a division of labor, under which each man should give his attention mainly to one thing, and that thing the one best suited to his faculty. Necessity, therefore, compels an exchange of labor, and thus labor becomes a commodity, and a thing of barter, transfer, and price.

The next important item in regard to the matter is that, to effect the exchange of labor, capital becomes a necessity also. A man chooses to be a farmer. He can do nothing at farming without a plow, a hoe, a shovel, and other tools, and these are capital. If he did not have the capital to buy them, he would have to make them, and have to learn how to make them, and have to dig the iron-ore, learn to smelt and prepare it, and work it, and learn to make the anvils and hammers, and nails, and screws, and all else used in the construction of a plow. But capital standing at the door with a plow ready made, the farmer can commence business the very day he gets title to his land.

These observations are elementary, it is true, but they are necessary as an introduction. They establish two points: First, that labor must be exchanged to be of any avail; and, second, it must be assisted by capital. It will be seen that the laborer must work along the line of diversity and development. Men instinctively do this generally in the beginnings of a community. One man becomes a blacksmith, one a carpenter, one a mason, one a shoemaker, and so on, in submission to the laws governing labor—the laws of diversity and development. They know, without argument, that two shoemakers and no blacksmith would be a foolish and unprofitable arrangement, and hence employments are divided spontaneously. As society advances, the occupations multiply; that is, they divide more and more, and by doing so each person has a chance to select the one which best suits his taste and capacity. And in this way the highest power of the community is developed. The best blacksmith takes the place of the bungler, the good workman in all branches finds employment, and the inexpert retires to some other calling, or perfects himself so as not to be driven to the wall. Society demands the best, and, as it advances, secures it more and more. The best tailor, and the best lecturer, and the best lawyer, are never idle; and they are produced by the law of diversity and development.

It is equally certain that capital is produced by labor, and is the natural result of labor husbanded and taken care of. The existence of capital is due to the previous existence of labor, but its existence in large quantity is due to the joint effort of labor and capital. The existence of the plow/ which is capital, has kept the farmer from starving, and, as all other people depend upon the farmer for food, the plow has kept us all from starving. In the same way the spindle and the loom have kept us from freezing; and they are capital.

To sum up this part of the case, we say that in order to have development we must have capital, that the amount of capital must depend upon the extent of development, and the amount of comfort attainable upon the union of capital and labor, working along the line of development. The man who can make two shoes in a day will supply double the needs of the shoe-wearing community that the man will who can make but one shoe in the same time, and, the world over, he will be pronounced the better man. Obviously, two things will certainly follow the introduction of such a workman: the community will get its shoes with one half the number of days' labor from the expert workman that were required when they were made by the inexpert workman, and it will have a citizen who will be accumulating capital, in lieu of one who could only barely make a living; for it will cost twice as much to clothe and feed the shoemaking force of a community when it takes twice the number of men to do the work, and, with double the expense, only half the capital can be accumulated.

Many years ago a distinguished philosopher and writer said that the man who could tell how to make two blades of grass grow where but one grew before, would be a great public benefactor. With two blades of grass on the average in lieu of one, we should have double the pork, beef, mutton, hides, wool, milk, butter, and cheese, and we could raise twice the corn, wheat, and potatoes; or, if these were not needed in such quantity, we would have to spend only half the time in meeting our wants. We all understand how it works. We know that a farmer who raises, year after year, but one ton of grass to the acre, is not only a poor farmer, but must be a poor man also, compared with the farmer who contrives to get two tons to the acre. We have all seen both kinds of farmers, and are all agreed as to their relative merits. The man who can accomplish most in the least time is unanimously regarded as the best man in every occupation of life in which he engages.

Universal opinion, therefore, establishes a goal for ambition, and men strive to reach it. We recognize success to be the goal, and success depends on the ability to do the most in the least time. We must work toward success; for working against success is sure to end in disaster. No man plants corn, and then, when the crop has been gathered, sets his granary on fire and burns it up. No man goes to his field and stands all day with folded arms, expecting that the crop will grow without planting and hoeing.

We have, then, a test by which to try all the plans which are projected to advance the interests of mankind, and it is so simple that any man of common understanding can apply it. Let us apply it to some of the projects of the labor-reformers, using all candor and honesty. As I understand it, the trades-unions are conducted, so far as the members find it possible to conduct them, upon a theory exactly opposite to the universally recognized law of success. They make a regulation that no master-workman shall have more than a given number of apprentices. They say that no man shall work before a certain hour in the morning and after a certain hour in the evening. They provide that no man shall work for another who has treated a particular workman in a way not approved by the union. They require that, when one can not get a given price for labor, he shall cease work and remain idle. In some cases they contend that a good and specially effective hand shall have no better wages than an inferior and less effective one; and practically they strive to place a limit to the power of the community to provide for its support and comfort. The right to do all this I do not intend to discuss, but only its wisdom. Is it in the line of the conditions of success as we know them?

What makes a prosperous farmer? The answer is, industry, knowledge, adaptation of means to ends in such a way that the greatest crops shall be raised from the fewest acres. What makes a prosperous town or village? Evidently the development and judicious application of its forces to production in all departments. If we see a township with a hundred farms, and each farmer managing so that he secures only eight tons of hay from twelve acres, we shall find scraggy and lean cattle, small, inconvenient buildings, poor fences, and all the signs of unthrift, dilapidation, poverty, and decay. There is no doubt about it. Compare such a town with an adjoining one where by intelligence and active industry the farmers get twenty-five tons of hay from twelve acres. In the latter town will be found double the number of cattle, and more than double the number of the conveniences and comforts of life. The difference between two such towns is in what is termed accomplishment. That is to say, one town has shown what the result is from limiting its productions to less than one ton of grass per acre, and the other has shown how the face of things appears where all hands have tried to get two tons of grass per acre.

Now the same general result would follow were the main pursuit of the population mechanical instead of agricultural. Start the shoe business in two towns side by side, making the hours of labor six in one and twelve in the other, and in twenty-five years the latter town will be able to buy the former out four or five times. This, because the capital saved in the several years will have been earning all the time, while the other town will have used up all its earnings from year to year, and will stand at the end of twenty-five years at the same point whence it started. In other words, limitation and curtailment of resources inevitably tend to poverty, and development and use of resources surely tend to prosperity and comfort. The limitations of the unions, all of them, are on the line of non-accomplishment, and are avowedly designed to hinder or check production. They are adopted on the theory that with less production wages will rise, and in the rise of wages the laborer will receive as much compensation for one day's labor as he otherwise would for two days' labor.

Under certain contingencies, and for a time as to some individuals, that may happen. In a temporary glut of the market, curtailment of production is found to be a remedy, or a partial one, for unduly low prices, but even then the laborer has to lose all of the time needed to free the market from the excess of goods. Labor as a whole gains nothing, but loses. The farmers who raise only half a crop to the acre do not find in the long run that they get as much money as their neighbors who raise a full crop, notwithstanding there are short periods when hay which ordinarily fetches twelve dollars per ton will bring twenty-five dollars. Nobody has ever seen a half-crop farmer permanently prosperous out of the resources of his farm, and nobody has seen general prosperity when half the laboring population was idle, or when the whole laboring population was idle half the time. It is impossible in the nature of things, because the rewards of labor all come from the productions of labor, and when less is produced there must necessarily be less to divide. The price of a ton of hay in the market may go up from ten dollars to twenty, but the laws of production and labor are not cheated, nevertheless; for the way has not yet been discovered by which the one ton will sustain the life of the ox and the horse as long as the two tons will; and in spite of the double price the reduction in quantity is a dead loss to somebody, and in the end comes out of the consumers of meat, who are all taxed in higher prices they have to pay.

The direct effect of less labor is fewer articles for use, comfort, and luxury. This is the avowed purpose of the unions in trying to compel all laborers to agree to a limit for the hours of labor. They propose to sustain prices by creating comparative scarcity of goods, and claim that thereby they can secure as many comforts as before with shorter hours of work. But how? If they work enough faster, so as to make as many goods in six hours as they before made in ten, they would save in hours, it is true, and get as many goods. But this is not the aim. No scarcity would be attained in that way, and consequently prices would not be raised; and the conditions of poverty and prosperity would remain precisely as they were. It would be simply a question whether it is better on the whole to work leisurely or in a hurry, and unions are never formed on such, a question as that, for the plain reason that it suits some temperaments to hurry and other temperaments not to hurry, and a change can not be effected by regulation. The main object is more compensation for the same or less service, and it is expected to come by causing a scarcity of products; that is, with less to divide, the share of each, will be greater—a contradiction in terms, regarding the matter as a permanent condition.

Let us illustrate in another way. We ask, Has man been provided with a surplus of force, the exercise of which, in efforts to get a good living, operates to prevent him from getting a good living? If this be the case, a reduction of force must prove beneficial. Are laboring-men prepared to admit this? Would it promote wealth to have every able-bodied man lose one foot, so as to reduce the aggregate activity of the community one half? Would a community of one-armed men get a more comfortable living than a community of two-armed men? Do we find slow, sluggish, time wasting, inactive, and unindustrious peoples getting ahead and living a more desirable life than the vigorous, pushing, and constantly employed peoples? Yet a reduction of force a fourth, a third, and even a half, it is asserted by some, will enable the users of force greatly to improve their circumstances.

If we produce less we shall have more, according to the theory which demands less production as a means of getting richer. According to this theory, the little busy bee which improves each shining hour, and gathers honey all the day, makes a grand mistake. It should adopt the eight-hour system—gather less honey, and have more leisure.

The question of hours of labor as affecting the health and the length of life and happiness of laborers is not under discussion here, but simply their bearings upon the financial status of the men who do the work of the world. The workers are aiming at an improvement of their finances and at the abolition of poverty, and it is important to know whether the means proposed are adequate to the end, and even whether they tend to improvement of pecuniary conditions. Under some circumstances and for short periods, in given cases, a shortening of hours of labor may not cause a decrease in compensation. For instance, a man with plenty of money, having made up his mind to build a fine house, may go on and build it, though he pay ten-hour wages for eight hours' work. A number of men may do the same thing, and the mechanics who are fortunate enough to be in their employ will not be losers in consequence. But these cases are the exception and not the rule. When it comes to the great body of men who would build, the higher cost operates as a prohibition to building, as thousands of men would be unable to build and pay thirty per cent more for labor and for materials; consequently they would continue to live in their old houses, thus reducing the quantity of work to be obtained, thereby throwing hosts of workmen out of employment, and causing a surplus of labor to be offered in the market, to the depression of the wages of those mechanics who have a chance to work. Further than this, in the end, a scarcity of houses would ensue, causing an advance in rents, to the detriment of all workmen who do not own the dwellings they live in and must pay the advance in rents. The processes would be somewhat slow, and be combined with so many obscure influences, that men would hardly know of any change, but after a few years they would realize that somehow the number of people struggling for a bare living had in no wise diminished, and the hardness of their lot had been in no way ameliorated.

That laboring-men are gradually coming to see the truth in these things is seen in their changed views in relation to strikes. A few years ago prodigious efforts were made to get. men to strike. It was a favorite remedy with the leaders, and large promises of grand results were made and believed in. The strike was formerly the favorite panacea for keeping up prices of labor, but to-day the long-headed and wise men in the labor movement advise a resort to it only in cases of great aggravation, and not then until after all other known remedies have proved ineffectual. This change in sentiment could not have happened if former strikes had met expectations. It is asserted by labor-men that there is more distress among them than at any former time, and the good old days of thirty and forty years ago, when strikes were almost unknown, are pointed at as the true contrast of the present. If strikes had measurably succeeded, there would have been no ground for the assertion, for success could be proved only by showing an improvement in the circumstances of the classes for whose benefit they were instituted. If compensation after a strike is no better than it was before, it can not be said that the strike succeeded in securing better compensation; and, on the other hand, if compensation has been improved, the assertion that harder times prevail now than formerly must be untrue, and there is no reason why laboring-men should not keep on striking.

But it is said, in reply to this, that strikes are not favored now because the poverty of the working-classes is so extreme that a portion will yield before the proper result can be attained. This is the undoubted fact, and it is one which settles the case against inaugurating strikes. Men can not succeed in anything where their means are inadequate; and so long as laborers are poor, they can no more cease work long enough to make goods scarce than they can build ships and go into the carrying-trade. The circumstance of poverty is fatal to the luxury of frequent strikes, and the time lost in carrying them out so cripples the workmen that they fail of being a remedy for low prices of labor.

If we take two families in rather poor circumstances, and apply the principle of short hours of labor to one and not to the other, we can get a tolerably clear idea of its operation. The families consist, say, of the fathers and mothers and six young children each, all the children being too young to be of great assistance. Mrs. A rises at five in the morning, prepares breakfast, after breakfast clears off the table, washes the dishes, gets dinner and tea, clears up, at some time sweeps the rooms, sews a little, knits a little, mends and darns a little, and thus uses up nearly every moment of time until ten or eleven o'clock at night. Her house is kept in order and her children appear at school and church neatly clad, hold up their heads with a self-respecting air, and are able to associate with pupils quite superior to them in pecuniary circumstances; but it is due to sixteen hours of diligence and well applied labor on the part of the mother. On the other hand, Mrs. B holds to the theory that eight hours of labor is enough, and puts it in practice. She omits the sweeping, and her house and furniture become untidy and unattractive. She omits the darning and mending, so that her children can not go to church, and go to school in rags, whereby they fall in standing and association, acquire the manners and morals of the neglected classes, and grow up cursing destiny and preparing to retaliate on society for having consigned them to a life of ignorance, want, and degradation. The contrast between the two families in the matters of comfort, morals, prospects, and happiness is striking. But contrasts of the kind are often seen; and it is generally recognized that the difference is owing to the unremitting fidelity and industry of the Mrs. A's as set off against the lax work of the Mrs. B's. Should Mrs. A shorten her hours of labor to eight, permanently, the family, instead of faring better, must inevitably fare worse; and what is true of one family is true of two, of twenty, of a hundred, and of all the community dependent on labor for support. This will remain true until the time comes when eight hours' labor will pay for the comforts now secured by twelve or fourteen hours' labor.

Whether superficial knowledge be beneficial or deleterious may depend on what is meant by the term. If we mean by it incorrect knowledge, that certainly is worse than no knowledge at all; if simply a small amount of knowledge, the least is of advantage. A little knowledge on a great many subjects, as Mr. Balfour has said in his rectorial address at St. Andrew's, will conduce more to happiness and enjoyment, and will better render a man's mind wide and liberal in tone, and free from the prejudices of ignorance, than a great deal of knowledge on one subject alone. The best condition is to know as much as possible on one subject, and cultivate a little knowledge on many others.