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general motives of humanity, but by special motives of selfinterest, to exert themselves to a far greater degree than they seem now to have the thought of doing for their remedy and removal. Bound by special motives of self-interest, — for a society in which an overwhelming majority of its members have no reason to desire the stability of its institutions, but every reason to look forward to change, however violent and destructive in its nature, as likely to effect an improvement in their condition, is constantly exposed to the risk of revolution and entire reorganization. And even if this were not the case, the improvement of the condition of the working classes would still be a matter of most immediate self-interest to those who desire the continuance of their own material prosperity, because on the improvement of these classes, in conformity with the general progress in the world, depends the permanence of the wealth and power of England. If the poor are degenerating; if their physical vigor is diminishing; if larger numbers of them are falling into dependence upon public or private charity ; if the motives to independence are becoming weaker,
- then the decline of the state has set in, and the stream of wealth and prosperity is shrinking at its source.
But against such considerations as these it is urged : “ If we be not doing all we might, we are doing much. Every year more attention is given to education ; every year there is an extension of sanitary reforms; and if the condition of the poor is deplorable, it is due, not to the indifference and selfishness of the rich and the powerful, but in great measure to the operation of laws of political economy over which we have no control."
The laws of political economy which are often thus referred to are mainly those relating to the distribution of wealth, and especially those which are supposed to regulate wages by the principle of supply and demand as applied to labor.
On this topic especially a vast deal of sophistry is current. The laws of political economy are not sufficient by themselves to regulate the relations of men one to another. If they be properly understood and interpreted, they undoubtedly, so far as their jurisdiction extends, correspond with and confirm the dictates of that morality which finds its motive and sanction
in the happiness of mankind. But the variety of dispositions among men, and the complication of their interests, are so great, that the laws of political economy can rarely be absolutely applied, even when fully understood, to the direction of their concerns. The laws which are theoretically true concerning the accumulation and distribution of wealth are, in their practical application, continually subject to modification by the moral conditions of individuals and races. But even the true nature of these laws is frequently misunderstood, and the false interpretation of them may become one of the most serviceable instruments of oppression, and one of the most dangerous weapons of selfishness. A striking illustration of this fact is afforded by the prevalence of the doctrine that the sole economical consideration which is to determine the rate of wages at a given place and time is the demand for and supply of labor. Pushed to its consequences, this doctrine leads the employer of labor to take advantage of every circumstance which may promote an abundant supply of the kind of labor which he requires, without regard to the consequences of such a course to the health and happiness of the laborer. The tendency of such a doctrine, applied without restriction, in the present state of the world, is to the degradation of the laborer, and the destruction of his freedom, even to the point of actual or virtual enslavement. The question is often discussed as if, in the competition of the market, the employer and the laborer stood on equal terms, and had equal power in the determination of the rate of wages. But this is very seldom the case. As a rule, the employer has on his side two grounds of superiority to the laborer, — the possession of capital, and the possession of more cultivated intelligence. The first makes the employment of labor more or less a matter of choice with him ; the second enables him to vary his pursuits. But, in the actual condition of the laboring classes, the laborer has little or no choice in the matter of employment, and must take such as is offered him, and upon the terms on which it is offered, or must starve. The result is that, in a densely peopled country, employers of labor in the chief fields of industry — in all those which require of the workman no special intelligence — have the power to determine the rate of wages; and, as long as the present narrow ideas of political economy prevail, custom will do little to prevent competition from producing its legitimate effect in the lowering of the standard of wages to a minimum. Mr. Mill, in his chapter on wages, says: “In this country there are few kinds of labor of which the remuneration would not be lower than it is if the employer took the full advantage of competition.” But even if this be true, it is safe to assert that in many of the most important branches of industry the employer frequently takes advantage of competition to a degree which keeps the laborer in dependence, and even in want of the necessaries of healthy living. No one who investigates the relations of capital and labor can doubt that in the long run a disproportionate share of the profits of production falls to the capitalist,* and that the distribution of wealth consequently grows more and more unequal and unsatisfactory.
It is a truth too often forgotten that, in the present complex and unorganized condition of society, many of the laws of political economy, if applied without restriction to the regulation of human relations, work nothing but misery. In an ideal state of society, in which every man should be intelligent and independent, the rate of wages might perhaps be safely determined by competition. But in the actual condition of society, political economy itself teaches that reliance upon competition alone to fix the rate of wages may, and often, indeed, must, operate in violation of those superior laws of the science which determine the permanent prosperity of mankind, and regulate its advance. Competition at any given moment may establish a rate of wages which shall be destructive of the health and happiness of large sections of the community. In its turn it needs to be controlled in its operation by higher laws.
To remove the existing evils two great remedies have been proposed, each tending to a diminution of population, and consequently of competitors for labor. The first of these is emigration. But it is plain that this is a mere palliative. The
* For a striking illustration of this fact, see the very instructive evidence given before the Trades' Union Commission by Mr. James Nasmyth, the eminent machinist; especially questions 19,181 – 19,189, from the answers to which it appeared that Mr. Nasmyth had paid 21s. a week to a man whose work brought him in a profit of £ 6. — Tenth Report, 1868, p. 66.
fields for emigrants will in time, perhaps not long hence, be closed, while the increase of the population of the country from which the emigrants depart is likely to be quickened by the fact of their leaving a void to be filled. The second is, a limit self-imposed on the increase of families, a restraint upon the instinct of population. That this latter remedy, if it could be applied, would be effectual in the degree of its application is certain ; but in the present low moral and intellectual state of the working classes, it seems very doubtful whether the motives to self-restraint can be made so effectual with them as to lead to any great results in this direction. Legal restraints upon marriage might effect something, but their operation must be very partial.
What, then, can be suggested as likely to lead to a more suitable rate of wages being established as the recompense for labor? There is no single panacea. But the ground upon which improvement must rest is that of education, - education of the rich as well as of the poor. The direct result of education in the case of the poor would be to make them masters of themselves, to open new fields of labor for them, and to develop in them those moral dispositions which would lead both to a restraint upon population, and to the formation of habits of economy and, thrift. The education which the rich especially require is in its nature moral,- an education in social duties, and in that enlightened self-interest which sees its advantage, not in a selfish accumulation of wealth regardless of the claims of those who assist in its production, but in such a division of profits as should raise the general standard of comfort.
Under existing circumstances, there can be no object so important for the government of England as the promotion of education. It cannot be accomplished unless efforts in behalf of education be accompanied by the widest and most stringent measures of sanitary reform, which shall secure to the poor such habitations as are not detrimental to health, as are not inconsistent with a tolerable degree of physical comfort, and in which the preservation of moral purity is not impossible.
The most strenuous, unselfish, and foreseeing action is demanded for the preservation of what is good in the existing social order, and for the remedy of evils which are now of such magnitude as to be standing menaces to the very life of the state. A very different spirit is required for dealing with these evils from that which is displayed in Parliament, or in public opinion as expressed by the majority of its leading organs. Unless the ruling classes, upon whom rests the responsibility for remedial effort, are aroused from their selfish inactivity to a new sense of duty and to new exertions, no prophet is needed to foretell the approaching overthrow of social order. Even now the question with all thoughtful men is whether the evils of the state have not reached a point beyond legal remedy. To many it already seems that only the red hands of violent revolution can tear down the barriers by which, in the midst of the highest refinements of civilization, great masses of the people are shut up in a close Jew's quarter of misery, ignorance, and degradation, and reduced to the moral level of savages. The forces of conservatism in England are enormous ; they are banded together, in many instances, to maintain an unjust order of things, and to repress the healthy life of the community. But in proportion to their strength is the accumulation of the pent-up forces of destruction. A small minority of the population are in possession of the main instruments of compulsion, but in the long run the great majority must rule, - if in no other way, by the exhibition and use of the physical force of which acting in combination they are the masters.
The progress of democratic ideas in political affairs is gradually transferring the legislative power to the majority of the people. But the transference of this power is so slow, and the majority have become so brutalized, that the very process is full of danger. It is a great, though a very common mistake, to suppose that the mass of the laboring classes and of the poor in England are not discontented. They have learned to hide their thoughts; but they feel, and, to some degree, they know, that the existing social order is unjust to them, and their discontent, though smothered and ineffectual at present, might easily be wrought into a fury against which all the defences of actual institutions would be as vain as were the walls of the Bastile against the passions of the mob of the Faubourg St. Antoine.
CHARLES ELIOT NORTON.