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all the wants of those who inhabit more genial climates, where clothing, lodging, and fire, are of inferior importance. Humboldt mentions, that there is a difference of nearly a third in the cost of his maintenance, and consequently in the necessary wages of a labourer, in the hot and temperate districts of Mexico. The food, too, of work people in different and distant countries varies extremely. In some it is both expensive and abundant, compared to what it is in others. In England, for example, the lower classes principally live on wheaten bread and butcher's-meat, in Ireland on potatoes, and in China and Hindostan on rice. In many provinces of France and Spain an allowance of wine is considered indispensable. In England the labouring class entertain nearly the same opinion with respect to porter, beer, and cider; whereas the Chinese and Hindoos drink only water. The peasantry of Ireland have hitherto lived in miserable mud cabins, without either a window or a chimney, or anything that can be called furniture; while in England, the cottages of the peasantry have glass windows and chimneys, are well furnished, and are as much distinguished for their neatness, cleanliness, and comfort, as those of the Irish have been for their filth and misery. These differences in their manner of living occasion equal differences in their wages; so that, while the average price of a day's labour in England may be taken at from 20d. to 2s., it cannot be taken at more than 8d. or 10d. in Ireland and 3d. in Hindostan. The habits of the people of the same countries at different periods, and the articles which they have been accustomed to regard as indispensable, have been equally fluctuating and various. Everybody knows that the customary mode of living of the English and Scottish labourers of the present day is as widely different from that of their ancestors in the reigns of Elizabeth, James I., and Charles I., as it is from the mode of living of the labourers of France or Spain. The standard by which their wages was formerly regulated has been raised; there has been a greater prevalence of moral restraint; the proportion of capital to population has been increased; and the poor have learnt to form more elevated opinions
respecting the amount of necessaries and conveniences required for their subsistence.
But it is not necessary to travel beyond the confines of England to be satisfied of the great extent to which the rate of wages is dependant on the food and condition of the labourers. At present (1853) the wages of common field labour in Yorkshire and most parts of the north and east of England may be reckoned at about 15s. a week, whereas in Dorset, Somerset, and other south-western counties, it is little, if anything, more than half that amount. This comparative lowness of their wages is at once a consequence and a cause of the depressed condition of the peasantry in the counties referred to. Their greater dependence on the potato, by enabling them to subsist and increase their numbers on a less expensive food, has reduced their wages; and this reduction, by encroaching on their other comforts, has depressed their condition still lower.
The reason is,
The natural or necessary rate of wages is not, therefore, fixed and unvarying. It has a tendency to rise when the market rate rises, and to fall when it falls. that the supply of labourers in the market can neither be speedily increased when wages rise, nor speedily diminished when they fall. When wages rise, a period of eighteen or twenty years must elapse before the stimulus which the rise gives to the principle of population can be felt in the market. And during all this period, the labourers have a greater command over necessaries and conveniences. Their habits are in consequence improved. And as they learn to form more elevated notions of what is required for their comfortable and decent support, the natural or necessary rate of wages is gradually augmented. But, on the other hand, when wages fall, either in consequence of a diminution of capital, or of a disproportionate increase of population, no corresponding diminution can immediately take place in the number of labourers, unless they have been previously subsisting on the smallest quantity of the cheapest species of food required to support mere animal existence. If they have have not been placed so
very near the extreme limit of subsistence, their numbers will not be immediately reduced when wages fall by an increase of mortality; but they will be gradually reduced, partly, as already shown, in that way, and partly by a diminished number of marriages and births. And in most countries, unless the fall were both sudden and extensive, it would require some years to make the effects of increased mortality, in diminishing the supply of labour, very sensibly felt; while the force of habit, and the universal ignorance of the people with respect to the circumstances which determine the rate of wages, might prevent any effectual check being given to matrimonial connexions, and consequently to the rate at which fresh labourers were coming into market, until the misery occasioned by the restricted demand for labour on the one hand, and its undiminished supply on the other, were generally and widely felt.
It is this circumstance the impossibility of speedily adjusting the supply of labour proportionally to variations in the rate of wages that gives to these variations their peculiar and powerful influence over the condition of the labouring classes. If the supply of labour were suddenly increased when wages rise, that rise would be of no advantage to the labourers. It would increase their number; but it would not enable them to rise in the scale of society, or to acquire a greater command over necessaries and conveniences. And on the other hand, if a fall of wages proportionally diminished the number of labourers, such diminution would hinder it from degrading the habits or the condition of those that survived. But, in the vast majority of instances, before a rise of wages can be countervailed by the greater number of labourers which it may be supposed to be the means of bringing into the market, time is afforded for the formation of those new and improved tastes and habits, which are not the hasty product of a day, a month, or a year, but the late result of a long series of continuous impressions. After these tastes have been acquired, population will advance in a slower ratio, as compared with capital, than formerly; and the labourers will be disposed rather to defer the period of marriage, than by entering
on it prematurely to depress their own condition and that of their children. But if the number of labourers cannot suddenly increase when wages rise, neither can it suddenly diminish when they fall. A fall of wages has therefore a precisely opposite effect, and is, in most cases, as injurious to the labourer as their rise is beneficial. In whatever way wages may be restored to their former level after they have fallen, whether it be by a decrease in the number of marriages, or an increase in the number of deaths, or both, it is never, except in the rare cases already mentioned, suddenly effected. Generally speaking, it requires a considerable time before it can be brought about; and hence an extreme risk arises lest the tastes and habits of the labourers, and their opinion respecting what is necessary for their subsistence, should be lowered in the interval. When wages are considerably reduced, the poor are obliged to economize, or to submit to live on a smaller quantity of necessaries and conveniences, and those probably, too, of an inferior species than they had previously been accustomed to. And the danger is, that the coarse and scanty fare which is thus, in the first instance, forced on them by necessity, should eventually become congenial from habit. Should this unfortunately be the case, their condition would be permanently depressed: and no principle would be left in operation, that could elevate wages to their former level. Under the circumstances supposed, the cost of raising and supporting workpeople would be reduced; and it is by this cost that the current rate of wages must in the end be determined. A people, for example, who have been accustomed to live chiefly on wheat, may, from a scarcity of that grain, or a fall of wages, be forced to have recourse to oats or even potatoes; and in the event of their becoming satisfied with either, the standard of wages among them will be permanently reduced; and instead of being, as formerly, mainly determined by the price of wheat, it will, in time to come, be mainly determined by the price of oats or potatoes. This lowering of the opinions of the labouring class with respect to the mode in which they ought to live, is perhaps the most serious of all the evils that can befall
them. "If," says Mr. Laing, "the English labourers, instead of considering wheaten bread and meat necessary for their proper sustenance, were to be content with potatoes and salt herrings, the increase of pauperism among them would be in proportion to the diminished value of their food and the ease of obtaining it. The man who now thinks himself ill-off without the finest bread, would then think himself entitled to marry if he could earn potatoes for himself and a family. Our pauper population would thus increase with frightful rapidity." Let a population once become contented with a lower description of food, and an inferior standard of comfort, and they may bid a long adieu to anything better. And every reduction of wages, which is not of a transient description, contributes to bring about this undesirable result, unless its debasing influence be defeated by greater industry and economy, and an increased prevalence of moral restraint.
Disadvantage of Low Wages, and of having the Labourers habitually fed on the cheapest species of food. Advantage of High Wages.
THE opinion, that a low rate of wages is advantageous, has frequently been advocated; but we are firmly persuaded that there is none more completely destitute of foundation. If the condition of the labourers be depressed, the prosperity of the other classes can rest on no solid foundation. They always form the great bulk of every society; and wherever their wages are low, they must, of necessity, live on coarse and scanty fare. Men placed under such circumstances are without any sufficient motive to be industrious, and, instead of activity and enterprise, we have sloth, ignorance, and improvidence. The examples of such individuals or bodies of individuals, as submit quietly to Travels in Norway, cap. 1.