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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, cxcept 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.
have their wages reduced, and who are content if they get only mere necessaries, should never be held up for public imitation. On the contrary, everything should be done to make such apathy be esteemed discreditable. The best interests of society require that the rate of wages should be elevated as high as possible that a taste for comforts and enjoyments should be widely diffused, and, if possible, engrafted into the national character. Low wages, by rendering it impossible for inereased exertions to obtain any considerable increase of comforts and enjoyments, effectually hinders such exertions from being made; and is of all others the most powerful cause of that idleness and apathy that contents itself with what can barely continue animal existence.
Ireland furnishes a striking example of the disastrous consequences resulting from the depressed condition of the labouring classes. There the natural or necessary rate of wages is determined by the lowest standard. Having no taste for conveniences or luxuries, the Irish peasantry have been satisfied if they have had turf hovels for their habitations, rags for their raiment, and potatoes for their food. But as the potato is raised at less expense than any other variety of food hitherto cultivated in Europe, and as wages, where it forms nearly the sole subsistence of the labourers, are chiefly determined by its cost, it is evident that those who depend on it must be reduced to a state of almost irremediable distress, whenever it happens to be deficient. When the standard of wages is high-when wheat and beef, for example, form the principal food of the labourer, and porter and beer the prin cipal part of his drink, he can bear to retrench. Such a man has room to fall. In a period of scarcity he can resort to cheaper varieties of food-to barley, oats, rice, maize, and potatoes. But he who is habitually and constantly fed on the cheapest species of food, has nothing to resort to when deprived of it. You may take from an Englishman, but you cannot take from an Irishman. The latter is already so low that he can fall no lower. He is placed on the very verge of
existence. His wages, being regulated by the cost of pota toes, will not buy him wheat, or barley, or oats. Whenever, therefore, potatoes fail, it is next to impossible he should escape falling a sacrifice to famine.
The history of the scarcities that so frequently occur in Ireland, affords many illustrations of the accuracy of the statements now made. Owing, for example, to the failure of the potato crop of 1821, the bulk of the peasantry of Clare, Limerick, and other counties bordering on the Shannon, were reduced to a state of almost absolute destitution, and had nothing but a miserable mixture consisting of a little oatmeal, nettles, and water-cresses to subsist upon. In some instances, the potatoes, after being planted, were dug up and eaten; and, in consequence of the insufficiency and bad quality of food, disease became exceedingly prevalent, and typhus fever, in its most malignant form, carried its destructive ravages into every corner of the country. The price of potatoes rose in Limerick, in the course of a few weeks, from about 2d. to 5d. and 7d. per stone, while the price of corn sustained no material elevation, none, at least, to prevent its being sent to the then overloaded markets of England.
But it is unnecessary to go back to 1821 for an example of this sort. Notwithstanding the all but total failure of the potato crop of 1846 in all parts of Ireland, and the conse quent destitution of the peasantry, there was no very consi derable falling off in the exports of corn, and other articles of provision, to England, till the contributions of government. and of the British public were applied to purchase supplies for the Irish poor. And it is indeed obvious, that to whatever extremity a potato-feeding peasantry may be reduced they cannot relieve themselves by purchasing corn. Did wheat, barley, or oats form the principal part of the food of the people of Ireland, corn would be poured into it in the same way that it is poured into England, as soon as it is known that the crop is materially deficient. But a popula tion which is habitually dependent on the potato, having their wages regulated accordingly, cannot buy corn, or any higher
priced article. In periods of scarcity men cannot go from a low to a high level; they must always go from a higher to a lower. But to the Irish this is impossible. For having already reached the lowest point in the descending scale, dearth is to them attended with all the horrors of famine.
It is, therefore, quite essential to the protection of every people from famine, in seasons when the crops happen to be deficient, that they should not subsist principally on the cheapest species of food. They may use it in limited quantities as a subsidiary and subordinate article; but if they once adopt it for the principal part of their diet, their wages will be proportionally reduced; and whenever a period of deficient supply occurs, they will be left without any re
Besides its influence in depressing wages, the potato, considered as an article of subsistence, has sundry defects peculiar to itself, which deserve the most careful attention.
In the first place, owing to the greater quantity of food which is raised on a given extent of land under potatoes than if it were under corn or in pasture, the population of potatofeeding countries is, cæteris paribus, comparatively dense, and they have, consequently, on a scarcity occurring, a proportionally greater amount of destitution. In the second place, it is a defect peculiar to the potato, or affecting it in a much greater degree than most other articles, that the surplus produce of plentiful years cannot be stored up, or kept in reserve to meet the deficiencies of bad years, but that practically the subsistence of each year is measured by the produce of that year. Probably, however, the uncertainty of its produce and its bulk, and the consequent cost and difficulty of its conveyance, are the principal drawbacks on the use of the potato. Its yield varies extremely in different years, being very large in some, while in others it is next to nothing; and owing to the bulkiness of the article, it is practically impossible materially to alleviate the suffering occa sioned by a failure of the crop in one country by importations