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Wages depend, at any particular period, on the Magnitude of the Fund or Capital appropriated to the payment of Wages, compared with the number of Labourers.
The different articles or products belonging to a country that either are, or may be employed to support its inhabitants, or to facilitate production, have been termed its capital. It consequently comprises, in advanced countries like England, an all but infinite variety of articles, including buildings, ships and machinery of all sorts, the lower animals in a state of domestication, with food, clothes, &c. But it is unnecessary, in an inquiry of this sort, to refer to capital in general; for we have only to deal with that portion of it, which embraces the various articles intended for “ the use and accommodation of the labouring class.” This portion forms the fund, out of which their wages are wholly paid. We should err if we supposed that the capacity of a country to feed and employ labourers, is to be measured by the advantageousness of its situation, the richness of its soil, or the extent of its territory. These, undoubtedly, are circumstances of very great importance, and have a powerful influence in determining the rate at which a people advance, or may advance, in wealth and civilization. But it is obviously not on them, but on the amount of the capital devoted to the payment of wages, in the possession of a country at any given period, that its power of supporting and employing labourers entirely depends. Holland is less fertile than Poland or Hun. gary, and Lancashire is less fertile than Kent; but, owing to their greater command of capital, the population of the former is comparatively dense. A fertile soil may be made a means of rapidly increasing capital; but that is all. Before that soil can be cultivated, capital must be provided for the support of the labourers employed upon it, in like manner as it
must be provided for the support of those engaged in manufactures, or in any other branch of industry.
It is a necessary consequence of this principle, that the amount of subsistence falling to each labourer, or the rate of wages, depends on the proportion which the whole capital bears to the whole labouring population. If capital be increased, without a corresponding increase taking place in the population, a larger share of such capital will fall to each individual, or, which is the same thing, the rate of wages will be increased. And if, on the other hand, population be increased faster than capital, a less share will be apportioned to each individual, and the rate of wages will be reduced.
To illustrate this principle, let us suppose that the capital of a country, annually appropriated to the payment of wages, amounts to L.30,000,000 sterling. If there were two millions of labourers in that country, it is evident that the wages of each, reducing them all to the same common standard, would be L.15; and it is further evident that this rate could not be increased otherwise than by increasing the amount of capital in a greater proportion than the number of labourers, or by diminishing the number of labourers in a greater proportion than the amount of capital. So long as capital and population continue to march abreast, or to increase or diminish in the same proportion, so long will the rate of wages continue unaffected. It is only when the proportion of capital to population varies—when it is increased or diminished, that wages sustain a corresponding advance or diminution. The well-being and comfort of the labouring classes are therefore immediately dependent on the relation which their increase bears to the increase of the capital which is to feed and employ them. If they increase faster than capital, their wages will be reduced; and if they increase slower, they will be augmented. There are no means whatever by which wages can be raised, other than by accelerating the increase of capital as compared with population, or by retarding the increase of population as compared with capital. And every scheme for raising wages, which is not bottomed on this principle, or which has not an increase of the ratio of capital to population for its ultimate object, must be nugatory and ineffectual.
Wages being most commonly either paid or estimated in money,
may perhaps be thought that their amount will, in consequence, depend more on the supply of money in circulation in a country, than on the magnitude of its capital. It is, however, all but indifferent whether the amount of money received by labourers as wages be great or small. They will always receive such a sum as will suffice to put them in possession of the portion of the national capital falling to their share. And as men cannot subsist on coin or paper, where wages are paid in money, the labourers exchange it for necessaries and conveniences; and it is the quantity of these which the money paid them will buy, rather than the money itself, that is to be considered as really forming their wages. If the money of Great Britain were reduced a half, the rate of wages, estimated in money, would decline to the same extent. But unless some change took place at the same time in the magnitude of that portion of the national capital, which consists of the food, clothes, and other articles used by the labourers, they would continue in about the same situation. They would carry fewer pieces of gold and silver to market than formerly; but these would serve to buy the same quantity of commodities.
Whatever, therefore, may be the state of money wages in a country—whether they are ls., 2s., or 5s. a-day—if the capital applicable to the payment of wages and the population continue the same, or increase or diminish in the same proportion, no real variation will take place in the rate of wages. Wages do not really rise, except when the proportion of capital to population is enlarged; and they do not really fall, except when that proportion is diminished.
But, though the principle now stated be sufficiently obvious, several unfounded inferences have been deduced from it. And, to prevent misconception, it may be right to state at the outset, that the condition or well-being of the labouring classes cannot in any case be correctly measured by, or inferred from, the wages they receive. It depends to a great extent on the conduct and habits of the labourers, more especially on the description and cost of the articles used by them, and on their frugality and forethought. The same amount of wages that would suffice to maintain a workman who lived principally on corn and butcher's-meat, would probably maintain two or more if they lived principally on potatoes. And, whatever may
be the articles of subsistence used by a people, they will, it is obvious, be powerfully affected by variations in their supply and price, by the skill with which they are applied to their respective purposes, and the economy with which they are used or saved for future occasions. The expenditure even of the poorest individuals is spread, in a country like this, over a great variety of articles, some of which conduce but little, while others are not unfrequently adverse, to their comfort and respectability. And hence, though the rate of wages, whether estimated in money or in commodities, depends wholly on the proportion between capital and labour, the condition of the labourers is not determined by that rate only, but partly by it, and partly also, and perhaps principally, by the mode in which they expend their wages, that is, by their peculiar tastes and habits in regard to necessaries, conveniences, and amusements. Every one, indeed, is aware that work-people with 185., 20s., and 24s. a-week, are frequently much better off than others with 288., 30s., and 36s., per do., though the families of the former be quite as large as those of the latter.
The wages and the habits of the labouring classes are intimately connected with, and powerfully influence, each other. Generally speaking, a rise of wages, however occasioned, tends, as will afterwards be fully shown, to improve the habits of the popu n; and improved habits tend equally to raise wages; whereas a fall of wages, and the deterioration of habits which it occasions, have precisely opposite effects.
1 A rise in their price being in most cases nearly equivalent to a corresponding fall of wages, and a fall in their price to a corresponding rise of wages.
Such Cond, 이
Without further insisting at present on considerations which will hereafter be resumed, it is plain that the rate of wages in any given country, at any specified period, depends on the ratio between the portion of its capital appropriated to the payment of wages, and the number of its labourers. The next object, in the natural order of inquiry, is to discover whether capital and population usually increase or diminish in the same or in different proportions. This is obviously a very important inquiry. If capital have a tendency to advance faster than population, then it is plain that wages must have an equal tendency to increase, and the condition of the labouring classes must, speaking generally, become more and more prosperous. But, on the other hand, if population have a tendency to increase faster than capital, it is equally plain, unless this tendency be checked by the prudence and forethought of the labourers, that wages will have a constant tendency to fall; and that consequently, the condition of the lower classes may be expected to become gradually more and more wretched, until their wages are reduced to the smallest pittance that will suffice for their support. It is indispensable that principles, pregnant with such important results, should be carefully investigated.
Comparative Increase of Capital and Population.
It is not possible to obtain any accurate estimates of the quantities of capital in countries at different periods; but the capacity of that capital to feed and employ labourers, and the rate of its increase, may, notwithstanding, be learned with