Harry Quelch June 1908

Boots or Beer?

And the Economic Necessity of Waste

Source: The Social-Democrat, Vol. XII., No. 6. June, 1908, pp.241-248, (2,404 words)
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
Markup: Chris Clayton

People would be saved innumerable disappointments and would avoid much of the heart-sickness born of the hope deferred caused by the failure of their most promising projects of reform, if they would only take the trouble to think out for themselves some of the simplest truths of political economy. Over and over again well-meaning people take up with some fad with the idea that if adopted it will solve the poverty problem, or at least go a very long way in that direction. Then, when, after years of striving, their pet panacea is adopted and works excellently well, and yet does not in any shape or way achieve the object they have in view, they are mightily surprised and disappointed. Yet if they had only taken the trouble to get even the most rudimentary knowledge of the subject with which they were attempting to deal — if they had only taken into account self-evident and even obtrusive facts, they would have saved themselves considerable trouble and lasting disappointment. If their personal dis­appointment were all, that would, perhaps, be a matter of no importance; but this, unfortunately, too often spoils them for other, more important and more effective work.

From time to time some of these good folks become obsessed by the idea that poverty is due to the extravagance, thriftlessness and drunkenness of the poor themselves — as if the mere fact that they are poor did not preclude them from being extravagant, or other than thrifty — and entirely oblivious of the fact that tens of thousands of the poorest of our population are not only as frugal and thrifty as their poverty compels them to be, but are teetotallers to boot! These facts are quietly ignored, and the idea, the effect of the obsession, is persistently propagated, that the poor are poor through their own fault, and that the remedy for poverty is to forcibly cure the poor of their vices, or remove the opportunity for gratifying them.

Thus we have, just now, the crusade against the public-house. This is carried on not merely with a view of promoting temperance and suppressing drunkennness, but also with the idea, in many minds, that it would improve the material position of the working class. The crusade, therefore, is supported by stirring appeals to the people to choose between “boots or beer,” and pathetic posters are displayed with hungry, ill-clad little ones declaring piteously, “It is boots we want, not beer.” The assumption, of course, being that they have to go bootless because of beer. Those who recognise that the workers are robbed, and are poor because they are robbed, are not misled by any ridiculous nonsense of this sort. But there are many good, well-meaning people who have not taken the trouble to understand the laws which govern the production and distribution of wealth under capitalism, who imagine that the workers are poor because they are so silly as to waste their sub­stance in riotous living, and that if they could be only induced, or coerced, into a more thrifty expenditure, poverty would disappear and the abominable wilder­ness of slumdom would blossom as the rose.

Thus, in dealing with the displacement of labour and increased unemployment anticipated as a con­sequence of the passing of the Licensing Bill, one of the “organs of public opinion” sapiently observes that “very soon any loss of employment caused by a reduction in the drink traffic would be turned into a gain by increased demand for other commodities.” That is a very universally accepted fallacy, and one which is to be met, in one form or another, at every turn of the controversy on the drink question. But it is none the less a fallacy. Really such a statement is tantamount to saying that it is possible to reduce the total bulk of trade without causing a diminution, or that there are numbers of occupations clamouring in vain for labour, because so much labour is locked up in the drink industry. Instead of that there are, in every industry, workers clamouring for employment, and to shut down any given industry would be but to add to their numbers.

Under present industrial conditions a given amount of capital, more in one industry, less in another, is required to employ a given number of workers. Without the capital the workers cannot be employed. But capital as well as labour is begging for employ­ment. It, as well as labour, is constantly experiencing increasing difficulties in finding fresh avenues for investment. That is why so many industrial under­takings, which are in themselves sound enough, and offer a safe investment, become over-capitalised and involve investors in ruin; and why capital is to be found for the wildest of wild-cat schemes — simply because there is almost as great a rush of capital for investment as there is of labour for employment at the first apparently favourable opportunity; a rush due, in the one case as in the other, to supply in excess of the demand. How this state of things is to be improved by reducing the demand — how by closing any given channel for the employment of both labour and capital, more employment for both is to be created — the geniuses who say that this is bound to result fail to show.

It is suggested here, of course, that employment in other directions will be created by the “increased demand for other commodities” due to the diminution of the demand for this particular commodity consequent upon the reduction of the supply. But such a suggestion ignores alike the circulation of money and of commodities. Mere necessity, the mere need for certain things, is not in itself a demand, in the sense of stimulating supply. Such demand must be what economists call an “effective demand,” it must be the demand of people able to pay for what they require. And from whom is this “increased [effective] demand for other commodities” to come? Is it to come from those members of the capitalist class who find their incomes reduced by the closing of certain channels of investment, and the diminished value of others? Or is it to come from those workpeople who are thrown out of employment; who find their accustomed avenues of employment closed to them; whose need is great enough, in all conscience, but whose means for formulating an “effective” demand are of the slenderest?

But the people who have been accustomed to spend money on drink will now spend it on other things, it is said. Exactly; but to suppose that this in itself will lead to an increased demand for, and, conse­quently, an increased production of other commodities, is, as I have said, to ignore entirely the circulation of commodities.

Say that a man — a working-man who can ill afford it — spends ten shillings on drink. That is bad for him and worse for his wife and family. Far better, every­one will admit, that he should spend that ten shillings in buying food and clothes. Well, and good. That may be fully admitted, and that the ten shillings thus spent on drink is absolutely wasted, or worse; is, at least, as completely wasted — so far as the man himself is concerned — as if he had thrown his ten shillings into the river or had gambled it away in backing horses.

This fact, however, makes no difference to the general market; to the aggregate of other commodities produced and consumed, or to the supply of and demand for those other commodities. Admitting that if this man had not spent his ten shillings in drink he would have spent that sum on boots and stockings for his wife and children: Would not that, it may be asked, have increased the demand for boots and stock­ings and so tend to stimulate the boot and the hosiery trades? That question is best answered by another: What difference does it make to the stimulus given to the boot and hosiery trades by the expenditure of that ten shillings in boots and stockings, whether the boots and stockings are bought by one man or another? In other words, suppose the hypothetical man with the ten shillings, instead of buying drink with that sum, or instead of buying boots and stockings therewith, gave it to a comrade, poorer than himself, who thereupon invested that amount in boots and stockings. Ob­viously, in this case, as many boots and stockings would be sold as if the first man had spent the ten shillings in those useful articles of footwear, although his own wife and children would be as ill-provided with those articles as if he had spent the money on drink.

Further, as it would make no difference to the total sales of boots and stockings whether the first man spent his ten shillings in boots and stockings, or gave the money to a second party who invested it in that direction; so it would make no difference whether the second party was an unemployed workman or a pros­perous publican — the ten shillings would perform pre­cisely the same function at the behest of either. It may be, of course, that the publican would not spend the ten shillings on boots and stockings, but on beef — so also might the unemployed workman. In that case the butcher might be the happy purchaser of the boots and stockings, That only removes the transac­tion a stage. So long as the ten shillings continue in circulation, at some point or another they may be exchanged for boots and stockings. The fact that the original possessor of the ten shillings bought drink therewith instead of boots and stockings, and thereby deprived his wife and children of those articles, does not necessarily mean that there were eventually fewer boots and stockings sold, or fewer produced.

On the other hand, it would make a difference if the worthy man withdrew his ten shillings from circulation and saved them in a stocking instead of buying beer or boots with them.

In the same way it makes very little difference to the shopkeepers in a given industrial community, how the workpeople there spend their wages. It would make a great difference to them, however, if they did not spend them at all.

If there were no drink bought there would be none sold, and if there were none sold there would be none made. That would mean that those who now buy beer would buy boots or other things; but it would also mean that those who now get a living by making and selling beer would be no longer able to buy boots and other things, and therefore there would be no actual increase in the general demand for the latter, and, therefore, no additional opportunities for employ­ment.

Drink, either as regards its consumption or production, is not the only form of waste. In every depart­ment of life and in every industry there is enormous waste which in a rational, well-ordered society would be eliminated, but which is absolutely necessary under present circumstances, and the suppression of which, if it could be accomplished in our existing society, would mean overwhelming ruin and unspeakable misery for thousands.

There is, to begin with, the waste of the idle rich; those who neither toil nor spin, yet are clothed in purple and fine linen, and fare sumptuously every day. Suppose these, smitten with remorse over their wasted lives, and seized with a fit of thrift and frugality, dis­missed their troops of servants and lacqueys, their coachmen and footmen and grooms and chauffeurs and gamekeepers, and, dispensing with their smart frocks and superfine suits, dressed in shoddy, factory-made clothing. What would be the result? Simply that the thousands who to-day make their gorgeous raiment; wait upon their every whim; minister to their waste and luxury; groom their horses, drive their motor-cars and preserve their game, would go to swell the ranks of the unemployed. At the same time many tradesmen would have to close their shops, and instead of this abstinence from waste on the part of the idle rich tending to stimulate more useful produc­tion, and thus opening up other employment for those displaced it would have the effect of reducing the demand for those useful things which the hangers-on of the rich previously purchased, and would thus increase unemployment among the more useful class of workers.

Then there is the waste, in every industry, repre­sented by the production and distribution of things which are useless and worse; adulterated and poisonous foods; shoddy clothing; jerry-buildings; rubbishy products made only to sell and to fall to pieces as soon as sold; millions of tons of printed rubbish, the destruction of which would make the world the richer, the sweeter and purer. Then there is all the waste due to commercial competition; the advertisers, bill-posters, commercial travellers, and so on. Yet no one is so foolish as to suppose that if any of this waste were eliminated by combination and economy — as in some degree it is being eliminated by the formation of Trusts — that there would be a consequent stimulus given to the other industries which would provide employment for those thus displaced.

Then there is the waste involved by war and crime. If war were abolished we could close all our arsenals and naval dockyards, and disband the Army and Navy. If there were no crime there would be no need for judges, lawyers, or policemen. But how could employment be found for the huge mass of labour thus set free, seeing that, with this labour at present locked up for non-productive ends, and yet offering an effective demand for necessaries, there is still a host of unemployed labour in all productive industries?


It is quite clear that with production carried on for profit and not for use, with the means of production used, not for the purpose of satisfying human needs but for exploiting human labour in the extraction of surplus value, waste is absolutely essential. The capitalist system involves the persistent production of a mass of commodities which must be got rid of some­how if the wheels are to be kept going round. Thus, under capitalism, wilful waste is the essential corollary of woeful want — want which would be still more woeful were the waste eliminated.