Principles of Economics by Alfred Marshall (1890)

Book Four: The Agents of Production: Land, Labour, and Capital and Organization

Chapter 1, Introductory

1. The agents of production are commonly classed as Land, Labour and Capital. By Land is meant the material and the forces which Nature gives freely for man's aid, in land and water, in air and light and heat. By Labour is meant: the economic work of man, whether with the hand or the head. (1) By Capital is meant all stored-up provision for the production of material goods, and for the attainment of those benefits which are commonly reckoned as part of income. It is the main stock of wealth regarded as an agent of production rather than as a direct source of gratification.

Capital consists in a great part of knowledge and organization: and of this some part is private property and other part is not. Knowledge is our most powerful engine of production; it enables us to subdue Nature and force her to satisfy our wants. Organization aids knowledge; it has many forms, e.g. that of a single business, that of various businesses in the same trade, that of various trades relatively to one another, and that of the State providing security for all and help for many. The distinction between public and private property in knowledge and organization is of great and growing importance: in some respects of more importance than that between public and private property in material things; and partly for that reason it seems best sometimes to reckon Organization apart as a distinct agent of production. It cannot be fully examined till a much later stage in our inquiry; but something has to be said of it in the present Book.

In a sense there are only two agents of production, nature and man. Capital and organization are the result of the work of man aided by nature, and directed by his power of forecasting the future and his willingness to make provision for it. If the character and powers of nature and of man be given, the growth of wealth and knowledge and organization follow from them as effect from cause. But on the other hand man is himself largely formed by his surroundings, in which nature plays a great part: and thus from every point of view man is the centre of the problem of production as well as that of consumption; and also of that further problem of the relations between the two, which goes by the twofold name of Distribution and Exchange.

The growth of mankind in numbers, in health and strength, in knowledge, ability, and in richness of character is the end of all our studies: but it is an aim to which economics can do no more than contribute some important elements. In its broader aspects therefore the study of this growth belongs to the end, if to any part of a treatise on economics: but does not properly belong even there. Meanwhile we cannot avoid taking account of the direct agency of man in production, and of the conditions which govern his efficiency as a producer. And on the whole it is perhaps the most convenient course, as it certainly is that most in accordance with English tradition, to include some account of the growth of population in numbers and character as a part of the general discussion of production.

2. It is not possible at this stage to do more than indicate very slightly the general relations between demand and supply, between consumption and production. But it may be well, while the discussion of utility and value is fresh in our minds, to take a short glance at the relations between value and the disutility or discommodity that has to be overcome in order to obtain those goods which have value because they are at once desirable and difficult of attainment. All that can be said now must be provisional; and may even seem rather to raise difficulties than to solve them: and there will be an advantage in having before us a map, in however slight and broken outline, of the ground to be covered.

While demand is based on the desire to obtain commodities, supply depends mainly on the overcoming of the unwillingness to undergo "discommodities." These fall generally under two heads: — labour, and the sacrifice involved in putting off consumption. It must suffice here to give a sketch of the part played by ordinary labour in supply. It will be seen hereafter that remarks similar, though not quite the same, might have been made about the work of management and the sacrifice which is involved (sometimes, but not always) in that waiting which is involved in accumulating the means of production.

The discommodity of labour may arise from bodily or mental fatigue, or from its being carried on in unhealthy surroundings, or with unwelcome associates, or from its occupying time that is wanted for recreation, or for social or intellectual pursuits. But whatever be the form of the discommodity, its intensity nearly always increases with the severity and the duration of labour. Of course much exertion is undergone for its own sake, as for instance in mountaineering, in playing games and in the pursuit of literature, of art, and of science; and much hard work is done under the influence of a desire to benefit others. (2) But the chief motive to most labour, in our use of the term, is the desire to obtain some material advantage; which in the present state of the world appears generally in the form of the gain of a certain amount of money. It is true that even when a man is working for hire he often finds pleasure in his work: but he generally gets so far tired before it is done that he is glad when the hour for stopping arrives. Perhaps after he has been out of work for some time, he might, as far as his immediate comfort is concerned, rather work for nothing than not work at all; but he will probably prefer not to spoil his market, any more than a manufacturer would, by offering what he has for sale much below its normal price. On this matter much will need to be said in another volume.

In technical phrase this may be called the marginal disutility of labour. For, as with every increase in the amount of a commodity its marginal utility falls; and as with every fall in that desirableness, there is a fall in the price that can be got for the whole of the commodity, and not for the last part only; so the marginal disutility of labour generally increases, with every increase in its amount.

The unwillingness of anyone already in an occupation to increase his exertions depends, under ordinary circumstances, on fundamental principles of human nature which economists have to accept as ultimate facts. As Jevons remarks, (3) there is often some resistance to be overcome before setting to work. Some little painful effort is often involved at starting; but this gradually diminishes to zero, and is succeeded by pleasure; which increases for a while until it attains a certain low maximum. after which it diminishes to zero, and is succeeded by increasing weariness and craving for relaxation and change. In intellectual work, however, the pleasure and excitement, after they have once set in, often go on increasing till progress is stopped of necessity or by prudence. Everyone in health has a certain store of energy on which he can draw, but which can only be replaced by rest; so that if his expenditure exceed his income for long, his health becomes bankrupt; and employers often find that in cases of great need a temporary increase of pay will induce their workmen to do an amount of work which they cannot long keep up, whatever they are paid for it. One reason of this is that the need for relaxation becomes more urgent with every increase in the hours of labour beyond a certain limit. The disagreeableness of additional work increases; partly because, as the time left for rest and other activities diminishes, the agreeableness of additional free time increases.

Subject to these and some other qualifications, it is broadly true that the exertions which any set of workers will make, rise or fall with a rise or fall in the remuneration which is offered to them. As the price required to attract purchasers for any given amount of a commodity, was called the demand price for that amount during a year or any other given time; so the price required to call forth the exertion necessary for producing any given amount of a commodity, may be called the supply price for that amount during the same time. And if for the moment we assumed that production depended solely upon the exertions of a certain number of workers, already in existence and trained for their work, we should get a list of supply prices corresponding to the list of demand prices which we have already considered. This list would set forth theoretically in one column of figures various amounts of exertion and therefore of production; and in a parallel column the prices which must be paid to induce the available workers to put forth these amounts of exertion. (4)

But this simple method of treating the supply of work of any kind, and consequently the supply of goods made by that work, assumes that the number of those who are qualified for it is fixed; and that assumption can be made only for short periods of time. The total numbers of the people change under the action of many causes. Of these causes only some are economic; but among them the average earnings of labour take a prominent place; though their influence on the growth of numbers is fitful and irregular.

But the distribution of the population between different trades is more subject to the influence of economic causes. In the long run the supply of labour in any trade is adapted more or less closely to the demand for it: thoughtful parents bring up their children to the most advantageous occupations to which they have access; that is to those that offer the best reward, in wages and other advantages, in return for labour that is not too severe in quantity or character, and for skill that is not too hard to be acquired. This adjustment between demand and supply can however never be perfect; fluctuations of demand may make it much greater or much less for a while, even for many years, than would have been just sufficient to induce parents to select for their children that trade rather than some other of the same class. Although therefore the reward to be had for any kind of work at any time does stand in some relation to the difficulty of acquiring the necessary skill combined with the exertion, the disagreeableness, the waste of leisure, etc. involved in the work itself; yet this correspondence is liable to great disturbances. The study of these disturbances is a difficult task; and it will occupy us much in later stages of our work. But the present Book is mainly descriptive and raises few difficult problems.


1. Labour is classed as economic when it is "undergone partly or wholly with a view to some good other than the pleasure directly derived from it." See p. 65 and footnote. Such labour with the head as does not tend directly or indirectly to promote material production, as for instance the work of the schoolboy at his tasks, is left out of account, so long as we are confining our attention to production in the ordinary sense of the term. From some points of view, but not from all, the phrase Land, Labour, Capital would be more symmetrical if labour were interpreted to mean the labourers, i.e. mankind. See Walras, Économie Politique Pure, Leçon 17, and Prof. Fisher, Economic Journal, VI, p. 529.

2. We have seen (p. 124) that, if a person makes the whole of his purchases at the price which he would be just willing to pay for his last purchases, he gains a surplus of satisfaction on his earlier purchases; since he gets them for less than he would have paid rather than go without them. So, if the price paid to him for doing any work is an adequate reward for that part which he does most unwillingly; and if, as generally happens, the same payment is given for that part of the work which he does less unwillingly and at less real cost to himself; then from that part he obtains a producer's surplus. Some difficulties connected with this notion are considered in Appendix K.

The labourer's unwillingness to sell his labour for less than its normal price resembles the unwillingness of manufacturers to spoil their market by pushing goods for sale at a low price; even though, so far as the particular transaction is concerned, they would rather take the low price than let their works stand idle.

3. Theory of Political Economy, Ch. V. This doctrine has been emphasized and developed in much detail by Austrian and American economists.

4. See above III, iii, section 4.

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