Three Lectures on the Rate of Wages by Nassau Senior, 1830

Definition of High and Low Wages

The labourers form the mass of every community. The inquiry into the causes affecting wages is, therefore, the most important branch of political economy. In the following Lectures I propose, first, to explain some ambiguities in the terms high and low wages; secondly, to state the proximate cause which regulates the amount of wages; and lastly, to expose some prevalent errors respecting that cause; leaving the remoter causes, the cause of the proximate cause, for discussion in a subsequent course.

Wages are the remuneration received by the labourer in recompense for having exerted his faculties of mind and body; and they are termed high or low, in proportion to the extent of that remuneration. That extent has been estimated by three different measures; and the words high and low wages have, consequently, been used in three different senses.

First. Wages have been termed high or low, according to the amount of money earned by the labourer within a given period, without any reference to the commodities which that money would purchase; as when we say that wages have risen since the reign of Henry VII, because the labourer now receives 1 s. 6d. or 2.s. a day, and then received only 4½d.

Secondly. They have been termed high or low, according to the quantity and quality of the commodities obtained by the labourer, without any reference to his receipts in money; as when we say that wages have fallen since the reign of Henry VII, because the labourer then earned two pecks of wheat a day, and now earns only one.

Thirdly. They have been termed high or low, according to the share or proportion which the labourer receives of the produce of his own labour, without any reference to the total amount of that produce.

The first nomenclature, that which measures wages simply by their amount in money, is the popular one. The second, that which considers wages simply with reference to the quantity and quality of the commodities received by the labourer, or to speak more correctly, purchaseable with his money wages, was that generally adopted by Adam Smith. The third, that which considers wages as high or low, simply with reference to the labourer’s share or proportion of what he produces, was introduced by Mr. Ricardo, and has been continued by many of his followers.

This last use of the words high and low wages has always appeared to me one of the most unfortunate of Mr. Ricardo’s many innovations in the language of political economy. In the first place, it has a tendency to withdraw our attention, even when we arc considering the subject of wages, from the facts which most influence the labourer’s condition. To ascertain whether his wages are high or low, we are desired to inquire, not whether he is ill or well paid, — not whether he is well or ill fed, or clothed, or lodged, or warmed, but simply what proportion of what he produces comes to his share. During the last four or five years, many a hand-weaver has received only 8s. 3d. for producing, by a fortnight’s exertion, a web that the capitalist has sold for 8s. 4d. A coal-merchant often pays his men two guineas a week, and charges his employers for their services two guineas and a half. But, according to Mr. Ricardo’s nomenclature, the wages of the weaver, at 4s. 1½d. a week, are much higher than those of the coal-heaver at two guineas, since the weaver receives 99 per cent of the value of his labour, while the coal heaver had only 80 per cent.

And, even if the nomenclature in question were free from this objection — even if the point on which it endeavours to fix the attention were the most important, instead of being the least important. incident to wages, it still would be inconvenient from its obscurity. No writer can hope to be consistent in the use of familiar words in a sense always different from their established meaning, and often directly opposed to it; still less can he hope to be always understood. Even Mr. Ricardo, though he professes to mean by high wages a great proportion, has in several places considered them as productive of consequences which would follow only if they signified a great amount. And his followers and opponents have, almost uniformly, supposed those words to mean a great amount. Since the publication of Mr. Ricardo’s work, it has been received as an axiom, among the dabblers in political economy, that, according to the established doctrines of the science, high wages and high profits are incompatible; and, therefore, that either the leading doctrines of political economy are false, or the interests. of the labourer and the capitalist are always directly opposed to one another. The former opinion has been adopted by the large class who do not attend to what they read; the latter, by the still larger class who do not attend to what they see.

The two other meanings of the words high and low wages, that which refers to the money, and that which refers to the commodities, received by the labourer, are both equally convenient, if we consider the rate of wages at the same time and place; for then they both mean the same thing. At the same time and place, the labourer who receives the highest wages necessarily receives the most commodities. But when we refer to different places, or different times, the words high or low wages direct the attention to very different subjects, as we understand them to mean more or less in money, or more or less in commodities. The differences which have taken place in the amount of money wages at different times, inform us of scarcely any thing but the abundance or scarcity of the precious metals at those times: facts which are seldom of much importance. The differences in the amount of money wages in different places at the same time, are of much more importance, since they indicate the different values of the labour of different countries in the general market of the world. But even these differences afford no premises, from which the positive condition of the labouring classes, in any country, can be inferred, and but imperfect grounds for estimating their relative condition. The only data which enable us to ascertain the actual situation of the labourers at any given time and place, or their comparative situation of different times and places, are the quantity and quality of the commodities which form their wages, if paid in kind, or are purchaseable with their wages, if paid in money. And as the actual or comparative situation of the labourer is the principal object of the following inquiry, I shall use the word wages, to express, not the money, but the commodities, which the labourer receives; and I shall consider wages to rise as the quantity or quality of those commodities is increased or improved, and to fall as that quantity or quality is diminished or deteriorated.

It is obvious, too, that the labourer’s situation does not depend on the amount which he receives at any one time, but on his average receipts during a given period — during a week, a month, or a year; and that the longer the period taken, the more accurate will be the estimate. Weekly wages have, of course, more tendency to equality than daily ones, and annual than monthly; and, if we could ascertain the amount earned by a man during five, or ten, or twenty years, we should know his situation better than if we confined our attention to a single year. There is, however, so much difficulty in ascertaining the amount of wages during very long periods, that, I think, a single year will be the best that we can take. It comprehends what, in most climates, are very different, summer and winter wages; it comprehends also the period during which the most important vegetable productions come to maturity in temperate climates, and on that account has generally been adopted by political economists as the average period for which capital is supposed to be advanced.

I should observe, that I include, as part of the wages of the married labourer, those of his wife and unemancipated children. To omit them would lead to inaccurate estimates of the comparative situation of the labourers in different countries, or in different occupations. In those employments which are carried on under shelter, and with the assistance of that machinery which affords power, and requires human aid only for its direction, the industry of a woman, or a child, approaches in efficiency to that of a full-grown man. A girl of fourteen can manage a power-loom nearly as well as her father; but where strength, or exposure to the seasons, are required, little can be done by the wife, or the girls, or even by the boys, until they approach the age at which they usually quit their father’s house. The earnings of the wife and children of many a Manchester weaver or spinner exceed, or equal, those of himself. Those of the wife and children of an agricultural labourer, or of a carpenter, or coal-heaver, are generally unimportant — while the husband, in each case, receive 15 s., a week; the weekly income of the one family may be 30 s., and that of the other only 17 s. or 18 s.

It must be admitted. however. that the workman does not retain the whole of this apparent

pecuniary advantage. The wife is taken from her household labours, and a part of increased wages is employed in purchasing, what might otherwise, be produced at home. The moral inconveniences are still greater. The infant children suffer from the want of maternal attention, and those who are older from the deficiency of religious, moral, and intellectual education, and childish relaxation and amusemcnt. The establishment of infant and Sunday schools, and laws regulating the number of hours during which children may labour, are palliatives of these evils, but they must exist. to a certain degree, whenever the labour of the wife and children is the subject of sale; and. though not, perhaps. strictly within the province of political economy. must never be omitted in any estimate of the causes affecting the welfare of the labouring classes.

The last preliminary point to which I have to call your attention is, the difference between the rate of wages and the price of labour.

If men were the only labourers, and if every man worked eq, lally hard, and for the same number of hours, during the year, these two expressions would be synonymous. If each man, for instance, worked three hundred days during each year, and ten hours during each day, one-three-thousandth part of each man’s yearly wages would be the price of an hour’s labour. But neither of these propositions is true. The yearly wages of a family often include, as we have seen, the results of the labour of the wife and children. And few things are less uniform than the number of working days during the year, or of working hours during the day, or the degree of exertion undergone during those hours.

The established annual holidays in Protestant countries; are between fifty and sixty. In many Catholic countries they exceed one hundred. Among the Hindoos, they are said to occupy nearly half the year. But these holidays are confined to a certain portion of the population; the labour of a sailor, or a soldier, or a menial servant, admits of scarcely any distinction of days.

Again, in northern and southern latitudes, the hours of out-door labour are limited by the duration of light; and in all climates by the weather. When the labouter Works under shelter, the daily hours of labour may be uniform throughout the year. And, independently of natural causes, the daily hours of labour vary in different countries, and in different employments in the same country. The daily hours of labour are, perhaps, longer in France than in England, and, certainly, are longer in England than in Hindostan. In Manchester, the manufacturer generally works twelve hours a day; in Birmingham, ten: a London shopman is seldom employed more than eight or nine.

There is still more discrepancy between the exertions made by different labours in a given period. They are often, indeed,. unsusceptible of comparison. There is no common measure of the toils undergone by a miner and a tailor, or of those of a shopman and an iron founder. And labour which is the same in kind, may vary indefinitely in intensity. Man of the witnesses examined by the Committee on Artisans and Machinery (Session of 1824) were English manufacturers, who had worked in France. They agree as to the comparative indolence of the French labourer, even during his hours of employment. One of the witnesses, Adam Young, had been two years in one of the best manufactories in Alsace. He is asked, ‘Did you find the spinners there as industrious as the spinners in England?’ and replies, ‘No; a spinner in England will do twice as much as a Frenchman. They get up at four in the morning, and work till ten at night; but our spinners will do as much in six hours as they will in ten.’

‘Had you any Frenchmen employed under you?’ — ‘Yes; eight, at two francs a day.’

‘What had you a day?’ — ‘Twelve francs.’

‘Supposing you had had eight English carders under you, how much more work could you have done?’ — ‘With one Englishman, I could have done more than I did with those eight Frenchmen. It cannot be called work they do: it is only looking at it, and wishing it done.’

‘Do the French make their yarn at a greater expense?’ — ‘Yes; though they have their hands for much less wages than in England.’ — pp. 590, 582.

Even in the same country, and in the same employments, similar inequalities are constantly observed. Every one is aware that much more exertion is undergone by the labourer by task-work than by the day-labourer; by the independent day-labourer than by the pauper; and even by the pauper than by the convict.

It is obvious that the rate of wages is less likely to be uniform than the pride of labour, as the amount of wages will be affected, in the first place, by any variations in the price, and, in the second place, by any variations in the amount, of the labour exerted.

The average annual wages of labour in England, are three times as high as in Ireland; but as the labourer in Ireland is said not to do more than one-third of what is done by the labourer in England, the price of labour may, in both countries, be about equal. In England, the labourer by task-work earns much more than the day-labourer; but as it is certainly as profitable to employ him, the price of his labour cannot be higher. It may be supposed, indeed, that the price of labour is everywhere, and at all times, the same; and, if there were no disturbing causes, — if all persons knew perfectly well their own interest, and strictly followed it, and there were no difficulties in moving capital and labour from place to place, and from employment to employment, — the price of labour, at the same time, would be everywhere the same. But these difficulties occasion the price of labour to vary materially, even at the same time and place; and variations, both in the amount of wages and in the price of labour at different times, and in different places, are occasioned, not only by these causes, but by others which will be considered in a subsequent course.

These variations affect very differently the labourer and his employer. The employer is interested in keeping down the price of labour; but while that price remains the same, while at a given expense he gets a given amount of work done, his situation remains unaltered. If a farmer can get a field trenched for £12 it is indifferent to him whether he pays the whole of that sum to three capital workmen, or to four ordinary ones. The three would receive higher wages than the four, but as they would do proportionably more work, their labour would come just as cheap. If the three could be hired at £l l0 s. a-piece, while the four required £3 a-piece, though the wages of the three would be higher, the price of the work done by them would be lower.

It is true that the causes which raise the amount of the labourer’s wages often raise the rate of the capitalist’s profits. It; by increased industry, one man performs the work of two, both the amount of wages and the rate of profits will generally be raised. But the rate of profit will be raised, not by the rise of wages, but in consequence of the additional supply of labour having diminished its price, or having diminished the period for which it had previously been necessary to advance that. price.

The labourer, on the other hand, is principally interested in the amount of wages. The amount of his wages being given, it is. certainly his interest that the price of his labour should be high, for on that depends the degree of exertion imposed on him. But if the amount of his wages be low, he must be comparatively poor, if that amount be high, he must be comparatively rich, whatever be his remuneration for each specific act of exertion. In the one case he will have leisure and want, — in the other, toil and abundance. I am far from thinking that the evils of severe and incessant labour, or the benefits of a certain degree of leisure, ought to be left out in any estimate of happiness. But it is not with happiness, but with wealth, that I am concerned as a political economist; and I am not only justified in omitting, but, perhaps, am bound to omit, all considerations which have no influence on wealth. In fact, however, wealth and happiness are very seldom opposed. Nature, when she imposed on man the necessity of labour, tempered his repugnance to it by making long-continued inactivity painful, and by strongly associating with exertion the idea of its reward. The poor and half-employed Irish labourer, or the still poorer and less industrious savage, is as inferior in happiness as tie is in income to the hard-worked English artisan. The Englishman’s industry may sometimes be excessive, his desire to better his condition may sometimes drive him on toils productive of disease ill-recompensed by the increase of his wages, but that such is not generally the case may be proved by comparing the present duration of life in England with its former duration, or with its duration in other countries. It is generally admitted, that during the last fifty years, a marked increase has taken place in the industry of our manufacturing population, and that they are now the hardest working labourers in the world. But during the whole of that period the average duration of their lives has been constantly increasing, and appears still to increase: and notwithstanding the apparent unhealthiness of many of their occupations, notwithstanding the atmosphere of smoke and steam in which they labour for seventy-two hours a week, they enjoy longer life than the lightly-toiled inhabitants of the most favoured soils and climates. The average mortality among savage nations is the greatest that is known. In the continent of Europe it is about one in thirty-four. In England, about a century ago, when more than half of our population was agricultural, it was supposed to be one in thirty; fifty years ago it was calculated at one in forty; thirty years ago at one in forty-seven; twenty years ago at one in fifty-two. Now, when two-thirds of our labourers are manufacturers, and more than one-third dwell in cities, it is estimated at one in fifty-eight.