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


The following Lectures contain little that is not well known to many of my readers, and still less that is peculiarly and exclusively appropriate to the present emergency. They were written and delivered in a period of profound tranquillity; but we are now in a state which may require the exertions of every individual among the educated classes, and many may have to assist in executing, or even in originating measures for the relief of the labouring population, who are not yet sufficiently familiar with the principles according to which that relief is to be afforded.

Under such circumstances, it has appeared to me that advantage might be derived from a short explanation of the ambiguities and fallacies which most obscure the subject of wages — the most difficult and the most important of all the branches of political economy.

My principal object, however, has been to draw attention to the elementary proposition, that the rate of wages depends on the extent of the fund for the maintenance of labourers, compared with the number of labourers to be maintained. This proposition is so nearly self-evident, that it may appear scarcely to deserve a formal statement; still less to be dwelt on as if it were a discovery. It is true that it is obvious and trite; but, perhaps, on that very account, its practical consequences have been neglected. In the first place, if this proposition be admitted, many prevalent opinions respecting the effects of unproductive consumption, of machinery, and of free-trade, must be abandoned; and to show this, is the object of the second and third of the following Lectures. And in the second place, it must also follow that the rate of wages can be raised, or, what is nearly the same, the condition of the labouring classes improved, only by either increasing the fund for their maintenance, or diminishing the number to be maintained.

The principal means by which-the fund for the maintenance of labourers can be increased, is by increasing the productiveness of labour. And this may be done, —

First, By allowing every man to exert himself in the way which, from experience, he finds most beneficial; by freeing industry from the mass of restrictions, prohibitions, and protecting duties, with which the Legislature, sometimes in well-meaning. ignorance, sometimes in pity, and sometimes in national jealousy, has laboured to crush or misdirect her efforts; and,

Secondly, By putting an end to that unhappy system which, in the southern counties, has dissociated labour from subsistence—has madd wades not a matter of contract between the master and the workman, but a right in the one, and a tax on the other; and, by removing the motives for exertion, has rendered, as far as it has been possible, the labourer unworthy of his hire.

The only effectual and permanent means of preventing the undue increase of the number to be maintained, is to raise the moral and intellectual character of the labouring population; to improve, or, I fear we must say, to create habits of prudence, of self-respect, and of self-restraint; to equalize, as by nature they are equal, the wages of the single and the married, and no longer to make a family the passport to allowance. But these are necessarily gradual measures — they are preventive, not remedial. The only immediate remedy for an actual excess in one class of the population, is the ancient and approved one, coloniam deducere.

It is of great importance to keep in mind, that not only is emigration the sole immediate remedy, but that it is a remedy preparatory to the adoption and necessary to the safety of every other.

The principal cause the calamities that we are witnessing, has been the disturbance which the poor-laws, as at present administered in the south of England, have created in the most extensive and the most important of all political relations, the relation between the employer and the labourer.

The slave (using that word in its strict sense) cannot choose his owner, his employment, or his residence; his whole services are the property of another, and their value, however high, gives him no additional claim. On the other hand, he is entitled to subsistence for himself and his family: clothing, lodging, food, medical attendance — everything, in short, which is necessary to keep him in health and strength is provided for him, from the same motives, and with the same liberality, that they are provided for the other domestic animals of his master. He is bound to labour, and has a right to be maintained. Extreme idleness may subject him to the lash, but extraordinary diligence cannot better his condition. He is equally incapable of being benefited by self-restraint, or injured by improvidence. While single, he receives a bare subsistence; if he have a family, his maintenance rises in precise proportion to his wants: the prudential check to population does not exist — it is kept down, if at all, by oppression on the part of the master, or vice on that of the slave. This, notwithstanding the various degrees of mitigation which have been introduced by custom or by law, is in substance the condition of slaves, wherever slavery exists.

In such a country distress begins, not, as in the case of a free country, with the lower orders, but with the higher. A bad system, therefore, can continue there much longer, because the class affected have farther to fall; and, for the same reason, the ruin, when it does come, is sudden and irretrievable. While misgovernment, by excessive or ill-placed taxation, by commercial restrictions, by allowing insecurity of person or property, by applying any artificial stimulus to population, or under any other of its. numerous forms, is gradually wasting the surplus that belongs to landlords and capitalists, the slave population may scarcely feel its effects. Subsistence is all they are entitled to, and that they must receive as long as their labour produces it. But the instant that surplus is gone, and distress reaches those whose previous maintenance was only equal to their necessities, what is there between them and absolute destruction? If the evils which have been so long accumulating in some of our West Indian islands had affected a free country, the whole population would, long ago, have risen to redress them. But as yet, they have reached only the slave-owner. He has found his property gradually wasting away; he has found that his slaves every year consume a larger and a larger proportion of what they produce; but even still he has something to lose: and while that is the case, their situation is unaffected. When the whole produce has become only sufficient to feed the negroes, — a time which, under the present system, is rapidly advancing in some of the older islands, — the whites must abandon them as a field for all the moral and physical evil that slaves, helpless by education and desperate from want, will mutually suffer and inflict (1)

The freeman (using that term in its full meaning,) is the master of his exertions, and of his residence. He may refuse to quit the spot, or to change the employment, in which his labour has become unprofitable. As he may refuse to labour at all, be may ask for his services Whatever remuneration he thinks fit; but as no one is bound to purchase those services, and as no one is obliged to afford him food, clothing, or any of the necessaries of life, he is forced, if he would subsist, to follow the trade, and dwell in the place, and exert the diligence which will make his services worth purchasing; and he is forced to offer them for sale, by the same necessity which forces the capitalist to offer him wages in exchange for them. And the bargain is settled, like all other free bargains, by the respective market values of the things exchanged. As marriage has no tendency .to increase the value of his labour, it has no tendency to increase his remuneration. He defers it, therefore, till the savings made while he was single afford a fund to meet the expenses of a family; and population is kept down by the only check that is consistent with moral or physical welfare — the prudential check:

To this state of things there is a near approach among the labouring classes in the most advanced districts of the continent of Europe, in the lowlands of Scotland, and even throughout the British empire, among the best educated of those classes who derive their chief subsistence from their exertions, including professional persons, domestic servants, skilled artisans, and that portion of the shopkeepers whose profits are, in fact, principally the wages of their labour.

The poor-laws, as administered in the southern districts of England, are an attempt to unite the irreconcilable advantages of freedom and servitude. The labourer is to be a free agent, but without the hazards of free agency; to be free from the coercion, but to enjoy the assured subsistence of the slave. He is expected to be diligent, though he has no fear of want; provident, though his pay rises as his family increases; attached to a master who employs him in pursuance of a vestry resolution; and grateful for the allowance which the magistrates order him as a right.

In the natural state of the relation between the capitalist and the labourer, when the amount of wages to be paid, and of work to be done, are the subjects of a free and open bargain; when the labourer obtains, and knows that he is to obtain just what his services are worth to his employer, he must feel any fall in the price of his labour to be an evil, but is not likely to complain of it as an injustice. Greater exertion and severer economy are his first resources in distress; and what they cannot supply, he receives with gratitude from the benevolent. The connexion between him and his master has the kindliness of a voluntary association, in which each party is conscious of benefit, and each feels that his own welfare depends, to a certain extent, on the welfare of the other. But the instant wages cease to be a bargain — the instant the labourer is paid, not according to his value, but his wants, he ceases to be a freeman. He acquires the indolence, the improvidence, the rapacity, and the malignity, but not the subordination of a slave. He is told that he has a right to wages, but that he is bound to work? Who is to decide how hard he ought to work, or how hard he does work? Who is to decide what amount of wages he has a right to? As yet, the decision has been made by the overseers and the magistrates. But they were interested parties. The labourer has thought fit to correct that decision. For the present he thinks that he has a right to 2s. 3d. a day in winter, and 2s. 6d. in summer. And our only hope seems to be, that the promise of such wages will bribe him into quiet. But who can doubt that he will measure his rights by his wishes, or that his wishes will extend with the prospect of their gratification? The present tide may not complete the inundation, but it will be a dreadful error if we mistake the ebb for a permanent receding of the waters. A breach has been made in the seawall, and with every succeeding irruption they will swell higher and spread more widely. What we are suffering is nothing to what we have to expect. Next year, perhaps, the labourer will think it unjust that he should have less than 4s. a day in winter, and 5s. in summer; — and woe to the tyrants who deny him his right!

It is true, that such a right could not be permanently enforced; — it is true, that if the labourer burns the corn-ricks in which his subsistence for the current year is stored — if he consumes in idleness or in riot the time and the exertions on which next year’s harvest depends — if he wastes in extravagant wages, or drives to foreign countries, the capital that is to assist and render productive his labour, he will be the greatest sufferer in the common ruin. Those who have property may escape with a portion of it to some country in which their rights will be protected; but the labourer must remain to enjoy his own works—to feel that the real rewards for plunder and devastation are want and disease.

But have the consequences of the present. system ever been explained to the labourer? Is not his right to good wages. re-echoed from all parts of the country Is he not told — ‘Dwell in the land, and verily thou shall be fed?’ Does not the Honourable Member who has affixed this motto to his work, assume, that the fund out of which the labourer is to be fed is practically inexhaustible? And can words more strongly imply that his sufferings arise from the injustice of his superiors? Have not even magistrates and landlords recommended the destruction, or, what is the same, both in principle aud effect, the disuse of the very machines of which the object is to render labour more efficient in the production of the articles consumed by the labourer — in the production of that very fund on the extent of which, compared with the number to. be maintained, the amount of wages depends? And is there any real difference between this conduct and the burning of a rick-yard? Threshing-machines are the present objects of hostility, ploughs will be the next; spades will then be found to diminish employment; and when it has been made penal to give advantage to labour by any tool or instrument Whatever, the last step must be to prohibit the use of the right-hand.

Have sufficient pains been taken even to expose the absurdity of what appears so obvious to the populace — that the landlords ought to reduce their rents and the clergy their tithe, and then the farmer would give better wages? If the farmer had his land for nothing, still it would not be his interest to give any man more wages for a day’s work than his day’s work was worth. He could .better afford it, no doubt, to be paid as a tax; but why should the farmer pay that tax more than the physician or the shopkeeper? If the farmer is to employ, at this advanced rate of wages, only whom he chooses, the distress will be increased, since he wil! employ only that smaller number whose labour is worth their increased pay. If he is to employ a certain proportion of the labourers, however numerous, in his parish, he is, in fact, to pay rent and tithes as before, with this difference only, that they are to be paid to paupers, instead of to the landlord and the parson; and that the payment is not a fixed but an indefinite sum, and a sum which must every year increase. in an accelerated ratio, as the increase of population rushes to fill up this new vacuum, till rent, tithes, profit, and capital, are all eaten up, and pauperism produces what may be called its natural effects — for they are the effects which, if unchecked, it must ultimately produce—famine, pestilence, and civil war.

That this country can preserve its prosperity, or even its social existence, if the state of feeling which I have described becomes universal among the. lower classes,. I think no one will be bold enough to maintain. That it is extensively prevalent, and that, under the present administration of the poor-laws, it will, at no remote period, become universal in the southern districts, appears to me to be equally clear. But who, in the present state of those districts, will venture to carry into execution a real and effectual alteration of the poor-laws? Remove, by emigration, the pauperism that now oppresses those districts, and such an alteration, though it may remain difficult, will cease to be impracticable.

Again, the corn-laws, by their tendency to raise the price of subsistence, by the ruin which they have inflicted on the internal corn-trade, and the stimulus which they have given to the increase of the agricultural population, have without doubt been amongst the causes of the present distress; and if, while the population of England and Wales continues to increase at the rate of 500 persons a day, the introduction of foreign corn is subject, under ordinary prices, to a prohibitive duty, those laws will become every day more mischievous, and less remediable. But the repeal of those laws, however gradual (and only a gradual repeal can be thought of), would, under the present pressure of pauperism, tend to aggravate the agricultural distress. Lighten that pressure, and we may gradually revert to the only safe system—the system of freedom.

This observation, indeed, is only one example of a general rule. Nature has decreed that the road to good shall be through evil — that no improvement shall take place in which the general advantage shall not be accompanied by partial suffering. The obvious remedy is to remove those whose labour has ceased to be profitable, to a country that will afford room for their exertions. Few inventions, during the present century, have conferred greater benefits on the labouring classes than that of the power-loom. By diminishing the expense of clothing, it has been a source, not merely of comfort, but of health and longevity. But its proximate effect was to spread ruin among the hand-weavers; to reduce almost all of them to a mere subsistence, and many to the most abject want. Ever since its introduction, thousands have been pining away under misery, not alleviated even by hope; with no rational expectation, but that the ensuing year would be more calamitous than the passing one: and this without fault, without even improvidence.’ If it had been thought that the removal of a fellow-creature from misery to happiness is worth 12, they might now have formed a flourishing settlement in British America.

The hostility of many, coupled with the indifference of almost all others, to any systematic plan of emigration, is a ground for regret and alarm, considered not only as a cause, but as a symptom. It is a lamentable proof of ignorance as to the real state of .the country, or of carelessness as to its welfare, or of a determination to make no sacrifice for its relief.

We are told that emigration would be expensive, and again we are told that the vacuum would be filled up.

It is true, that to remove a million of persons might, perhaps, cost 12,000,000 sterling; that is to say, might cost as much as the direct expenditure of three months war; and that an expenditure of 12,000,000 sterling is an evil. But in the first place, it has been demonstrated(2) that the expense of keeping paupers at home is far greater than that of their removal. It may be necessary to repeat, though it has often been remarked before, that the relief is afforded not only to those individuals who emigrate, but to the much greater number who remain. If there are 450 labourers in a district which requires the full employment, and affords the full subsistence of only 400, all, or nearly all, will be in distress, and by the emigration of fifty all will be relieved. And, in the second place, even if the balance of expense were on the side of removing a portion of our surplus population, is no expense beyond that of their mere keep to be feared from their presence? If the present insurrection spread (and it will spread if the peasantry are told, as. practically they have been told, that for riot and rebellion three days’ imprisonment is the punishment, and a rise of wages the reward); if the ravage of the country reacts, as it will react, on the towns; if, when trade begins to languish, the master manufacturers, according to their late practice, dismiss their workmen, and the manufacturing workmen, in their turn, destroy machinery; if the foundations, not merely of our wealth, but of our existence, are thus impaired, will twelve millions, or twenty millions, or even a hundred millions sterling represent the loss?

It is true, that if we adopt to preventive measures, if we persist blindly in our course of error, the temporary relief afforded by emigration will come to an end, and the vacuum will, in sixteen or seventeen years, be filled up. But is it certain that we shall not profit by experience? Have we a right, or, rather, are we compelled, to assume, as a link in the argument, that we and our successors must be madmen ? If a man has been outrunning his income, is it quite certain that we can do him no good by paying his debts, on the ground that if he goes on in the same thoughtless expenditure, he will again be involved as deeply as ever? And even granting that the vacuum will be filled up, will it be nothing to have obtained sixteen years’ respite? — to have weathered the existing storm? — to have adjourned the crisis to a period which may be more favourable, and cannot possibly be less so?

We are told that the labourers form the strength of the country, and that to diminish their number is to incur voluntary feebleness. But does the pauper, — the man whose labour is not worth his subsistence, who consumes more than he produces,—does he add to the strength of the country? When I hear such remarks, I fancy myself standing by the bedside of au apoplectic patient, and hearing the nurse and the friends prohibit the lancet. ‘The blood,’ says one, ‘is the support of life: how can you think of diminishing it in his present state of weakness?’ ‘If you do diminish it,’ cries out another, ‘ with his habits of free living, it will be renewed; in a year the vacuum will be filled up.’ But is it impossible that the blood can be in excess? Is it certain that his habits are unchangeable? Shall we let him die low, lest we should have to bleed him again a year hence?

It will be observed, that I have assumed that the paupers are willing to emigrate. That they have been so as yet, is unquestionable: I hope, I had almost said I trust, that they still continue to be so. But if they are allowed. to fix the labour they are to give, and the wages they are to receive; if they are to help themselves, while it lasts, from the whole property of the country, it is too much to expect that they will not prefer idleness, riot, and plunder at home, to subsistence, however ample, to be earned by toil and hardship abroad. But this only shows the danger, the madness of delay. While we are deliberating, or even before we have begun to deliberate, ‘the moment for applying the remedy is passing away.

Hitherto, it has been common to defend every existing practice as agreeable to common sense, in opposition to the visionary schemes of political theorists; to. plead experience in behalf of everything that has long prevailed, and to deprecate new experiments. It is high time that those who profess to venerate experience should now, at length, show that they can learn from it. To what has common prejudice, reigning under the title of common sense, brought us? Have the practical men who have hitherto administered our system of poor-laws saved us from being brought to the very brink of ruin? Or have they suggested any effectual means for stopping our downward career? Surely common sense, if there be any such thing in the country, will now, at last, bear witness to the truth of Bacon’s maxim, that he who dreads new remedies, must expect new evils!’

Lincoln’s Inn, December 3, 1830.


1. This is one of the modes in which slavery may be extinguished, but it is a dreadful abuse of language to call it euthanasia.

2. See Mr. Wilmot Horton’s ‘Causes and Remedies of Pauperism,’ fourth series.

Hie etiam fatis aperit Cassandra futuris
Ora Dei jussu non unquam credita Teucris