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CHAPTER VIII.: Of wages. - William Godwin, Of Population. An Enquiry concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind 
Of Population. An Enquiry concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind, being an Answer to Mr. Malthus’s Essay on that Subject (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1820).
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It remains to correct the errors of Mr. Malthus on the subject of wages.
All Mr. Malthus's errors are of the same complexion. He begins with considering man as a noxious species of vermin, whose race is to be kept down; since, if it were not kept down, it would overrun the earth, to the destruction not only of other kinds of animals, but finally to its own destruction also. This is a new light that has broken in upon the world. It was not thus that moralists and divines were accustomed to consider the human species, “the paragon of creation.” This view of our kind and its worth had scarcely been heard of, till the appearance of the first edition of the Essay on Population in 1798.
The rest follows of course. Man has an appetite never to be controled, so says Mr. Malthus, for the multiplication of his species. All the preachers of humility and self-abasement, previously to the Essay on Population, must “hide their diminished heads.” We vainly dreamed that ours was an intellectual nature. Even the great Pagan historiana began his immortal work with telling us, that it was the proper business of man, “to take care that he did. pass through life in inglorious obscurity like the beasts, whom nature had formed with their faces towards the earth, and in subjection to their appetites; that our composition was twofold, consisting of mind and body, the office of the one being to rule, and of the other to serve.” But the Christian divine who wrote the Essay on Population, teaches a different doctrine. He talks much at the rate of Shakespear's mad king Lear:
Mr. Malthus indeed says, that these things ought not to be. But he is aware that “moral restraint has in past ages operated with very inconsiderable force;” and no one can be less “sanguine than he, in the expectation that future times will contradict the experience of the past.”
In strict conformity therefore to these views of human nature, Mr. Malthus can find out no better remedy for the imaginary tendency to excess in population, than substantial vice and misery. All motives that address the higher part of our nature, act “with very inconsiderable force.” All appeals to the human understanding are nugatory. However clearly and forcibly we have set before us what is virtuous, what is honourable, good for others, and good for ourselves, we shall live in the midst of these inducements, as if they had no existence. Brutes we are, and brutes for ever we shall remain.
Upon the principles here explained, and with the most perfect consistency, Mr. Malthus is upon all occasions an advocate for low wages. He says indeed, “There is no one that more ardently desires to see a real advance in the price of labour than himselfb .” Just so a minister of state, when he comes forward with a measure peculiarly oppressive and tyrannical, is sure to boast of the sincerity of his attachment to public freedom. And so Swift in his own poignant style observes, that, “when the court of Lilliput had decreed any cruel execution, the emperor always made a speech to his whole council, expressing his great lenity and tenderness, as qualities known and confessed by all the world: nor did any thing terrify the people so much, as these encomiums on his majesty's mercy.”
The first passage I will select as a proper subject for a few observations, is as follows:
“Suppose that, by a subscription of the rich, the eighteen pence or two shillings a day which men earn now, were made up five shillings; it might be imagined perhaps, that they would then be able to live comfortably, and have a piece of meat every day for their dinner. But this would be a very false conclusion. The transfer of three additional shillings a day to each labourer, could not increase the quantity of meat in the country. There is not at present enough for all to have a moderate share. What would then be the consequence? The competition among the buyers in the market of. meat, would rapidly raise the price from eightpence or ninepence to two or three shillings per pound, and the commodity would not be divided among many more persons, than it is at present.c .”
This is certainly the most extraordinary passage in the whole English library of books upon political economy; and Mr. Malthus must have felt himself very sure in his hold upon the disciples of the Essay on Population, before he could have ventured upon such a statement.
If this were true, then the equalization of property, of which poets have dreamed, and which many of the sanguine votaries of human improvement have imagined might one day be realized on earth, would be of no advantage to any one creature that should exist. The golden age would be an age of iron. The hopes of the. human race would indeed be reduced to nothing.
But, without grasping at so mighty an object as the equalization of all property, it has been the universal cue of moral writers and divines, ancient and modern, to wish that property was not heaped with such vast monopoly in the hands of a few, and that the undowered labourer, perhaps with a large family, was not reduced to so scanty a pittance. Mr. Malthus comes to tell us, that this is but a pious delusion, of the sort to which all enthusiasts are exposed.
But this is not so. The author of the Essay on Population has here undertaken no less a task, than to argue us out of our senses, or rather out of that common sense, which, Pope says, “is, though no science, fairly worth the seven.”
Observe: if five shillings a day would not give the labourer more than he has now, then neither would ten shillings, or twenty shillings. By parity of reason we may also argue downwards, and say that the labourer would do as well with a shilling or sixpence, as he does now with eighteen pence. It is all fairy-money, and serves to amuse us; but when we come to apply it to use, we find, that when we thought we had it, we were not well awake. “Are we not in precious fooling?”
The quantity of money, and of commodities that money will purchase, in any country at a given time, is a given quantity. The more money any one has, the better chance he has of obtaining the commodity he desires. Does Mr. Malthus mean to say, that if all the commodities in England were divided, to each inhabitant an equal share, the poorest man in the community would not have more than he has now?
It is undoubtedly true, that if every common labourer in England had five shillings a day, the price of commodities would rise. But he would go into the market, which contains a given quantity of beef and mutton, with two advantages: not only that he would possess more of that by which these commodities are commanded than he has now, but that the overgrown neighbour by whom he was elbowed almost into the desert, would have less. The rich man would be pampered with fewer luxuries; and the labourer, to express myself moderately, would approach nearer to competence.
But there is another radical mistake that Mr. Malthus makes in this argument, the same that lies at the foundation of his whole theory, viz. the seeing nothing in man but the two grossest accidents of his nature, hunger, and the sexual appetite. If every poor labourer at present in the kingdom had five shillings a day, which is more than three times his present income, he would not immediately go with it to the market, with a determination to carry home as much beef as it would purchase. The poor labourer is by nature as fond as his betters of the accommodations of life; and, if at present he confines his view to bare necessaries, it is the rigour of his condition that compels him to do so. Triple his income, and he would immediately think how he himself with his wife and children might be better clad, with more comfort, with more neatness, perhaps with a little ornament and show. He would think how he should give his children a better education. He would think, that with five shillings in his hand he might go to market more economically, and not experience the truth of that bold orientalism of holy writ, “From him that hath not, shall be taken away, even that which he hath.” He would think perhaps, for the poor man is not necessarily without the charitable affection of the human heart, however he may now be forbidden from calling them into act, how he might help the widow and the fatherless in their distress. The price of meat would certainly rise, upon this revolution in the circumstances of the labouring hand; but it would not, as Mr. Malthus has stated, “rapidly rise to two or three shillings per pound.”
There is another particular, which Mr. Malthus entirely overlooks in his view of the subject. When a sudden, and we will suppose, a beneficial change takes place in the circumstances of a country, it does not immediately produce all the good that may be expected from it. It takes some time for things to find their level in this new position, and for matters to adjust themselves to this altered state of affairs. Mr. Malthus says, “The transfer of three additional shillings a day to each labourer, would not increase the quantity of meat in the country.” Be it so. There would be no immediate increase. But there is no more accurate feeling, than that which exists in persons bringing commodities to the market, as to the nature and extent of the demand. More meat, as well as more of every thing else which the fortunate labourer would feel inclined to purchase, would speedily be produced. Nothing could disturb this happy progress, but the geometrical ratio, an evil strong enough to disturb every thing, but which is nowhere to be found', and which exists only in' the imagination of the libellers of the human: species.
I am apprehensive that many of my readers Will blame me for having laboured so plain a matter, and will be out of patience that I should have spent three sentences to refute so absurd a position, as that money is money only in the pockets of the rich, and that, the moment it is “transferred into that of the labourer,” it turns out to be nothing.
I proceed to another passage of Mr. Malthus: a passage which is immediately preceded by his declaration, that “There is no one that more ardently desires to see a real advance in the price of labour than himself.” The sentiment I refer to, is thus expressed: “The price of labour, when left to find its natural level, is a most important political barometer, expressing the relation between the supply of provisions, and the demand for themd .”
Here we are again presented with the same error, that man has no business in the world, but to eat, and to beget children. If the income of the labourer is spent upon any thing else but provisions, it cannot of itself constitute a measure of the price of provisions.
Mr. Malthus says, that, “if the income of the labourer were made five shillings a day, the price of meat would be rapidly raised to two or three shillings per pound.” The price of labour in the United States is very nearly that which Mr. Malthus has here stated. The question therefore is reduced to a question of fact. Does butcher's meat in the American markets fetch two or three shillings per pound?
The wages of the labourer depend on two things; the demand for labour, and the price of the necessaries and conveniences of lifee . The wages of the labourer must be sufficient to enable him to maintain himself and two children, or in other words, to attempt to rear four children; otherwise the race of such labourers could not last beyond the first generation. They must therefore, at the lowest computation, be doubly what is sufficient to maintain himself e. This is the minimum of any settled or natural price of labour; and if it goes below this, and is continued, the community in which this lower price is given, must verge rapidly to destruction.
It thus distinctly appears how low the price of labour can go; but there are many ages and countries in which this lowest price is not the price given. The fluctuations therefore above this lowest (wholesome, and permanently practicable) price, will depend upon another circumstance. That circumstance is the contract which can be effected between him by whom the labour is to be performed and his employer; and happy, in this particular at least, is the country, where the labourer is enabled to raise the price of his industry above this minimum, and to include in it a certain portion of those accommodations, which give comfort and complacence to the receiver, and raise him to a certain respectability in his own eyes and the eyes of others.
There are three parties to be paid out of all the labour that is performed in any civilized country, the landlord, in the form of rent, the capitalist, who possesses money enough to set the lower orders of the community to work and to supply them with materials, and the labourerg . The two former possess a great practical advantage over the latter; they can subsist for a given time without his aid. But the labourer in general has nothing in reserve; and without employment he must perish. The actual price of labour will therefore be regulated by the question, at how cheap a rate the capitalist can get his work done; this rate being checked, as was said before, by the price of the necessaries and conveniences of life. The landlord, and still more the capitalist, according to the present modes of thinking in human society, are disposed to make the most they can of what they possess. The price of labour in that case will depend upon the plenty or scarcity of hands in the market and the employer will give no more than he cannot help giving.
But, if Mr. Malthus, and a few other persons of his liberal way of thinking, could persuade masters to be less griping, and more generous in their contracts with those they employ, it is certain that nothing but what was beneficial would result from it. The number of mouths in the community, and of consumers in all kinds, would remain the same. The only alteration therefore would be, that the labourer would have more of those things which form the consolation of life, while the rich man would have fewer superfluities.
It ought not to pass without remark, that, while Mr. Malthus compares the price of labour to the mercury in a barometer, his single anxiety is lest, “when the common weather-glass stood at stormy, we should by some mechanical pressure raise it to settled fairh .” He ought to have known, that the mercury was as liable by some irregularity to be depressed below, as to be raised above, the sound and proper point. But this is no part of the concern of the author of the Essay on Population. It is the depression of the mercury in the barometer of political economy, that leads in its most obvious concomitants to vice, or, what is still more effectual, to misery.
Mr. Malthus observes: “After the publication and general circulation of such a-work as Adam Smith's, it seems strange, that men, who would yet aspire to be thought political economistsi ,” should fall into such gross errors. This remark, in my opinion, well deserves to be retorted upon the author of the Essay on Population: and that this may be evident to every reader, I will subjoin a few passages from the Enquiry into the Wealth of Nationsk .
“In Great Britain the wages of labour seem to be evidently more than what is precisely necessary to enable the labourer to bring up -a family. There are many plain symptoms that the wages of labour are no where in this country regulated by this lowest rate which is consistent with common humanity.” The author then goes on to enumerate these symptoms, and subjoins, “The common complaint, that luxury extends itself even to the lowest ranks of the people, and that the labouring poor will not now be contented with the same food, clothing and lodging which satisfied them in former times, may convince us that it is not the money-price of labour only, but its real recompence, which has augmented.
“Is this improvement in the circumstances of the lower ranks of the people, to be regarded as an advantage or as an inconveniency to the society? The answer seems abundantly plain. Servants, labourers, and workmen of different kinds, make up the far greater part of every great political society. But what improves the circumstances of the greater part, can never be regarded as an. inconveniency to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity besides, that those who feed, clothe and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour, as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed and lodged.”
“The liberal reward of labour increases the industry of the common people. The wages of labour are the encouragement of industry, which, like every other human quality, improves in proportion to the encouragement it receives. A plentiful subsistence increases the bodily strength of the labourer; and the comfortable hope of bettering his condition, and of ending his days perhaps in ease and plenty, animates him to exert that strength to the utmost. Where wages are high, accordingly we shall find the workmen more active, diligent and expeditious, than where they are low; in England, for example, than in Scotland; in the neighbourhood of great towns, than in remote country-places. Some workmen indeed, when they can earn in four days what will maintain them through the week, will be idle the other three. This however is by no means the case with the greater part. Workmen on the contrary, when they are liberally paid by the piece, are very apt to overwork themselves, and to ruin their health and constitution in a few years. A carpenter, in London, and in some other places, is not supposed to last in his utmost vigour above eight years. Something of the same kind happens in many other trades, in which the workmen are paid by the piece; as they generally are in manufactures, and even in country-labour, wherever wages are higher than ordinary. We do not reckon our soldiers the most industrious set of people among us. Yet when soldiers have been employed in some particular sorts of work, and liberally paid by the piece, their officers have frequently been obliged to stipulate with the undertaker, that they should not be allowed to earn above a certain sum every day, according to the rate at which they were paid. Till this stipulation was made, mutual emulation, and the desire of greater gain, frequently prompted them to overwork themselves, and to hurt their health by excessive labour. Excessive application during four days of the week, is frequently the real cause of the idleness of the other three, so much and so loudly complained of. Great labour, either of mind or body, continued for several days together, is in most men naturally followed by a great desire of relaxation, which, if not restrained by force, or by some strong necessity, is almost irresistible. It is the call of nature, which requires to be relieved by some indulgence, sometimes of ease only, but sometimes too of dissipation and diversion. If it is not complied with, the consequences are often dangerous, and sometimes fatal. If masters would always listen to the dictates of reason and humanity, they have frequently occasion, rather to moderate, than to animate the application of many of their workmen.
“In cheap years, it is pretended, workmen are generally more idle, and in dear ones more industrious, than ordinary. A plentiful subsistence, therefore it has been concluded relaxes, and a scanty one quickens their industry. That a little more plenty than ordinary may render some workmen idle, cannot well be doubted; but that it should have this effect upon the greater part, or that men in general should work better, when they are ill fed, than when they are well fed, when they are disheartened, than when they are in good spirits, when they are frequently sick, than when they are generally in good health, seems not very probable. Masters of all sorts frequently make better bargains with their servants in dear than in cheap years; and find them more humble and dependent in the former than in the latter. They naturally therefore commend the former as more favourable to industry. Landlords and farmers besides, two of the largest classes of masters, have another reason for being pleased with dear years. The rents of the one, and the profits of the other, depend very much upon the price of provisions.” The inducement therefore, that leads them to this misapprehension and partial representation, is obvious.
The Enquiry into the Wealth of Nations is not a book much to my taste. It is very proper that such subjects should be discussed; but I own that there is something in the discussion that makes me feel, while engaged in it, a painful contraction of the heart. But it is refreshing to come to such sentiments as are here put down, after the perusal of such a book as that of Mr. Malthus.
[a]Sallust, In Bello Cutilinario.
[b]Vol. II. p. 324.
[c]Vol. II, p. 307.
[e]Smith, Wealth of Nations, Book I, Chap. VIII.
[g]Ibid, Chap. VII.
[k]Book I, Chapter VIII.