Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 19: PRINCIPLES OF WAGES - Economics, vol. 1: Economic Principles
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CHAPTER 19: PRINCIPLES OF WAGES - Frank A. Fetter, Economics, vol. 1: Economic Principles 
Economics, vol. 1: Economic Principles, (New York: The Century Co., 1915).
Part of: Economics, 2 vols.
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PRINCIPLES OF WAGES
§ 1. The price of labor. § 2. The self-directing laborer’s income from sale of products. § 3. Shifting of labor to the point of highest return to the laborer. § 4. Fees for temporary direct services. § 5. The continuous wage-contract for personal service. § 6. Price of labor employed on products to sell. § 7. Various grades of labor and rates of wages. § 8. Doctrine of non-competing classes. § 9. Basis of the personal bargaining power in the wage-contract. § 10. Friction in the adjustment of wages. § 11. Uniqueness of separate services. § 12. Labor-incomes and wealth-incomes. § 13. The wage system. § 14. Wages and the general economic situation. Notes on The labor-theory of value, Various methods of remuneration, Real wages in Europe and America, and Value versus utility of labor.
§ 1. The price of labor. In the last chapter have been considered the circumstances affecting the value of human services. The labor has value in the estimation of some person or persons because the labor yields a psychic income either directly or indirectly. We now turn to consider the price of labor. Just as the value of direct commodities comes to be expressed in a price in sale, and as the value of the uses of durable agents (usance) comes to have a price called rent, so the value of any labor that is capable of being sold, that is performed for another for pay, comes to bear a price called wage, or wages.
Like every price, wage involves a contractual relation more or less temporary, between two persons, the one selling and the other buying labor. The buyer is the employer and the seller is the employee, or the wageworker, or the hired man. All that has been said above of the principles of value in relation to labor, holds of course of wages, whenever the labor is being measured in a market and its value is being expressed in terms of something paid for the labor.1
§ 2. The self-directing laborer’s income from sale of products. Before considering the case of contractual wage-payment, where one man is hired by another, let us see what occurs when a number of self-directing laborers come together into trading relations with their products. In this case there is a market for goods and there are prices for goods that have been produced by the aid of labor, but there are only valuations and not prices for labor services. Such was the state of industry in early and medieval times, and in large measure these conditions still are found in modern society. Each trader would originally come to the market with a scale of valuations for all his different goods, reflecting his own unequal fitness for different tasks, and he would meet men having very different scales of valuation due to the variety and disparity of their talents. If one man can make arrows and canoes very well but is too slow to hunt, and the other is a good hunter but a poor worker in wood, there is mutual gain in division of labor and barter. (See Chapter 5, section 7.) If several traders are present so that the higgling element of isolated barter is reduced, a true market-price is found for the goods resulting from each laborer’s services. In the presence of this price the individual valuations are adjusted to the whole economic situation, are socialized in the market. (See above, Chapter 7.)
Goods exchanged in this way evidently are not valued according to the amount of labor measured by labor-hours, or by painful exertion. They are valued by the strength of desires as expressed in choice; some goods that are produced easily by little labor may have a high value, and other goods that are produced by much hard and disagreeable labor must have a low value.2
§ 3. Shifting of labor to the point of highest return to the laborer. The fisherman as he follows his vocation (as a self-directing laborer) gets an income in the form of the price of the fish he catches every day (less cost of maintaining his equipment). The value of this income is a complex of the usance attributable to the equipment, a very small amount, and of the value of his own labor. The market conditions for fish determine the value of his labor. If in the long run he earns less than he could get in another equally agreeable occupation requiring no greater equipment, to which he will and can transfer, he will leave fishing. If he does change and gets a larger labor-income this is but the reflection of the higher-priced product in the new occupation. Similarly, the gold-miner, working with simple tools in the days of placer-mining, got an income determined by the value of the gold he washed out. It was for this that he gave up his former occupation and went to the gold fields. In like manner the farmer, the cloth weaver, the furniture maker, etc., would find the occupation in which his labor would produce goods of the greatest value (differences of psychic income being allowed for).3 Thus we must conceive of a state of equilibrium where each kind of labor would be applied to the production of that kind of goods which will yield it the largest possible income, and where there is no one at the moment that can change to an occupation paying better on the whole.
In any labor market, each grade of labor may be looked upon as a potential supply of desirable things and its value is determined as if it were an actual supply. If all the various goods, psychic and material, that labor produces were spread out before men in visible form, some would be in great demand, some would exchange at a very unfavorable ratio with others. The market for goods would come to equilibrium at a point where each buyer had adjusted his supply of services in the most favorable way, had so distributed his purchasing power, as represented by his labor, so as to get those kinds and amounts of goods (including services of others) which gratify his desires in the highest possible manner.
Corresponding with this state of equilibrium on the buyers’ side, would be at the point of the theoretically correct market-price, an equilibrium on the sellers’ side. Wherever and in so far as free competition exists, there is a constant adjustment and striving toward such a state of equilibrium. Each workman is moving into the industry where he earns the highest amount possible to him; that is, the highest price which any of his fellow-men are willing to pay for the service (embodied in goods) which he can and will perform. Each man’s income is determined by the desirability of his services as bid for by the other members of his community. His value to others determines his economic place just as the specific gravity of liquids of different densities poured into a glass determines their place. In actual life various disturbing factors prevent the full realization of this condition, but the practical process by which labor is valued is that which we have been describing. Each laborer in a true market should get close to what his services “are worth” in the sense of their economic value to the purchaser.4
§ 4. Fees for temporary direct services. On the very borderline between the class of self-directing laborers and regular wage-employees is the class of laborers which is temporarily employed to do a definite service directly for others, receiving therefor a payment or fee. The barber shaves his patron, the ferryman takes the traveler across the river, the boy carries a message, the surgeon sets a broken arm. Of a like nature are the fees for services of bootblacks, messengers, porters, doctors, lawyers, etc., when there is no continuing contract of employment. Each performs a valuable service, which is sold to the beneficiary but produces no long-abiding material result, and no separable, saleable, material good. Little different is the case of custom-made production once very common, now infrequent, where the customer took his own cloth to the tailor to be made into a suit, leather to the cobbler to be made into shoes, and wheat to the miller to be ground into flour. The artisan owned his own tools, and stayed in his own shop, and was paid for the definite service of imparting new form-value to the materials. There, clearly, his earnings in the long run would be adjusted in a market for labor services.
When the buyer of labor is a merchant who supplies the materials and pays for the form-change made in the home or shop of the worker, the system of work is called domestic production, sometimes factor or commission work, sometimes, in cities, tenement-house work. This is still common in the weaving of silk in Europe, and in the manufacture of clothing in America, and in some other cases. The artisan has here less independent action, has no dealing directly with the ultimate consumer of his services, and is very near to being a piece-price wage-earner; but if he still owns his tools it is not a clear case of wage-payment. We hesitate to call any of these cases of wage-payment, tho they come very near to it. But when we come to the case of the artisan (e.g., a carpenter), even tho he may own his own tools, who works for an employer in a place chosen and controlled by the employer, we consider it a case of wage-payment. In these border cases we see very plainly how the services are valued and sold apart from the material to which they are applied.
§ 5. The continued wage contract for personal services. In ordinary domestic service the laborer is employed for a longer or shorter time to give a series of services, some personal and direct, and others more or less indirect. The wealthy man does not hire a coachman each time he wishes to take a ride, but having summed up the advantages of a coachman’s services, he buys them by the month or the year. The price is determined in the market for coachmen of the needed ability, qualities ranging from stupid to bright, from weak to strong, and from drunk to sober. Instead of buying flowers from day to day, a wealthy man hires a gardener to cultivate them in a conservatory. The average market-price of flowers influences the wages paid to the gardener, his wages being but the sum of the values (or of his imputed part in the values) of flowers, well-kept lawn, and garden products. Of a like nature are the services of cooks, waiters, tutors, musicians, and teachers in private employment, etc. Between two and three million persons are employed in this way in America. According to the conditions of each household and of the general market, the one or the other mode of buying these services and products is the more advantageous to the consumer. The wages of gardeners in private employ must be in pretty close agreement with the wages of those working in commercial gardening, and with the labor-incomes of the simpler self-employing gardeners.
§ 6. Price of labor employed on products to sell. The payment of the laborer to produce goods for exchange is the most common modern case of wages. The relation of wages to the value of the product is in this case more complex, for the employer is directing the labor to meeting the desires of others, not his own desires. It is by rightly anticipating the desires of prospective customers for the product, and successfully exchanging or selling it, that the employer is enabled to recover the amounts paid to laborers. When industry becomes complex, the connection between the wages and the price ultimately realized in the product may be broken for a time, but rarely for a very long time. Because of miscalculations, labor is sometimes employed on things that prove to be quite valueless, and on other things that have a much greater value than was expected. When months or years intervene before the price of the labor is realized in the sale of the product, the employer must forecast the outcome as best he can, and employ labor only when the wages promise to be recovered. These are complicating facts, but in any logical view they do not falsify the principle that wages are but the commuted, or reflected price of the product (i.e., of that portion of the product which under market conditions, is reflected to the labor).5
Let us recall again that labor is only one of the elements entering into the product. (See last chapter, section 10.) Each agent in industry, whether it be a plow, a horse, or a man, is valued in connection with other agents, never apart or isolated. It is not the total service that any one of them performs that can be got at; all that can be got at is the value attributed to the marginal unit of supply, that is to every unit of like quality in the whole economic situation. Each agent is considered in combination with other things at a given moment under existing conditions. Within limits labor may be substituted for the other elements, fewer machines being used and more laborers, or vice versa. It is said that the price of mules at the Pennsylvania mines is affected by immigration, for a mule and a man may for some purposes be substituted. No more will be given for any labor than the employer expects it to add to the value of the product. The employer is constantly testing the value of each kind of labor in his own establishment with the value of other agents of production.6 In any state of the labor market the wages of any labor or class of labor tend to conform to the value of the services to the employer, and the value to the employer is determined by the price which the ultimate consumers will pay for the product.7
§ 7. Various grades of labor and rates of wages. Every grade and kind of ability has its rate of wages. The term general rate of wages can be used only of a certain grade of labor and of the rate for the average worker. Also it is sometimes convenient to speak in a broad but inexact way of “a general rate of wages,” when comparing different countries and periods. When it is said that the rate of wages is higher in America than in England, in England than in France, in France than in India, the comparison is between men of the same occupation in the different countries; e.g., the unskilled laborer or the mechanic gets more here than the same grade of laborer gets in England. There is, however, no such a thing as a general rate of wages for all laborers and for all industries any more than there is a general rate of land-rent for all acres of land. In any one kind of factory all grades of ability are required, from the pattern maker and the engineer, down to the roustabout in the yard. The industries of manufacturing, commerce, and education alike require the coöperation of bookkeepers, janitors, carpenters, and superintendents. The wages of different grades of ability within the same industry differ more markedly than do the wages of particular classes of workers in different industries. For example, a bookkeeper of a certain grade of skill gets about the same whether employed in a factory, a store, or a railroad office.
When wages are paid in the form of money it becomes important to distinguish between real and nominal wages. Nominal wages are expressed in money, and real wages in amount of uses and services the money will buy. In comparing the wages of different classes in the same country, or of the same class in different countries, or of the same class at different periods of time, real and nominal wages show very different situations and changes. In determining the net advantages of various occupations men must include, as we have seen, many intangible elements. (See Chapter 18.) But in the term real wages nothing more is included than the quantity of useful goods (cloth, food, etc.), and of rentable uses which can be bought at current prices with the money wages. This is an imperfect but often very enlightening comparison.8
§ 8. Doctrine of non-competing classes. Whatever be the methods of remuneration and the scales of wages prevailing in the various industries and localities, the laborers make their choices among the various occupations and places of work open to them. They move from factory to factory, from trade to trade, from town to town, from state to state, from one country to another, seeking each to better his fortune or to maintain it unimpaired. The worker is striving to get for his labor the maximum, all things considered, (as set forth in Chapter 18, section 9) as the employer is usually striving to get the needed service at the lowest price. When this is so, the conditions of a two-sided market are present and a price for each laborer’s services results.
The variety in human talents and the many difficulties and motives which hinder the change from one occupation to another (set forth in Chapters 16 to 18, also section 3 above) result in a large measure of immobility, or lack of interchangeability as between different kinds of labor. This limited power of adjustment not only fixes the individual in a trade his life long, but it marks off whole groups from each other through hereditary, social, and geographical barriers. This has been put into the form of a doctrine of non-competing classes of labor, a brief statement of which may help us to see the problem of relative wages of various laborers as one of the mutual valuations of services. It is, however, but a restatement of the ideas already presented here.
Workers may be thought of at any period as grouped in classes, not only as to different occupations (such as carpentry, typesetting, etc.) but as to grades of ability in performing the various tasks. Each class has its value determined by the market conditions, as for the time a separate object of value having a comparatively fixed supply, and not a part of a homogeneous mass of services. Within any period, greater or less changes in the value of the products of one class of labor may occur, and be reflected in a higher or lower value of the labor. Only in a small degree, and exceptionally, can an adult worker make any considerable change in the character and grade of his work. Only in a small degree can or do young workers enter into classes of occupations that are higher, more skilled, than those of their fathers. Partly they are prevented by lack of natural ability and partly by ignorance of opportunities, and partly by the difficulties and expense of training and preparation. The change of any one worker from a lower group to a higher affects the value of the services of both groups by reducing the supply of labor in the low-paid and increasing the supply in the higher paid occupation. Yet such changes as are made always have fallen far short of leveling the value of services in all industries and undoubtedly always must do so.
This doctrine may be represented schematically by a pyramid. A young man of certain ability and under certain conditions may be able to fit himself for any one of several occupations, a, b, or c in class III. After he has mastered any trade (say IIIa) he may be able to advance (to class II) but in most cases he would find it each year increasingly difficult to do so. It is however easier to change on the same plane than to move upward, and it is usually still easier to go downward than to change on the same plane. In the extreme cases the value of the labor of any two non-competing classes is fixed as if each class occupied a separate island, and could not change occupations, but could only exchange products at the ratio resulting from the reciprocal bidding of the traders. (See Chapter 7, section 3.) The masses of the workers in any two countries of different resources and density of population, such for example as the United States and Italy or China, are to a certain degree in non-competing classes. If immigration is unrestricted by law, all that keeps wages from becoming identical for like classes of workers (as carpenters, painters, etc.) in the two countries is the difficulty of migration.9
§ 9. Basis of the personal bargaining power in the wage-contract. We arrived at the explanation that the price of labor bought by an employer must be related to and depend on the value of the services bought. Wages, just as the prices of commodities, depend on the values in the minds of the various traders, and these values in turn are the reflection of consumers’ choice. But the personal element of bargaining between man and man seems to obscure our view of the motives determining wages much more than of the motives determining commodity prices. If the fisher and the miner bring their products to the general market, the question uppermost is the price the product shall bring, and their laborincomes are easily seen to be the price of the material products (less certain costs and allowance for equipment) (see above, section 3). But if an employer hires a number of workmen, and the labor of each becomes merged and lost to view in a complex product, what part of this undivided product is, on value-principles, imputable to the labor? If we lose hold of a guiding principle of value, there is danger that we shall see only the superficial fact of the personal bargain between employer and workman. Sometimes the personal power of the employer looms so large that he is thought to “pay whatever he pleases,” sometimes wages seem to depend on the whim of labor leaders, sometimes on the monopolistic power of organized labor. This way of viewing the problem has even been dignified with the name of “the bargain theory of wages.” Such a view overlooks the logical cause of value, and the network of impersonal forces which enwraps and binds the personal bargain. What makes the employer “please” to pay as much as he does; what is there in the economic situation that at one time gives to the labor leader bargaining power to get an advance of wages, and at another time does not? These are questions whose answers help us to go deeper into the explanation of wages.
The truth seems to be that while wages paid by an employer result from a bargain, this in turn rests on the same causes of value as does the bargain for material agents (commodity prices, rents, as also interest rates), that is, on the direct or indirect effect of labor in the gratifying of desires. When the employer is producing goods to sell he is acting as a middleman between the employee and the ultimate consumers whose desires combine to impart value to the labor used. The greater the demand for labor services and the more limited the group of laborers that can render these services, the greater is the bargaining power, and vice versa. Bargaining power is simply the power to bring about a true equilibrium price inherent in the economic situation.
§ 10. Friction in the adjustment of wages. The conformity of actual wages to the true equilibrium price under any given market conditions is never complete. Actual wages may be said, in somewhat indefinite phrase, to have “a tendency to conform,” to an abstract competitive price, meaning that the most fundamental forces are always working to that end. These forces, however, are counteracted by many other influences, some slight and temporary, and others strong and long continued. We do not here refer to such things as monopolistic power of organization which, however artificial it may seem, is a part of the economic situation for the time and determines the market-price. We refer to other conditions, such as the following.
The wage received by any particular employee may be higher or lower than those of other workers and than the true market-price as a result of favoritism, due to friendship, relationship, or bribery, in private employ, in corporations, or in government service.
As a whole, the prices of labor have more inertia and more momentum than do prices of material commodities. As the prices of the commodities that labor helps to produce go up or down, wages follow more slowly. This is true of wages whether the change is in the general scale of prices (see the standard of deferred payments in Vol. II) or in the price of the particular class of goods. Habits of thought count for more in wages than in most other prices. Caste and custom are great influences making for inertia of wages. The laborer thinks of his labor as worth so much, and in general is slow to ask more, and is loath to take less than he has been getting. Combinations of workers may hasten the rise and retard the fall of the prevailing scale of wages. The adjustment of labor-supply to commodity prices is in large part brought about, therefore, when prices of products rise, by taking on less capable workers at the same wages, and by working more regularly and for more hours; and when prices fall, by throwing the less efficient workers out of employment, and by working fewer hours. In contrast with wages, profits are quickly adjusted to price changes, going up quickly when prices of products rise, and going down, often for a time to a minus quantity, when prices fall. (See later under profits and enterprise.)
§ 11. Uniqueness of separate services. In many cases the individual employee can not get higher wages because of his immobility. He (or she) has a home, and must live at home, and tho he may have greatly improved in efficiency in the particular position, may not be able to accept positions open elsewhere at much higher salaries. He can not sell his labor in an open market. Many positions of confidence and trust are such that it requires years of experience to gain efficiency, yet that experience and efficiency pertain to that particular job, and can not be in large part transferred elsewhere. In such situations the employer may be able to retain this person, under existing market conditions, for less than he would have to pay to get some one else to fill the position satisfactorily.
On the other hand an employer often is forced to pay a higher wage to hold an employee than on general price conditions is warranted, in order to hold the services that have become particularly valuable to his business. In many cases, too, old employees are retained after they could be replaced by more efficient men at the same or lower salaries. Services are well-nigh the least standardized of all saleable things, and in countless cases both the laborer and his job have more or less the character of uniqueness; that is, there is no other job exactly like this one and no other laborer exactly suited for that particular work. These are facts which must neither be overlooked nor exaggerated to the point of obscuring the general conformity of wages to market conditions.
§ 12. Labor-incomes and wealth-incomes. The fundamental principles of value and price apply fully to labor, as we have said. (See above, Chapter 18, section 1.) But the sale of the services of human beings is marked by important conditions—moral, political, social, and consequently also economic—which distinguish it from the ordinary sale of material wealth. The distinction between men and things is from all these standpoints both of theoretical and of practical importance. It will not do to say: “The law of wages? Labor is a commodity, that ’s all.” Taking one point of view, and seeing only the value element common to all economic agents, we may be tempted to merge all in one category, and to say that men also are a form of wealth.10 In a democratic society where there is no chattel slavery and each worker must be deemed to be a free political agent, this distinction between men and things is largely what gives political economy any significance. In the social applications of economics, wealth is always but a means to an end, whereas man is both a means (as laborer) and the end itself (human welfare).
Men and wealth, the two great classes of economic agents, are severally and in combination the sole source of all economic incomes. The corresponding classes of incomes are labor-incomes and wealth-incomes.11 The former of these makes a greater aggregate amount, made up, however, of many incomes, nearly all small. The great majority of the people of any country live mostly on labor-incomes, their own or from members of their family. This is true even if all the psychic incomes of personal service for one’s self and family be overlooked, and only the more material forms of income, such as are ordinarily regarded in income statistics (material products and money wages) be reckoned. At the same time there is no family so destitute that a part of its psychic income is not obtained from the usufructs of durable wealth (uses of clothing, cooking utensils, furniture), and there are millions whose labor-income in the form of goods and money is supplemented to a considerable degree by incomes from some wealth or claim upon other men. There are the agricultural workers, some of them land owners or partly land owners, and nearly all of them to some extent tool owners. There are many city dwellers owning their stores and manufacturing establishments in whole or in part, and many more owning houses; there are in America nearly nine million depositors in savings banks (many persons and families being duplicated). Millions of other persons hold, through mortgages, bonds and shares, claims on real estate, small businesses, or on corporations (later treated more fully under “capital”). There are the accumulated funds of insurance companies, fraternal orders and societies, owned collectively by members and policyholders. There are the psychic incomes shared by the masses of the people in the use of schools, museums, libraries, buildings and all other enjoyable public property. The labor income is thus in the case of individuals or families but the part of income which is due and attributable to the valuable efforts they have rendered to themselves or others. This form of income stops when the man dies or fails to perform his work; the income from wealth goes on. Thus families with equal incomes may receive them from sources of very different stability and duration.
§ 13. The wage system. A large part of the labor-incomes in society as it is at present are received in the form of wages. Indeed our present economic organization is often called “the wage system.” By this is meant: an organization of industry wherein some men, in control of the material agents, buy at their competitive price the labor of other men. The wage system implies a contract between employer and employed. The relation or bond between them is that of a wage payment, either in money or in kind. The wage system is a method of organization never found completely realized. A community made up entirely of independent small farmers, living each on his little patch of ground, could not have any essential feature of the wage system. Wherever are found considerable numbers of independent small farmers and other self-employing laborers, as is everywhere in large measure the case, the wage system does not exist in complete form.12 Some men with more or less wealth in every community are working for wages, while others are independent producers and are their own employers. Society is not sharply divided into two classes, one controlling all the material equipment, the other with only their bare labor to sell. The wage system may be spoken of as prevailing to-day not as the exclusive, but as the typical, dominant, and slowly increasing form of industrial organization, while side by side or along with it is found independent production.
§ 14. Wages and the general economic situation. Our statement of the theory of wages has now been brought to a provisional stopping point. But the reader should be aware of the limitations of our treatment. We have outlined a theory of wages assuming a certain economic situation; we have passed in review the various motives and characteristics of men which help to explain the ratio in which the various kinds of services are valued in terms of each other. While we have recognized the presence and effect of material resources and of manifold instrumental goods as being indispensable to the use of labor, we have said little of the effects that changes in their amount would have on the whole economic situation. We have, in other words, outlined only a static (or equilibrium) theory of labor-incomes, and not a dynamic theory.
But the level of the general scale of wages is a part of a general economic situation and is dependent on the relation of population to all material resources, artificial and natural, on the progress of education, of science, and of the industrial arts, and on many other factors. The foregoing theory of wages therefore is only provisional, not that it must be essentially changed, but that it must later be materially enlarged and completed. The study of the value of labor is not a thing apart from that of the value of other agents. Each succeeding chapter from this point on will supplement the foregoing treatment of labor and wages. Especially in the last part of this volume (Chapters 32-39) will be discussed the great underlying conditions on which depends the general economic situation in which and by which the level of labor-incomes is determined.
The labor-theory of value. Things go thus in the real world, however the student or the generous-minded social reformer at times may be tempted to shut his eyes to the truth, feeling that value ought to be in proportion to labor-time or to the unpleasantness of labor. There is a close correspondence, even identity, between the value of the goods and the value of the labor that produced them, but it is the value of the goods that is reflected to the labor, and not the reverse. For, if labor having a high value reflected from one product be applied to another product that has a low value, the value of that labor is in so far thrown away. As we saw, the values of goods resulting from equal labor-time of an isolated laborer are often unequal; and a fortiori the values of equal labor-times are sure to be still more unequal when the products result from the labor of different men of varied abilities and natures, trading in a community. There is therefore no unit of labor-time which can serve as a standard of the values of goods or which is embodied in equal proportions in goods of equal value. Rather, it appears that labor services are compared as to value only through the values they derive from their products. We thus speak of equal quantities of labor not as equal in time, but as equal in value, as so many dollars’ worth.
It would be unnecessary to dwell on this truth were it not for the very common illusion that labor may be taken as the standard of value, and were it not for the frequent recurrence of the fallacious idea that goods in a market embody so-called labor-units in exact proportion to their values.
This idea that the value of goods is determined and measured by the quantity of labor put into them, is the “labor-theory of value” (not to be confused with the theory of the value of labor). It assumes that there is such a thing as a common standard unit of labor, a definite quantum, measurable antecedent to the value of the products. The labor-theory of value appears in manifold disguises both in popular doctrines and in systematic treatises on economics. The error in the theory is evident, first, because various kinds of labor differ in quality (or kind) not merely in quantity (or time) and, in truth, it is only through the values of their products that the different qualities of labor can be compared (singing with wood-chopping); secondly, because the values of goods differ not only with the labor applied (even if it were all of one quality) but with the amount of complementary agents used; thirdly, because of the differences in time elapsing between the application of labor, and the ultimate valuable results of the productive process. (Of this more below, under time-value.)
Various methods of remuneration. Many methods are employed to measure the services of wage workers, the main ones being by time and by the piece. In time work (by the hour, day, week, month, or year) a general average output is assumed, and the workman must come up to that standard if he is to hold his place. In piece work, the price per piece must be enough to make possible the prevailing time wage to workers of that grade if the supply is to be maintained in that industry. The piece price method is combined with time work, and is varied in many ways by giving premiums or bonuses for larger outputs within a given period. The conveniences of the different methods of payment vary from industry to industry, and even from task to task within the same factory, so that now one, now another method is followed. In any case, however, the aim is to find some convenient unit of service for the measurement of the amount of labor to be paid for, and to give a motive for efficiency to the worker. The wages paid by the various methods of remuneration—as by time, by the piece, by premium for output—all conform in a general way to the value of the service imputed through bidders in the market.
Real wages in Europe and America. Bearing in mind the limitations mentioned in sec. 7, the results of a study made by the British Board of Trade as to the conditions of the working classes in the cities of five different countries (about the years 1908-11) are here given. The further caution must be given that only certain groups of trades were investigated, those in building, engineering, and printing; and that the cost of living was taken only for food and rent (figures of rent here given are the average for two to six room apartments). The cost of living is calculated by assuming that food cost represents half of the cost of living and rent the other half. In fact food constitutes something less than half, rent only about one fifth; but it will be observed that rents vary pretty closely in accord with money wages, and that the cost of things bought with the rest of wages, after paying for food and rent, consists very largely of the cost of labor. The figures are merely proportional (taking England as a base) and do not express any particular unit of money.
The indication is that money wages in the United States were from about two and a third times to nearly four times as high as those of other countries; but that the workingman’s cost of living was from nearly two to two and a third times as high in the United States. As a result the day’s wage in the other countries would buy from 40 to 22 per cent less than it would in the United States.
In considering these statistics it must be remembered that the wages in skilled trades (such as those here included) are higher relatively in the United States than are the wages of unskilled labor (especially in Germany) and also that far better provision had at that time been made in the continental countries of Europe than in either England or the United States for insurance against sickness, accident, old age pensions, etc.
Value versus utility of labor. Observe that all our discussion here has related to the value and not to the utility of labor. The explanation of value is found in the desires and choices of men, with all their folly and blunders of judgment. More often perhaps in the case of human services than elsewhere, value is found to be in conflict with utility, properly conceived (see ch. 3, sec. 4) and properly estimated. Many of the kinds of labor that are indispensable to the very existence of men have small value (e.g., common labor used in producing food, clothing, shelter, protection from the elements, for the rescue or preservation of human lives). The qualities needed in such work vary from man to man it is true, but they are common, found in large measure in nearly all men. Such callings require merely the physical strength that most men have, a modicum of intelligence to understand and obey orders, and the moderate degree of skill that can be acquired by brief practice. Almost every one (unless weakened by years of sedentary, non-physical occupation) can, in case of need, take up such work at once. Labor thus plentiful in relation to the demand whether it be used for useful ends (such as flowers or food) or for harmful ends (such as opium made from flowers or whisky made from corn) bears a low value.
On the other hand it is the getting out of such an occupation, not the getting into it, that requires a little more than commonplace intelligence, forethought by one’s self or by one’s parents, persistence, and other qualities. The serious lack of any one of these disqualifies for most occupations that yield large labor-incomes. Many of the services valued highly are of a sort distinctly not of utility. Some services are highly rewarded for gratifying the esthetic tastes of a few (luxurious decorations, operatic singing, epicurean tastes in food, etc.), others for pandering to the vices of the many (drinking, gambling, licentiousness). But always the value is set and the price is paid by some one or more buyers who choose such services at the higher value in preference to lower valued services having true utility for themselves and for society. Here as elsewhere it is true that forces are always at work to keep value in some measure of accord with utility in the world as a whole and in the long run.
TIME-VALUE AND INTEREST
[1 ]The wage being a tangible market-fact was first studied when economics began to be a science, and it was seen that the wage was but the reflection of a valuable service. So the term wage was extended to this value of the service which was called the “natural wage”—more often of late the “economic wage.” In this book, however, the term wages is confined to the price aspect of labor, while labor-yield (which is labor-income to some person) is the physical product or the valued service given off by an action.
[2 ]See note on The labor-theory of value at end of chapter.
[3 ]See note at end of chapter, on “Value versus utility of labor.”
[4 ]This in no wise is to be taken to assert the social desirability of low wages, or the justice of actual wages either in any particular case or in general. Some thinkers have assumed and have asserted that the competitive wage is the wage which is “theoretically correct” in an ethical sense. The process of valuation which we are describing, however, leads us to the conclusion that under competitive conditions a man gets what he “is worth” to the purchaser merely in the value sense; he gets the maximum sum possible in view of the nature of his service and of the existing conditions of demand and supply. But these conditions are more or less dependent at any given time upon various antecedent circumstances, such as the distribution of wealth, inheritance, the growth of population in the different classes of society, etc. Our present analysis, therefore, involves no ethical judgment of a competitive wage-scale one way or another. That is a question for separate consideration.
[5 ]The place of the employer as midway between laborer and consumer, is more fully treated later, under enterprise, in Part V.
[6 ]It is only in this superficial sense and as seen from the employer’s standpoint that wages may be said to be determined by productivity. It is productivity in the sense of profitableness or selling price to the employer beyond which he will not go. There is no such thing as a separate determinable physical productivity that is due to labor. Only more or less of the value of the product may, under the conditions of the market, be imputed to the various factors of production. To say therefore that wages are determined by productivity is to define in identical terms: the price of the product is determined by the price of the product.
[7 ]See note on Various methods of remuneration, at the end of chapter.
[8 ]See note on Real wages in Europe and America at end of chapter.
[9 ]This doctrine was given its name by the English economist J. E. Cairnes (Some Leading Principles of Political Economy, Newly Expounded, 1874). As presented by him the doctrine was given a very different emphasis, for he supposed it to be a rare and remarkable exception to what he believed was the general rule, that the cost-of-production regulated the price of goods,—essentially a “labor-theory of value.” We regard it merely as a helpful way of presenting a particular case of the general rule that the value of agents is derived from their products when the market is viewed as a whole.
[10 ]As has been done by many economists. Very commonly, also, men are spoken of in popular discussion as capital or as wealth—a very questionable terminology.
[11 ]See definition of labor-incomes, ch. 18, sec. 1. It is well to observe that this term has, in certain interesting and valuable rural surveys, been used in a peculiar and restricted sense, that of the amount of clear gain that a farmer may fairly attribute to his own services (after making due allowance for the usual rate of return on his total investment) in addition to the personal usance of his house, yard, and other wealth (horses, carriages, etc.) and to all the products of farm (food, fuel, etc.) that are consumed by himself and family. The term as thus understood is of course unsuitable for a more general economic application, and even in its special use, it unfortunately opens the way to some misunderstanding of the results of the surveys.
[12 ]In fact, of all those over 10 years old engaged in agriculture, forestry, and animal husbandry (in 1910, a total of about 12,700,000 persons) about one half were operating owners, one fourth were laborers on the home farm, and only one fourth were farm laborers “working out,” that is, for wages outside the family. In mercantile trade, manufacturing, transportation, and mining, the proportion of wageworkers is much larger, as will be shown in the study of enterprise later.