Front Page Titles (by Subject) Definition of Labour. - The Theory of Political Economy
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Definition of Labour. - William Stanley Jevons, The Theory of Political Economy 
The Theory of Political Economy (London: Macmillan, 1888) 3rd ed.
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Definition of Labour.
ADAM SMITH said, "The real price of everything, what everything really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it.... Labour was the first price, the original purchase-money, that was paid for all things."1 If subjected to a very searching analysis, this celebrated passage might not prove to be so entirely true as it would at first sight seem to most readers to be. Yet it is substantially true, and luminously expresses the fact that labour is the beginning of the processes treated by economists, as consumption is the end and purpose. Labour is the painful exertion which we undergo to ward off pains of greater amount, or to procure pleasures which leave a balance in our favour. Courcelle-Seneuil2 and Hearn have stated the problem of Economics with the utmost truth and brevity in saying, that it is to satisfy our wants with the least possible sum of labour.
In defining labour for the purposes of the economist we have a choice between two courses. In the first place, we may, if we like, include in it all exertion of body or mind. A game of cricket would, in this case, be labour; but if it be undertaken solely for the sake of the enjoyment attaching to it, the question arises whether we need take it under our notice. All exertion not directed to a distant and distinct end must be repaid simultaneously. There is no account of good or evil to be balanced at a future time. We are not prevented in any way from including such cases in our Theory of Economics; in fact, our Theory of Labour will, of necessity, apply to them. But we need not occupy our attention by cases which demand no calculus. When we exert ourselves for the sole amusement of the moment, there is but one rule needed, namely, to stop when we feel inclined—when the pleasure no longer equals the pain.
It will probably be better, therefore, to take the second course and concentrate our attention on such exertion as is not completely repaid by the immediate result. This would give us a definition nearly the same as that of Say, who defined labour as "Action suivée, dirigée vers un but." Labour, I should say, is any painful exertion of mind or body undergone partly or wholly with a view to future good.1 It is true that labour may be both agreeable at the time and conducive to future good; but it is only agreeable in a limited amount, and most men are compelled by their wants to exert themselves longer and more severely than they would otherwise do. When a labourer is inclined to stop, he clearly feels something that is irksome, and our theory will only involve the point where the exertion has become so painful as to nearly balance all other considerations. Whatever there is that is wholesome or agreeable about labour before it reaches this point may be taken as a net profit of good to the labourer; but it does not enter into the problem. It is only when labour becomes effort that we take account of it, and, as Hearn truly says,1 "such effort, as the very term seems to imply, is more or less troublesome." In fact, we must, as will shortly appear, measure labour by the amount of pain which attaches to it.
[]Wealth of Nations, book i., chap. v.
[]Traité Théorique et Pratique d'Economie Politique, 2d ed., vol i. p. 33.
[]I have altered this definition as it stood in the first edition by inserting the words partly or wholly, and I only give it now as provisionally the best I can suggest. The subject presents itself to me as one of great difficulty, and it is possible that the true solution will consist in treating labour as a case of negative utility, or negative mingled with positive utility. We should thus arrive at a higher generalisation which appears to be foreshadowed in the remarkable work of Hermann Heinrich Gossen described in the preface to this edition. Every act, whether of production or of consumption, may be regarded as producing what Bentham calls a lot both of pleasures and pains, and the distinction between the two processes will consist in the fact that the algebraic value of the lot in the case of consumption yields a balance of positive utility, while that of production yields a negative or painful balance, at least in that part of the labour involving most effort. In a happy life the negative balance involved in production is more than cleared off by the positive balance of pleasure arising from consumption.
[]Plutology, p. 24.