Front Page Titles (by Subject) Balance between Need and Labour. - The Theory of Political Economy
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Balance between Need and Labour. - William Stanley Jevons, The Theory of Political Economy 
The Theory of Political Economy (London: Macmillan, 1888) 3rd ed.
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Balance between Need and Labour.
In considering this Theory of Labour an interesting question presents itself. Supposing that circumstances alter the relation of produce to labour, what effect will this have upon the amount of labour which will be exerted? There are two effects to be considered. When labour produces more commodity, there is more reward, and therefore more inducement to labour. If a workman can earn ninepence an hour instead of sixpence, may he not be induced to extend his hours of labour by this increased result? This would doubtless be the case were it not that the very fact of getting half as much more than he did before, lowers the utility to him of any further addition. By the produce of the same number of hours he can satisfy his desires more completely; and if the irksomeness of labour has reached at all a high point, he may gain more pleasure by relaxing that labour than by consuming more products. The question thus depends upon the direction in which the balance between the utility of further commodity and the painfulness of prolonged labour turns.
In our ignorance of the exact form of the functions either of utility or of labour, it will be impossible to decide this question in an à priori manner; but there are a few facts which indicate in which direction the balance does usually turn. Statements are given by Porter, in his Progress of the Nation,1 which show that when a sudden rise took place in the prices of provisions in the early part of this century, workmen increased their hours of labour, or, as it is said, worked double time, if they could obtain adequate employment. Now, a rise in the price of food is really the same as a decrease of the produce of labour, since less of the necessaries of life can be acquired in exchange for the same money wages. We may conclude, then, that English labourers enjoying little more than the necessaries of life, will work harder the less the produce; or, which comes to the same thing, will work less hard as the produce increases.
Evidence to the like effect is found in the general tendency to reduce the hours of labour at the present day, owing to the improved real wages now enjoyed by those employed in mills and factories. Artisans, mill-hands, and others, seem generally to prefer greater ease to greater wealth, thus proving that the painfulness of labour varies so rapidly as easily to overbalance the gain of utility. The same rule seems to hold throughout the mercantile employments. The richer a man becomes, the less does he devote himself to business. A successful merchant is generally willing to give a considerable share of his profits to a partner, or to a staff of managers and clerks, rather than bear the constant labour of superintendence himself. There is also a general tendency to reduce the hours of labour in mercantile offices, due to increased comfort and opulence.
It is obvious, however, that there are many intricacies in a matter of this sort. It is not always possible to graduate work to the worker's liking; in some businesses a man who insisted on working only a few hours a day would soon have no work to do. In the professions of law, medicine, and the like, it is the reputation of enjoying a large practice which attracts new clients. Thus a successful barrister or physician generally labours more severely as his success increases. This result partly depends upon the fact that the work is not easily capable of being performed by deputy. A successful barrister, too, soon begins to look forward to the extrinsic rewards of a high judicial or parliamentary position. But the case of an eminent solicitor, architect, or engineer is one where the work is to a great extent done by employees, and done without reference to social or political rewards, and where yet the most successful man endures the most labour, or rather is most constantly at work. This indicates that the irksomeness of the labour does not increase so as to over-balance the utility of the increment of reward. In some characters and in some occupations, in short, success of labour only excites to new exertions, the work itself being of an interesting and stimulating nature. But the general rule is to the contrary effect, namely, that a certain success disinclines a man to increased labour. It may be added that in the highest kinds of labour, such as those of the philosopher, scientific discoverer, artist, etc., it is questionable how far great success is compatible with ease; the mental powers must be kept in perfect training by constant exertion, just as a racehorse or an oarsman needs to be constantly exercised.
It is evident that questions of this kind depend greatly upon the character of the race. Persons of an energetic disposition feel labour less painfully than their fellowmen, and, if they happen to be endowed with various and acute sensibilities, their desire of further acquisition never ceases. A man of lower race, a negro for instance, enjoys possession less, and loathes labour more; his exertions, therefore, soon stop. A poor savage would be content to gather the almost gratuitous fruits of nature, if they were sufficient to give sustenance; it is only physical want which drives him to exertion. The rich man in modern society is supplied apparently with all he can desire, and yet he often labours unceasingly for more. Bishop Berkeley, in his Querist,1 has very well asked, "Whether the creating of wants be not the likeliest way to produce industry in a people? And whether, if our (Irish) peasants were accustomed to eat beef and wear shoes, they would not be more industrious?"
[]Edition of 1847, pp. 454, 455.
[]Query No. 20.