The Principles of Political Economy, by John Stuart Mill

Chapter 13

The Remedies for Low Wages Further Considered

§1. By what means, then, is poverty to be contended against? How is the evil of low wages to be remedied? If the expedients usually recommended for the purpose are not adapted to it, can no others be thought of? Is the problem incapable of solution? Can political economy do nothing, but only object to everything, and demonstrate that nothing can be done?

If this were so, political economy might have a needful, but would have a melancholy, and a thankless task. If the bulk of the human race are always to remain as at present, slaves to toil in which they have no interest, and therefore feel no interest — drudging from early morning till late at night for bare necessaries, and with all the intellectual and moral deficiencies which that implies — without resources either in mind or feelings — untaught, for they cannot be better taught than fed; selfish, for all their thoughts are required for themselves; without interests or sentiments as citizens and members of society, and with a sense of injustice rankling in their minds, equally for what they have not, and for what others have; I know not what there is which should make a person with any capacity of reason, concern himself about the destinies of the human race. There would be no wisdom for any one but in extracting from life, with Epicurean indifference, as much personal satisfaction to himself and those with whom he sympathies, as it can yield without injury to any one, and letting the unmeaning bustle of so-called civilized existence roll by unheeded. But there is no ground for such a view of human affairs. Poverty, like most social evils, exists because men follow their brute instincts without due consideration. But society is possible, precisely because man is not necessarily a brute. Civilization in every one of its aspects is a struggle against the animal instincts. Over some even of the strongest of them, it has shown itself capable of acquiring abundant control. It has artificialized large portions of mankind to such an extent, that of many of their most natural inclinations they have scarcely a vestige or a remembrance left. If it has not brought the instinct of population under as much restraint as is needful, we must remember that it has never seriously tried. What efforts it has made, have mostly been in the contrary direction. Religion, morality, and statesmanship have vied with one another in incitements to marriage, and to the multiplication of the species, so it be but in wedlock. Religion has not even yet discontinued its encouragements. The Roman Catholic clergy (of any other clergy it is unnecessary to speak, since no other have any considerable influence over the poorer classes) everywhere think it their duty to promote marriage, in order to prevent fornication. There is still in many minds a strong religious prejudice against the true doctrine. The rich, provided the consequences do not touch themselves, think it impugns the wisdom of Providence to suppose that misery can result from the operation of a natural propensity.. the poor think that “God never sends mouths but he sends meat.” No one would guess from the language of either, that man had any voice or choice in the matter. So complete is the confusion of ideas on the whole subject; owing in a great degree to the mystery in which it is shrouded by a spurious delicacy, which prefer that right and wrong should be mismeasured and confounded on one of the subjects most momentous to human welfare, rather than that the subject be freely spoken of and discussed. People are little aware of the cost to mankind of this scrupulosity of speech. The diseases of society can, no more than corporal maladies, he prevented or cured without being spoken about in plain language. All experience shows that the mass of mankind never judge of moral questions for themselves, never see anything to be right or wrong until they have been frequently told it; and who tells them that they have any duties in the matter in question, while they keep within matrimonial limits? Who meets with the smallest condemnation, or rather, who does not meet with sympathy and benevolence, for any amount of evil which he may have brought upon himself and those dependent on him, by this species of incontinence? While a man who is intemperate in drink, is discountenanced and despised by all who profess to be moral people, it is one of the chief grounds made use of in appeals to the benevolent, that the applicant has a large family and is unable to maintain them.1

One cannot wonder that silence on this great department of human duty should produce unconsciousness of moral obligations, when it produces oblivion of physical facts. That it is possible to delay marriage, and to live in abstinence while unmarried, most people are willing to, allow. but when persons are once married, the idea, in this country, never seems to enter any one’s mind that having or not having a family, or the number of which it shall consist, is amenable to their own control. One would image that children were rained down upon married people, direct from heaven, without their being art or part in the matter; that it was really, as the common phrases have it, God’s will, and not their own, which decided the numbers of their offspring. Let us see what is a Continental philosopher’s opinion on this point; a man among the most benevolent of his time, and the happiness of whose married life has been celebrated.

“Lorsque des prejuges dangereux,” says Sismondi,2 “ne sont point accredites, lorsqu’une morale contraire à nos vrais devoirs envers les autres et surtout envers les creatures qui nous doivent la vie, n’est point enseignee au nom de l’autorite la plus sacree, aucun homme sage ne se marie avant de se trouver dans une condition qui lui donne un moyen assure de vivre; aucun père de famille n’a plus d’enfans qu’il n’en peut convenablement elever. Ce dernier compte à bon droit que ses enfans devront se contenter du sort dans lequel il a vecu; aussi doit-il desirer que la generation naissante represente exactement celle qui s’en va; qu’un fils et une fille arrives à l’âge nubile remplacent son père et sa mère; que les enfans de ses enfans le remplacent à son tour avec sa femme; que sa fille trouve dans une autre maison precisement le sort qu’il donnera à la fille d’une autre maison dans la sienne, et que le revenu qui suffisait aux pères suffise aux enfans.” In a count increasing in wealth, some increase of numbers would be admissible, but that is a question of detail, not of principle. “Une fois que cette famille est formee, la justice et l’humanite exigent qu’il s’impose la même contrainte à laquelle se soumettent les celibataires. Lorsqu’on voit combien est petit, en tout pays, le nombre des enfans naturels, on doit reconnaître que cette contrainte est suffisamment efficace. Dans un pays où la population ne peut pas s’accroître, ou du moins dans lequel son progrès doit être si lent qu’il soit à peine perceptible, quand il n’y a point de places nouvelles pour de nouveaux etablissemens, un père qui a huit enfans doit compter, ou que six de ses enfans mourront en bas âge, ou que trois de ses contemporains et trois de ses contemporaines, et dans la generation suivante, trois de ses fils et trois de ses filles, ne se marieront pas à cause de lui.”

§2. Those who think it hopeless that the labouring classes should be induced to practise a sufficient degree of prudence in regard to the increase of their families, because they have hitherto stopt short of that point, show an inability to estimate the ordinary principles of human action. Nothing more would probably be necessary to secure that result, than an opinion generally diffused that it was desirable. As a moral principle, such an opinion has never yet existed in any country: it is curious that it does not so exist in countries in which, from the spontaneous operation of individual forethought, population is, comparatively speaking, efficiently repressed. What is practised as prudence is still not recognised as duty. the talkers and writers are mostly on the other side, even in France, where a sentimental horror of Malthus is almost as rife as in this country. Many causes may be assigned, besides the modern date of the doctrine, for its not having yet gained possession of the general mind. Its truth has, in some respects, been its detriment. One may be permitted to doubt whether, except among the poor themselves (for whose prejudices on this subject there is no difficulty in accounting) there has ever yet been, in any class of society, a sincere and earnest desire that wages should be high. There has been plenty of desire to keep down the poor-rate; but, that done, people have been very willing that the working classes should be ill off. Nearly all who are not labourers themselves, are employers of labour, and are not sorry to get the commodity cheap. It is a fact, that even Boards of Guardians, who are supposed to be official apostles of anti-population doctrines, will seldom hear patiently of anything which they are pleased to designate as Malthusianism. Boards of Guardians in rural districts, principally consist of farmers, and farmers, it is well known, in general dislike even allotments, as making the labourers “too independent.” From the gentry, who are in less immediate contact and collision of interest with the labourers, better things might be expected, and the gentry of England are usually charitable. But charitable people have human infirmities, and would, very often, be secretly not a little dissatisfied if no one needed their charity: it is from them one oftenest hears the base doctrine, that God has decreed there shall always be poor. When one adds to this, that nearly every person who has had in him any active spring of exertion for a social object, has had some favourite reform to effect which he thought the admission of this great principle would throw into the shade; has had corn laws to repeal, or taxation to reduce, or small notes to issue, or the charter to carry, or the church to revive or abolish, or the aristocracy to pull down, and looked upon every one as an enemy who thought anything important except his object; it is scarcely wonderful that since the population doctrine was first promulgated, nine-tenths of the talk has always been against it, and the remaining tenth only audible at intervals; and that it has not yet penetrated far among those who might be expected to be the least willing recipients of it, the labourers themselves.

But let us try to imagine what would happen if the idea became general among the labouring class, that the competition of too great numbers was the special cause of their poverty; so that every labourer looked (with Sismondi) upon every other who had more than the number of children which the circumstances of society allowed to each, as doing him a wrong — as filling up the place which he was entitled to share. Any one who supposes that this state of opinion would not have a great effect on conduct, must be profoundly ignorant of human nature; can never have considered how large a portion of the motives which induce the generality of men to take care even of their own interest, is derived from regard for opinion — from the expectation of being disliked or despised for not doing it. In the particular case in question, it is not too much to say that over-indulgence is as much caused by the stimulus of opinion as by the mere animal propensity; since opinion universally, and especially among the most uneducated classes, has connected ideas of spirit and power with the strength of the instinct, and of inferiority with its moderation or absence; a perversion of sentiment caused by its being the means, and the stamp, of a dominion exercised over other human being. The effect would be great of merely removing this factitious stimulus; and when once opinion shall have turned itself into an adverse direction, a revolution will soon take place in this department of human conduct. We are often told that the most thorough perception of the dependence of wages on population will not influence the conduct of a labouring man, because it is not the children he himself can have that will produce any effect in generally depressing the labour market. True: and it is also true, that one soldier’s running away will not lose the battle; accordingly it is not that consideration which keeps each soldier in his rank: it is the disgrace which naturally and inevitably attends on conduct by any one individual, which if pursued by a majority, everybody can see would be fatal. Men are seldom found to brave the general opinion of their class, unless supported either by some principle higher than regard for opinion, or by some strong body of opinion elsewhere.

It must be borne in mind also, that the opinion here in question, as soon as it attained any prevalence, would have powerful auxiliaries in the great majority of women. It is seldom by the choice of the wife that families are too numerous; on her devolves (along with all the physical suffering and at least a full share of the privations) the whole of the intolerable domestic drudgery resulting from the excess. To be relieved from it would be hailed as a blessing by multitudes of women who now never venture to urge such a claim, but who would urge it, if supported by the moral feelings of the community. Among the barbarisms which law and morals have not yet ceased to sanction, the most disgusting surely is, that any human being should be permitted to consider himself as having a right to the person of another.

If the opinion were once generally established among the labouring class that their welfare required a due regulation of the numbers of families, the respectable and well-conducted of the body would conform to the prescription, and only those would exempt themselves from it, who were in the habit of making light of social obligations generally; and there would be then an evident justification for converting the moral obligation against bringing children into the world who are a burthen to the community, into a legal one; just as in many other cases of the progress of opinion, the law ends by enforcing against recalcitrant minorities, obligations which to be useful must be general, and which, from a sense of their utility, a large majority have voluntarily consented to take upon themselves. There would be no need, however, of legal sanctions, if women were admitted, as on all other grounds they have the clearest title to be, to the same rights of citizenship with men. Let them cease to be confined by custom to one physical function as their means of living and their source of influence, and they would have for the first time an equal voice with men in what concerns that function: and of all the improvements in reserve for mankind which it is now possible to foresee, none might be expected to be so fertile as this in almost every kind of moral and social benefit.

It remains to consider what chance there is that opinions and feelings, grounded on the law of the dependence of wages on population, will arise among the labouring classes; and by what means such opinions and feelings can be called forth. Before considering the grounds of hope on this subject, a hope which many persons, no doubt, will be ready, without consideration, to pronounce chimerical, I will remark, that unless a satisfactory answer can be made to these two questions, the industrial system prevailing in this country, and regarded by many writers as the ne plus ultra of civilization — the dependence of the whole labouring class of the community on the wages of hired labour, is irrevocably condemned. The question we are considering is, whether, of this state of things, overpopulation and a degraded condition of the labouring class are the inevitable consequence. If a prudent regulation of population be not reconcilable with the system of hired labour, the system is a nuisance, and the grand object of economical statesmanship should be (by whatever arrangements of property, and alterations in the modes of applying industry), to bring the labouring people under the influence of stronger and more obvious inducements to this kind of prudence, than the relation of workmen and employers can afford.

But there exists no such incompatibility. The causes of poverty are not so obvious at first sight to a population of hired labourers, as they are to one of proprietors, or as they would be to a socialist community. They are, however, in no way mysterious. The dependence of wages on the number of the competitors for employment, is so far from hard of comprehension, or unintelligible to the labouring classes, that by great bodies of them it is already recognised and habitually acted on. It is familiar to all Trades Unions: every successful combination to keep up wages, owes its success to contrivances for restricting the number of the competitors; all skilled trades are anxious to keep down their own numbers, and many impose, or endeavour to impose, as a condition upon employers, that they shall not take more than a prescribed number of apprentices. There is, of course, a great difference between limiting their numbers by excluding other people, and doing the same thing by a restraint imposed on themselves: but the one as much as the other shows a clear perception of the relation between their numbers and their remuneration. The principle is understood in its application to any one employment, but not to the general mass of employment. For this there are several reasons: first, the operation of causes is more easily and distinctly seen in the more circumscribed field; secondly, skilled artizans are a more intelligent class than, ordinary manual labourers: and the habit of concert, and of passing in review their general condition as a trade, keeps up a better understanding of their collective interests: thirdly and lastly, they are the most provident, because they are the best off, and have the most to preserve. What, however, is clearly perceived and admitted in particular instances, it cannot be hopeless to see understood and acknowledged as a general truth. Its recognition, at least in theory, seems a thing which must necessarily and immediately come to pass, when the minds of the labouring classes become capable of taking any rational view of their own aggregate condition. Of this the great majority of them have until now been incapable, either from the uncultivated state of their intelligence, or from poverty, which leaving them neither the fear of worse, nor the smallest hope of better, makes them careless of the consequences of their actions, and without thought for the future.

§3. For the purpose therefore of altering the habits of the labouring people, there is need of a twofold action, directed simultaneously upon their intelligence and their poverty. An effective national education of the children of the labouring class, is the first thing needful: and, coincidently with this, a system of measures which shall (as the Revolution did in France ) extinguish extreme poverty for one whole generation.

This is not the place for discussing, even in the most general manner, either the principles or the machinery of national education. But it is to be hoped that opinion on the subject is advancing, and that an education of mere words would not now be deemed sufficient, slow as our progress is towards providing anything better even for the classes to whom society professes to give the very best education it can devise. Without entering into disputable points, it may be asserted without scruple, that the aim of all intellectual training for the mass of the people, should be to cultivate common sense; to qualify them for forming a sound practical judgment of the circumstances by which they are surrounded. Whatever, in the intellectual department, can be superadded to this, is chiefly ornamental; while this is the indispensable groundwork on which education must rest. Let this object be acknowledged and kept in view as the thing to be first aimed at, and there will be little difficulty in deciding either what to teach, or in what manner to teach it.

An education directed to diffuse good sense among the people, with such knowledge as would qualify them to judge of the tendencies of their actions, would be certain, even without any direct inculcation, to raise up a public opinion by which intemperance and improvidence of every kind would be held discreditable, and the improvidence which overstocks the labour market would be severely condemned, as an offence against the common weal. But though the sufficiency of such a state of opinion, supposing it formed, to keep the increase of population within proper limits, cannot, I think, be doubted; yet, for the formation of the opinion, it would not do to trust to education alone. Education is not compatible with extreme poverty. It is impossible effectually to teach an indigent population. And it is difficult to make those feel the value of comfort who have never enjoyed it, or those appreciate the wretchedness of a precarious subsistence, who have been made reckless by always living from hand to mouth. Individuals often struggle upwards into a condition of ease; but the utmost that can be expected from a whole people is to maintain themselves in it; and improvement in the habits and requirements of the mass of unskilled day-labourers will be difficult and tardy, unless means can be contrived of raising the entire body to a state of tolerable comfort, and maintaining them in it until a new generation grows up.

Towards effecting this object there are two resources available, without wrong to any one, without any of the liabilities of mischief attendant on voluntary or legal charity, and not only without weakening, but on the contrary strengthening, every incentive to industry, and every motive to forethought.

§4. The first is, a great national measure of colonization. I mean, a grant of public money, sufficient to remove at once, and establish in the colonies, a considerable fraction of the youthful agricultural population. By giving the preference, as Mr. Wakefield proposes, to young couples, or when these cannot be obtained, to families with children nearly grown up, the expenditure would be made to go the farthest possible towards accomplishing the end, while the colonies would be supplied with the greatest amount of what is there in deficiency and here in superfluity, present and prospective labour. It has been shown by others, and the grounds of the opinion will be exhibited in a subsequent part of the present work, that colonization on an adequate scale might be so conducted as to cost the country nothing, or nothing that would not be certainly repaid; and that the funds required, even by way of advance, would not be drawn from the capital employed in maintaining labour, but from that surplus which cannot find employment at such profit as constitutes an adequate remuneration for the abstinence of the possessor, and which is therefore sent abroad for investment, or wasted at home in reckless speculations. That portion of the income of the country which is habitually ineffective for any purpose of benefit to the labouring class, would bear any draught which it could be necessary to make on it for the amount of emigration which is here in view.

The second resource would he, to devote all common land, hereafter brought into cultivation, to raising a class of small proprietors. It has long enough been the practice to take these lands from public use for the mere purpose of adding to the domains of the rich. It is time that what is left of them should be retained as an estate sacred to the benefit of the poor. The machinery for administering it already exists, having been created by the General Inclosure Act. What I would propose (though, I confess, with small hope of its being soon adopted) is, that in all future cases in which common land is permitted to be enclosed, such portion should first be sold or assigned as is sufficient to compensate the owners of manorial or common rights, and that the remainder should be divided into sections of five acres or thereabouts, to be conferred in absolute property on individuals of the labouring class who would reclaim and bring them into cultivation by their own labour. The preference should he given to such labourers, and there are many of them, as had saved enough to maintain them until their first crop was got in, or whose character was such as to induce some responsible person to advance to them the requisite amount on their personal security. The tools, the manure, and in some cases the subsistence also might be supplied by the parish, or by the state; interest for the advance, at the rate yielded by the public funds, being laid on as a perpetual quit-rent, with power to the peasant to redeem it at any time for a moderate number of years’ purchase. These little landed estates might, if it were thought necessary, be made indivisible by law; though, if the plan worked in the manner designed, I should not apprehend any objectionable degree of subdivision. In case of intestacy, and in default of amicable arrangement among the heirs, they might be bought by government at their value, and recanted to some other labourer who would give security for the price. The desire to possess one of these small properties would probably become, as on the Continent, an inducement to prudence and economy pervading the whole labouring population; and that great desideratum among a people of hired labourers would be provided, an intermediate class between them and their employers; affording them the double advantage, of an object for their hopes, and, as there would be good reason to anticipate, an example for their imitation.

It would, however, be of little avail that either or both of these measures of relief should be adopted, unless on such a scale, as would enable the whole body of hired labourers remaining on the soil to obtain not merely employment, but a large addition to the present wages — such an addition as would enable them to live and bring up their children in a degree of comfort and independence to which they have hitherto been strangers. When the object is to raise the permanent condition of a people, small means do not merely produce small effects, they produce no effect at all. Unless comfort can be made as habitual to a whole generation as indigence is now, nothing is accomplished; and feeble half-measures do but fritter away resources, far better reserved until the improvement of public opinion and of education shall raise up politicians who will not think that merely because a scheme promises much, the part of statesmanship is to have nothing to do with it.

I have left the preceding paragraphs as they were written, since they remain true in principle, though it is no longer urgent to apply these specific recommendations to the present state of this country. The extraordinary cheapening of the means of transport, which is one of the great scientific achievements of the age, and the knowledge which nearly all classes of the people have now acquired, or are in the way of acquiring, of the condition of the labour market in remote parts of the world, have opened up a spontaneous emigration from these islands to the new countries beyond the ocean, which does not tend to diminish, but to increase; and which, without any national measure of systematic colonization, may prove sufficient to effect a material rise of wages in Great Britain, as it has already done in Ireland, and to maintain that rise unimpaired for one or more generations. Emigration, instead of an occasional vent, is becoming a steady outlet for superfluous numbers; and this new fact in modern history, together with the flush of prosperity occasioned by free trade, have canted to this overcrowded country a temporary breathing-time, capable of being employed in accomplishing those moral and intellectual improvements in all classes of the people, the very poorest included, which would render improbable any relapse into the over-peopled state. Whether this golden opportunity will be properly used, depends on the wisdom of our councils; and whatever depends on that, is always in a high degree precarious. The grounds of hope are, that there has been no time in our history when mental progress has depended so little on governments, and so much on the general disposition of the people; none in which the spirit of improvement has extended to so many branches of human affairs at once, nor in which all kinds of suggestions tending to the public good in every department, from the humblest physical to the highest moral or intellectual, were heard with so little prejudice, and had so good a chance of becoming known and being fairly considered.

1 Little improvement can be expected in morality until the producing large families is regarded with the same feelings as drunkenness or any other physical excess. But while the aristocracy and clergy are foremost to set the example of this kind of incontinence, what can be expected from the poor?

2 Nouveaux Principes, liv, ch. 5.

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