The Principles of Political Economy, by John Stuart Mill

Chapter 25

Of the Competition of Different Countries in the Same Market

§1. In the phraseology of the Mercantile System, the language and doctrines of which are still the basis of what may be called the political economy of the selling classes, as distinguished from the buyers or consumers, there is no word of more frequent recurrence or more perilous import than the word underselling. To undersell other countries — not to be undersold by other countries — were spoken of, and are still very often spoken of, almost as if they were the sole purposes for which production and commodities exist. The feelings of rival tradesmen, prevailing among nations, overruled for centuries all sense of the general community of advantage which commercial countries derive from the prosperity of one another: and that commercial spirit which is now one of the strongest obstacles to wars, was during a certain period of European history their principal cause.

Even in the more enlightened view now attainable of the nature and consequences of international commerce, some, though a comparatively small, space must still be made for the fact of commercial rivality. Nations may, like individual dealers, be competitors, with opposite interests, in the markets of some commodities, while in others they are in the more fortunate relation of reciprocal customers. The benefit of commerce does not consist, as it was once thought to do, in the commodities sold; but, since the commodities sold are the means of obtaining those which are bought, a nation would be cut off from the real advantage of commerce, the imports, if it could not induce other nations to take any of its commodities in exchange; and in proportion as the competition of other counties compels it to offer its commodities on cheaper terms, on pain of not selling them at all, the imports which it obtains by its foreign trade are procured at greater cost.

These points have been adequately, though incidentally, frustrated in some of the preceding chapters. But the great space which the topic has filled, and continues to fill, in economical speculations, and in the practical anxieties both of politicians and of dealers and manufacturers, makes it desirable, before quitting the subject of international exchange, to subjoin a few observations on the things which do, and on those which do not, enable countries to undersell one another.

One country can only undersell another in a given market, to the extent of entirely expelling her from it, on two conditions. In the first place, she must have a greater advantage than the second country in the production of the article exported by both; meaning by a greater advantage (as has been already so fully explained) not absolutely, but in comparison with other commodities; and in the second place, such must be her relation with the customer country in respect to the demand for each other’s products, and such the consequent state of international values, as to give away to the customer country more than the whole advantage possessed by the rival country; otherwise the rival will still be able to hold her ground in the market.

Let us revert to the imaginary hypothesis of a trade between England and Germany in cloth and linen: England being capable of producing 10 yards of cloth at the same cost with 15 yards of linen, Germany at the same cost with 20, and the two commodities being exchanged between the two countries (cost of carriage apart) at some intermediate rate, say 10 for 17. Germany could not be permanently undersold in the English market, and expelled from it, unless by a country which offered not merely more than 17, but more than 20 yards of linen for 10 of cloth. Short of that, the competition would only oblige Germany to pay dearer for cloth, but would not disable her from exporting linen. The country, therefore, which could undersell Germany, must, in the first place, be able to produce linen at less cost, compared with cloth, than Germany herself; and in the next place, must have such a demand for cloth, or other English commodities, as would compel her, even when she became sole occupant of the market, to give a greater advantage to England than Germany could give by resigning the whole of hers; to give, for example, 21 yards for 10. For if not — if, for example, the equation of international demand, after Germany was excluded, gave a ratio of 18 for 10, Germany could again enter into the competition; Germany would be now the underselling nation; and there would be a point, perhaps 19 for 10, at which both countries would be able to maintain their ground, and to sell in England enough linen to pay for the cloth, or other English commodities, for which, on these newly-adjusted terms of interchange, they had a demand. In like manner, England, as an exporter of cloth, could only be driven from the German market by some rival whose superior advantages in the production of cloth enabled her, and the intensity of whose demand for German produce compelled her, to offer 10 yards of cloth, not merely for less than 17 yards of linen, but for less than 15. In that case, England could no longer carry on the trade without loss; but in any case short of this, she would merely be obliged to give to Germany more cloth for less linen than she had previously given.

It thus appears that the alarm of being permanently undersold may be taken much too easily; may be taken when the thing really to be anticipated is not the loss of the trade, but the minor inconvenience of carrying it on at a diminished advantage; an inconvenience chiefly falling on the consumers of foreign commodities, and not on the producers or sellers of the exported article. It is no sufficient ground of apprehension to the English producers, to find that some other country can sell cloth in foreign markets at some particular time, a trifle cheaper than they can themselves afford to do in the existing state of prices in England. Suppose them to be temporarily undersold, and their exports diminished; the imports will exceed the exports, there will be a new distribution of the precious metals, prices will fall, and as all the money expenses of the English producers will be diminished, they will be able (if the case falls short of that stated in the preceding paragraph) again to compete with their rivals. The loss which England will incur, will not fall upon the exporters, but upon those who consume imported commodities; who, with money incomes reduced in amount, will have to pay the same or even an increased price for all things produced in foreign countries.

§2. Such, I conceive, is the true theory, or rationale, of underselling. It will be observed that it takes no account of some things which we hear spoken of, oftener perhaps than any others, in the character of causes exposing a country to be undersold.

According to the preceding doctrine, a country cannot be undersold in any commodity, unless the rival country has a stronger inducement than itself for devoting its labour and capital to the production of the commodity; arising from the fact that by doing so it occasions a greater saving of labour and capital, to be shared between itself and its customers — a greater increase of the aggregate produce of the world. The underselling, therefore, though a loss to the undersold country, is an advantage to the world at large; the substituted commerce being one which economies more of the labour and capital of mankind, and adds more to their collective wealth, than the commerce superseded by it. The advantage, of course, consists in being able to produce the commodity of better quality, or with less labour (compared with other things); or perhaps not with less labour, but in less time; with a less prolonged detention of the capital employed. This may arise from greater natural advantages (such as soil, climate, richness of mines); superior capability, either natural or acquired, in the labourers; better division of labour, and better tools, or machinery. But there is no place left in this theory for the case of lower wages. This, however, in the theories commonly current, is a favourite cause of underselling. We continually hear of the disadvantage under which the British producer labours, both in foreign markets and even in his own, through the lower wages paid by his foreign rivals. These lower wages, we are told, enable, or are always on the point of enabling them to sell at lower prices, and to dislodge the English manufacturer from all markets in which he is not artificially protected.

Before examining this opinion on grounds of principle, it is worth while to bestow a moment’s consideration upon it as a question of fact. Is it true, that the wages of manufacturing labour are lower in foreign countries than in England, in any sense in which low wages are an advantage to the capitalist? The artisan of Ghent or Lyons may earn less wages in a day, but does he not do less work? Degrees of efficiency considered, does his labour cost less to his employer? Though wages may be lower on the Continent, is not the Cost of Labour, which is the real element in the competition, very nearly the same? That it is so seems the opinion of competent judges, and is confirmed by the very little difference in the rate of profit between England and the Continental countries. But if so, the opinion is absurd that English producers can be undersold by their Continental rivals from this cause. It is only in America that the supposition is prima facie admissible. In America, wages are much higher than in England, if we mean by wages the daily earnings of a labourer: but the productive power of American labour is so great — its efficiency, combined with the favourable circumstances in which it is exerted, makes it worth so much to the purchaser, that the Cost of Labour is lower in America than in England; as is indicated by the fact that the general rate of profits and of interest is higher.

§3. But is it true that low wages, even in the sense of low Cost of Labour, enable a country to sell cheaper in the foreign market? I mean, of course, low wages which are common to the whole productive industry of the country.

If wages, in any of the departments of industry which supply exports, are kept, artificially, or by some accidental cause, below the general rate of wages in the country, this is a real advantage in the foreign market. It lessens the comparative cost of production of those articles, in relation to others; and has the same effect as if their production required so much less labour. Take, for instance, the case of the United States in respect to certain commodities, prior to the civil war. Tobacco and cotton, two great articles of export, were produced by slave labour, while food and manufactures generally were produced by free labourers, neither working on their own account or paid by wages. In spite of the inferior efficiency of slave labour, there can be no reasonable doubt that in a country where the wages of free labour were so high, the work executed by slaves was a better bargain to the capitalist. To whatever extent it was so, this smaller cost of labour, being not general, but limited to those employments, was just as much a cause of cheapness in the products, both in the home and in the foreign market, as if they had been made by a less quantity of labour. If, when the slaves in the Southern States were emancipated, their wages rose to the general level of the earnings of free labour in America, that country might have been obliged to erase some of the slave-grown articles from the catalogue of its exports, and would certainly be unable to sell any of them in the foreign market at the accustomed price. Accordingly, American cotton is now habitually at a much higher price than before the war. Its previous cheapness was partly an artificial cheapness, which may be compared to that produced by a bounty on production or on exportation: or, considering the means by which it was obtained, an apter comparison would be with the cheapness of stolen goods.

An advantage of a similar economical, though of a very different moral character, is that possessed by domestic manufactures; fabrics produced in the leisure hours of families partially occupied in other pursuits, who, not depending for subsistence on the produce of the manufacture, can afford to sell it at any price, however low, for which they think it worth while to take the trouble of producing. In an account of the Canton of Zurich, to which I have had occasion to refer on another subject, it is observed,1 “The workman of Zurich is today a manufacturer, tomorrow again an agriculturist, and changes his occupations with the seasons, in a continual round. Manufacturing industry and tillage advance hand in hand, in inseparable alliance, and in this union of the two occupations the secret may be found, why the simple and unlearned Swiss manufacturer can always go on competing, and increasing in prosperity, in the face of those extensive establishments fitted out with great economic, and (what is still more important) intellectual, resources. Even in those parts of the Canton where manufactures have extended themselves the most widely, only one-seventh of all the families belong to manufactures alone; four-sevenths combine that employment with agriculture. The advantage of this domestic or family manufacture consists chiefly in the fact, that it is compatible with all other avocations, or rather that it may in part be regarded as only a supplementary employment. In winter in the dwellings of the operatives, the whole family employ themselves in it: but as soon as spring appears, those on whom the early field labours devolve, abandon the indoor work; many a shuttle stands still; by degrees, as the field-work increases, one member of the family follows another, till at last, at the harvest, and during the so-called ‘great works,’ all hands seize the implements of husbandry; but in unfavourable weather, and in all otherwise vacant hours, the work in the cottage is resumed, and when the ungenial season again recurs, the people return in the same gradual order to their home occupation, until they have all resumed it.”

In the case of these domestic manufactures, the comparative cost of production, on which the interchange between countries depends, is much lower than in proportion to the quantity of labour employed. The workpeople, looking to the earnings of their loom for a part only, if for any part, of their actual maintenance, can afford to work for a less remuneration than the lowest rate of wages which can permanently exist in the employments by which the labourer has to support the whole expense of a family. Working, as they do, not for an employer but for themselves, they may be said to carry on the manufacture at no cost at all, except the small expense of a loom and of the material; and the limit of possible cheapness is not the necessity of living by their trade but that of earning enough by the work to make that social employment of their leisure hours not disagreeable.

§4. These two cases, of slave labour and of domestic manufactures, exemplify the conditions under which low wages enable a country to sell its commodities cheaper in foreign markets, and consequently to undersell its rivals, or to avoid being undersold by them. But no such advantage is conferred by low wages when common to all branches of industry. General low wages never caused any country to undersell its rivals, nor did general high wages ever hinder it from doing so.

To demonstrate this, we must return to an elementary principle which was discussed in a former chapter.2 General low wages do not cause low prices, nor high wages high prices, within the country itself. General prices are not raised by a rise of wages, any more than they would be raised by an increase of the quantity of labour required in all production. Expenses which affect all commodities equally, have no influence on prices. If the maker of broadcloth or cutlery, and nobody else, had to pay higher wages, the price of his commodity would rise, just as it would if he had to employ more labour; because otherwise he would gain less profit than other producers, and nobody would engage in the employment. But if everybody has to pay higher wages, or everybody to employ more labour, the loss must be submitted to; as it affects everybody alike, no one can hope to get rid of it by a change of employment, each therefore resigns himself to a diminution of profits, and prices remain as they were. In like manner, general low wages, or a general increase in the productiveness of labour, does not make prices low, but profits high. If wages fall, (meaning here by wages the cost of labour,) why, on that account, should the producer lower his price? He will be forced, it may be said, by the competition of other capitalists who will crowd into his employment. But other capitalists are also paying lower wages, and by entering into competition with him they would gain nothing but what they are gaining already. The rate then at which labour is paid, as well as the quantity of it which is employed, affects neither the value nor the price of the commodity produced, except in so far as it is peculiar to that commodity, and not common to commodities generally.

Since low wages are not a cause of low prices in the country itself, so neither do they cause it to offer its commodities in foreign markets at a lower price. It is quite true that if the cost of labour is lower in America than in England, America could sell her cottons to Cuba at a lower price than England, and still gain as high a profit as the English manufacturer. But it is not with the profit of the English manufacturer that the American cotton spinner will make his comparison; it is with the profits of other American capitalists. These enjoy, in common with himself, the benefit of a low cost of labour, and have accordingly a high rate of profit. This high profit the cotton spinner must also have: he will not content himself with the English profit. It is true he may go on for a time at that lower rate, rather than change his employment; and a trade may be carried on, sometimes for a long period, at a much lower profit than that for which it would have been originally engaged in. Countries which have a low cost of labour, and high profits, do not for that reason undersell others, but they do oppose a more obstinate resistance to being undersold, because the producers can often submit to a diminution of profit without being unable to live, and even to thrive, by their business. But this is all which their advantage does for them: and in this resistance they will not long persevere, when a change of times which may give them equal profits with the rest of their countrymen has become manifestly hopeless.

§5. There is a class of trading and exporting communities, on which a few words of explanation seem to be required. These are hardly to be looked upon as countries, carrying on an exchange of commodities with other countries, but more properly as outlying agricultural or manufacturing establishments belonging to a larger community. Our West india colonies, for example, cannot be regarded as countries, with a productive capital of their own. If Manchester, instead of being where it is, were on a rock in the North Sea, (its present industry nevertheless continuing,) it would still be but a town of England, not a country trading with England; it would be merely, as now, a place where England finds it convenient to carry on her cotton manufacture. The West Indies, in like manner, are the place where England finds it convenient to carry on the production of sugar, coffee, and a few other tropical commodities. All the capital employed is English capital; almost all the industry is carried on for English uses; there is little production of anything except the staple commodities, and these are sent to England, not to be exchanged for things exported to the colony and consumed by its inhabitants, but to be sold in England for the benefit of the proprietors there. The trade with the West Indies is therefore hardly to be considered as external trade, but more resembles the traffic between town and country, and is amenable to the principles of the home trade. The rate of profit in the colonies will be regulated by English profits; the expectation of profit must be about the same as in England, with the addition of compensation for the disadvantages attending the more distant and hazardous employment: and after allowance is made for those disadvantages, the value and price of West India produce in the English market must be regulated, (or rather must have been regulated formerly,) like that of any English commodity, by the cost of production. For the last twelve or fifteen years this principle has been in abeyance: the price was first kept up beyond the ratio of the cost of production by deficient supplies, which could not, owing to the deficiency of labour, be increased; and more recently the admission of foreign competition has introduced another element, and some of the West India Islands are undersold, not so much because wages are higher than in Cuba and Brazil, as because they are higher than in England: for were they not so, Jamaica could sell her sugars at Cuban prices, and still obtain, though not a Cuban, an English rate of profit.

It is worth while also to notice another class of small, but in this case mostly independent communities, which have supported and enriched themselves almost without any productions of their own, (except ships and marine equipments,) by a mere carrying trade, and commerce of entrepot; by buying the produce of one country, to sell it at a profit in another. Such were Venice and the Hanse Towns. The case of these communities is very simple. They made themselves and their capital the instruments, not of production, but of accomplishing exchanges between the productions of other countries. These exchanges are attended with an advantage to those countries — an increase of the aggregate returns to industry — part of which went to indemnify the agents for the necessary expenses of transport, and another part to remunerate the use of their capital and mercantile skill. The countries themselves had not capital disposable for the operation. When the Venetians became the agents of the general commerce of Southern Europe, they had scarcely any competitors: the thing would not have been done at all without them, and there was really no limit to their profits except the limit to what the ignorant feudal nobility could and would give for the unknown luxuries then first presented to their sight. At a later period competition arose, and the profit of this operation, like that of others, became amenable to natural laws. The carrying trade was taken up by Holland, a country with productions of its own and a large accumulated capital. The other nations of Europe also had now capital to spare, and were capable of conducting their foreign trade for themselves: but Holland, having, from a variety of circumstances, a lower rate of profit at home, could afford to carry for other countries at a smaller advance on the original cost of the goods, than would have been required by their own capitalists; and Holland, therefore, engrossed the greatest part of the carrying trade of all those countries which did not keep it to themselves by Navigation Laws, constructed, like those of England, for that express purpose.

1 Historisch — geographisch — staatistisches Germalde der Schweiz. Erstes Heft, 1834, p. 105.

2 Supra, book iii. ch. iv.

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