The Principles of Political Economy

Henry Sidgwick

Book III

Chapter VII


§5. The question of the `Right of Labour' affords a point on which we may conveniently turn from imagining what may be in the distant future, to discuss the general economic advantages and drawbacks of such measures for the mitigation of inequalities of distribution as can be considered to be now within the pale of practical consideration: as the `Right to Labour' can hardly be denied a place in this latter class, since Bismarck has declared it to be one of the objects of his government to secure the German labourer work and adequate wages. I am not, however, aware that Bismarck or any influential statesman has as yet proposed any scheme for attaining this end: and I do not know any means by which it could be attained in a community like our own, without a grave danger of disastrous consequences. If the government in such a country as England guaranteed even a minimum of necessaries to all who were able and willing to give a normal day's work for them---without the deterrent conditions under which such relief is actually offered to able-bodied paupers in an English workhouse---we can hardly doubt that the labour thus purchased by the State could not, even by good organization, be made to pay the cost of its support. For a labourer employed under such a guarantee could not be dismissed for mere inertness or inefficiency, but only for such wilful and obstinate idleness as would justify his being sent to prison: hence he would have much less motive than at present either for working energetically or for seeking and qualifying himself for the employment in which he would be most useful; and his labour would tend to be proportionally less productive. At the same time the minimum of shelter and sustenance that humanity would allow to be given him would cost more than the earnings of the worst-paid labourers at the present time; so that, on the whole, the measure would both materially diminish aggregate production and throw a serious burden on the public purse---both which effects would, under existing circumstances, tend continually to increase, as the security of employment would give an important stimulus to population.

Nor can I agree with those who think that---in view of the distress which the worst-paid labourers in our modern communities endure,---government might reasonably prescribe a minimum of wages for all labourers able and willing to give a full day's work, without incurring the dangers connected with a governmental provision of such a minimum. If, indeed, the commodities produced by the labourers now paid under the proposed minimum were of such a kind that if the price were raised the demand would not be materially diminished nor a competing supply obtained from elsewhere, the desired result might be attained; as the lacking quantum of wages could then be obtained by employers from the consumers. But I know no ground for assuming this to be generally the case: and so far as it is not the case, the legal minimum of wages would tend to throw a number of the worst-paid labourers out of work: hence to prevent widespread distress it would be almost necessary to supplement the prescription of a minimum of wages by the governmental provision of employment and remuneration; so that this method of raising wages could hardly fail to land us in all the difficulties of the Right to Labour.

The dangers of the measures just mentioned may be partly illustrated by the actual experience that has been gained of the dangers incident to a kind of governmental interference with distribution which all modern communities have thought necessary, in some form or other, for the protection of their members from absolute want of the necessaries of life. I have already pointed out that, according to the received view of Communism which I have tried to express in a precise definition, the English Poor Law must be allowed to be communistic in its effects---though it does not follow that its adoption is in any way due to a communistic design or principle. In fact if we look merely to the motive which prompts the community to grant all its members legally secured relief, we should rather classify this measure with the interferences to protect life and health, which I noticed in a previous chapter. But if we protect the health of a starving person by giving him necessaries at the expense of the community, our action inevitably involves to some extent the evils of communism whatever its intention may have been: that is, it tends to decrease the inducements to labour, forethought and thrift in two ways, (1) by distributing to paupers a certain quantum of unearned commodities, and (2) by taking from non-paupers a corresponding portion of what they have earned or saved. The former of these bad effects may be in the main averted, so far as the inducement to labour for present needs is concerned, in the case of able-bodied paupers, by exacting work from them in return for relief under somewhat disagreeable conditions; for though it is probably impossible to keep this compulsory labour up to an average degree of energy, there being no fear of dismissal for slackness, still any attractiveness that might hence attach to the position of a pauper may be more than counterbalanced by restrictions on freedom, and by the prohibition of indulgences not necessary to health, but yet so cheap that even the poorest can occasionally enjoy them: and, in fact, English experience seems to shew that the provision made for such able-bodied paupers as reside in a workhouse does not offer any serious temptation even to the worst-paid labourers to relax their energies in seeking employment elsewhere. On the other hand it seems impossible to prevent even `indoor relief' from weakening the motives that prompt the poorest class of labourers to earn and save an adequate provision against sickness and old age, or for the support of their families in case of premature death: and this is still more manifestly the case with out-door relief. And it is the expense of supporting those who are wholly unable, or but very partially able, to work, which causes by far the greater part of the burden of taxation entailed by pauperism though, for the reasons already stated, the value even of the labour of the able-bodied falls seriously short of the cost of their shelter and sustenance.

The bad economic effects of this taxation on the persons taxed depend mainly on its compulsory character: since a man does not feel the reward of his labour to be lessened by the fact that he voluntarily bestows a portion of it in alms. It would seem, too, that if the destitute persons could be adequately protected from starvation by any measure that did not give them a definite legal security of obtaining relief, the discouragement to thrift which such legally secured relief entails would be partly avoided. Further, if the legally secured relief be kept inseparable from the deterrent conditions necessary to prevent its worst consequences, it cannot be regarded as a satisfactory provision for the case of deserving persons who have fallen into indigence either through inevitable and irremediable disaster, or at any rate from causes involving no serious blame to them. And in fact the most rigid supporters of the English poor-law have generally recognised the moral necessity of supplementing it by private almsgiving. On the other hand private almsgiving, being largely impulsive, unenlightened, and unorganized, is found to give serious encouragement to unthrift, and even to imposture. These considerations suggest, first, that Government might with advantage undertake the organization of eleemosynary relief, in order to make its distribution as economical, effective, and judicious as possible; and, secondly, that the provision of funds for such relief---so far, at least, as they are used for the ordinary sustenance of adults in distress---might be left mainly to voluntary gifts and bequests, with a certain amount of assistance from government, if experience shews it to be necessary, but without any legal right to relief. These two principles are maintained in the treatment of pauperism adopted in France; and the experience of France seems to shew that voluntary provision if carefully organized may be relied on as nearly adequate for the purpose of practically securing the poor from starvation; and also that relief so provided may be distributed to the applicants in their own homes without the bad consequences that out-door relief has under our compulsory system: since the absence of legal security compensates for the absence of the deterrent conditions of the workhouse.

But again: assuming that government ought to make a legally secured provision for any sick or infirm member of the community who may be destitute of necessaries, it does not therefore follow that the expense of this provision must ordinarily be undertaken by the community, so far as adults are concerned; since it might be thrown, wholly or in part, on the individuals themselves by laying a special tax on their earnings for the purpose of compulsory insurance. There is much to be said for this method of dealing with a part at least of the complex problem of pauperism, as compared with the method of the English poor-law: and though the political interference with natural liberty would be much more intense in the former method, the economic interference would be much less, so far as the measure succeeded;---as each individual would be merely coerced into providing that he should not become a burden to others. I do not, however, see how anything like the required premiums could be exacted without great harshness from labourers who have now scarcely more than the bare necessaries of life; and if in their case the whole or the greater part of the funds were supplied by government, the danger of weakening the normal stimulus to exertion and thrift on the part of labourers at or near this lowest level would, I fear, be decidedly greater than that which attends the English system. The case of labourers thrown temporarily out of employment would also cause considerable difficulty.

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