Like all fair controversialists, Mr. Thornton directs his attack against the strongest form of the opinion he assails. He does not much concern himself with the infantine form of the theory, in which demand is defined as a desire for the commodity, or as the desire combined with the power of purchase; or in which price is supposed to depend on the between demand and supply. It is to be hoped that few are now dwelling in this Demand, to be capable of comparison with supply, must be taken to mean, not a wish, nor a power, but a quantity. Neither is it at any time a fixed quantity, but varies with the price. Nor does the price depend on any ratio. The demand and supply theory, when rightly understood—indeed when capable of being understood at all—signifies, that the ratio which exists between demand and supply, when the price has adjusted itself, is always one of equality. If at the market price the demand exceeds the supply, the competition of buyers will drive up the price to the point at which there will only be purchasers for as much as is offered for sale. If, on the contrary, the supply, being in excess of the demand, cannot be all disposed of at the existing price, either a part will be withdrawn to wait for a better market, or a sale will be forced by offering it at such a reduction of price as will bring forward new buyers, or tempt the old ones to increase their purchases. The law, therefore, of values, as affected by demand and supply, is that they adjust themselves so as always to bring about an between demand and supply, by the increase of the one or the diminution of the other; the movement of price being only arrested when the quantity asked for at the current price, and the quantity offered at the current price, are equal. This point of exact equilibrium may be as momentary, but is nevertheless as real, as the level of the sea.
This instance, though seemingly a trivial, is really a representative one and a hundred cases could not show, better than this does, what Mr. Thornton has and what he has not made out. He has proved that the law of the equalisation of supply and demand is not the whole theory of the particular case. He has not proved that the law is not strictly conformed to in that case. In order to show that the equilisation of supply and demand is not the law of price, what he has really shown is that the law is, in this particular case, consistent with two different prices, and is equally and completely fulfilled by either of them. The demand and supply are equal at twenty shillings, and equal also at eighteen shillings. The conclusion ought to be, not that the law is false, for Mr. Thornton does not deny that in the case in question it is fulfilled; but only, that it is not the entire law of the phenomenon. The phenomenon cannot help obeying it, but there is some amount of indeterminateness in its operation—a certain limited extent of variation is possible within the bounds of the law; and as there must be a sufficient reason for every variation in an effect, there must be a supplementary law, which determines the effect, between the limits within which the principal law leaves it free. Whoever can teach us this supplementary law, makes a valuable to the scientific theory of the subject; and we shall see presently that in substance, if not strictly in form, Mr. Thornton does teach it. Even if he did not, he would have shown the received theory to be incomplete; but he would not have, nor has he now, shown it to be in the smallest degree incorrect.
This prospect may appear too remote, and even visionary, to be an actuating motive with any considerable number of Unionists; but it is certainly not beyond the aspirations of the intelligent leaders of Unionism, and what is more, some great steps have already been made in the direction of its realisation. A generation ago all Unions were local, and in those days strikes were much more frequent, much oftener unreasonable, and much oftener attended with criminal excesses, than is the case at present. Since then, a number of the most important trades have been formed into Amalgamated Societies extending to the whole country, and a central council decides with a view to the interests of the entire trade, what conditions shall be imposed on employers, and in what cases strikes shall take place. And it is admitted that the rules of these Amalgamated Societies are much less objectionable than those of the local unions previously were, and that the central body prevents many more strikes than it sanctions. The immediate motive to the amalgamations was, of course, the experience that attempts in one town to obtain a rise of wages, only caused the transfer of the business to another. Concert having been at length substituted for competition between different towns, the Unions now aim at effecting the same substitution between different countries: and within the last few years there is a commencement of International Congresses of working people, to prevent the efforts made in one country from being frustrated for want of a common understanding with other countries. And there can be little doubt that these attempts to lay the foundation of an alliance among the artisans of competing countries, have already produced some effect, and will acquire increasing importance.
This control, moreover, is likely to be peculiarly needful, when the State has allowed private persons to appropriate the source from which mankind derive, and must continue to derive, their subsistence. The community has too much at stake in the employment of the land as an instrument for the supply of human wants, to be entitled to recognise any right in individuals to make themselves an impediment to the most beneficial use of it for that end. Wherever might is not accepted as a sufficient basis of right, the justification of private property in land has rested on the theory that most is made of the land for the good of the community by giving that full play to the stimulus of self-interest which is given by private ownership. But this theory, though it has a foundation in truth, is by no means absolutely true; and the limits of its truth ought to be the limits of its practical application. The self-interest of the owners of land, under perfect freedom, coincides with the general interest of the community up to a certain point, but not wholly; there are cases in which it draws in a totally opposite direction. Not even in the point of view of Production is there a complete coincidence between the private interest of landowners and the public interest. In that of Distribution, whether the institution of private property in land should include the concession, to enrich a class, of all that annual increase of wealth which the mere progress of capital and population, in a prosperous community, showers down upon landlords without any exertion or sacrifice of their own, is a question not raised by Mr. Leslie, and which, for the present, we are content to leave undiscussed. But the self-interest of landlords is far from a sufficient security for their turning the land to the best account, even as to its productive powers.
However satisfactorily the question may admit of being answered, it still requires to be asked, whether Unionists are justified in seeking a rise of wages for themselves, which will in all probability produce a fall of wages, or loss of employment, to other labourers, their fellow-countrymen. Still more is this question raised by those restrictive rules, forbidding the employment of non-unionists, limiting the number of apprentices, &c., which many Unions maintain, and which are sometimes indispensable to the complete efficacy of Unionism. For (as Mr. Thornton recognises) there is no keeping up wages without limiting the number of competitors for employment. And all such limitation inflicts distinct evil upon those whom it excludes—upon that great mass of labouring population which is outside the Unions; an evil not trifling, for if the system were rigorously enforced it would prevent unskilled labourers or their children from ever rising to the condition of skilled. In what manner is a system which thus operates, to be reconciled either with the obligations of general morality, or with the special regard professed by labouring men for the interest of the labouring class? To the justification of Unionism it is necessary not only that a mode of reconciliation should exist, but that Unionists should know it and consider it; for if there is ever so good a defence of their conduct, and they do not know or care about it, their case is morally the same as if there were none. Unionists who do not concern themselves with these scruples are, in intention, sacrificing the interests of their fellow-labourers, the majority of the labouring classes, to their own separate advantage; they are making themselves into an oligarchy of manual labourers, indirectly supported by a tax levied on the democracy.
If these things be so, a strict debtor and creditor account between rich and poor would show no balance against the former. Society cannot properly be said to owe anything to the poor beyond what it is constantly and regularly paying. It is not bound in equity, whatever it may be in charity, to find food for the hungry because they are in need, nor to find occupation for the unemployed because they are out of work. By withholding aid, it is not guilty of the smallest injustice. For injustice implies violation of a right; and not only can there be no breach of right without disregard of a corresponding obligation, but that only can be a right the breach or denial of which constitutes a wrong. But wrong is committed only when some good which is due is withheld, or when some evil which is not due is inflicted. Applying this test, we shall find that the poor, as such, have no unliquidated claim against the rich. The latter are doing them no wrong, are guilty of no injustice towards them in merely abstaining from paying a debt which, whether due to the poor or not, is, at any rate, not due to them from the rich. It was not the rich who placed the poor on the earth, and it is not the rich who owe them the means of living here. How far the poor may be forgiven for complaining, as of a grievance, of having been placed here without adequate means of living, may possibly be a question for the theologian. But the political economist may fairly content himself with showing that the grievance is, at any rate, not one with which they can reproach any of their fellow-creatures, except their own parents. No other portion of society was a party to the transaction, and no other portion can justly be responsible for its consequences.
In a former article it has been seen how Mr. Thornton, in the first chapter of his First Book, disproved, on grounds of pure political economy, the supposed natural law by which, in the opinion of many, the price of labour is as strictly determined as the motion of the earth, and determined in a manner unalterable by the will or effort of either party to the transaction. But whatever in the affairs of mankind is not peremptorily decided for them by natural laws, falls under the jurisdiction of the moral law. Since there is a certain range, wider than has been generally believed, within which the price of labour is decided by a conflict of wills between employers and labourers, it is necessary, as in every other case of human voluntary action, to ascertain the moral principles by which this conflict ought to be regulated. The terms of the bargain not being a matter of necessity, but, within certain limits, of choice, it has to be considered how far either side can rightfully press its claims, and take advantage of its opportunities. Or, to express the same ideas in other phraseology, it has to be decided whether there are any of labour on the one hand, or of capital on the other, which would be violated if the opposite party pushed its pretensions to the extreme limits of economic possibility.
Except under the terms of some mutual agreement, the employer is not bound to give anything. Before joining in the agreement he was under no obligation to furnish the labourer with occupation. Either he might not have required his or any one else’s services, or he might have preferred to employ some one else. But if he was not bound to furnish employment at all, he was not bound to furnish it on any particular terms. If, therefore, he did consent to furnish it, he had a right to dictate his own terms; and whatever else those terms might be, however harsh, illiberal, exorbitant, or what you will, they could not, at any rate or by any possibility, be unjust. For they could only be unjust in so far as they deviated from some particular terms which justice might have exacted. But, as we have seen, there were no such terms, and it is manifestly absurd to condemn a thing merely because its limits do not coincide with those of an abstraction incapable of being realised or defined, incapable, that is to say, of having any limits at all.
But though the population principle and its consequences are in no way touched by anything that Mr. Thornton has advanced, in another of its bearings the labour question, considered as one of mere economics, assumes a materially changed aspect. The doctrine hitherto taught by all or most economists (including myself), which denied it to be possible that trade combinations can raise wages, or which limited their operation in that respect to the somewhat earlier attainment of a rise which the competition of the market would have produced without them,—this doctrine is deprived of its scientific foundation, and must be thrown aside. The right and wrong of the proceedings of Trades’ Unions becomes a common question of prudence and social duty, not one which is peremptorily decided by unbending necessities of political economy.
By this time, I think, an acute reader, who sees towards what results a course of inquiry is tending before the conclusion is drawn, will begin to perceive that Mr. Thornton’s improvements in the theory of price, minute as they appear when reduced to their real dimensions, and unimportant as they must necessarily be in the common case in which supply and demand are but disturbing causes, and cost of production the real law of the phenomenon, may be of very great practical importance in the case which suggested the whole train of thought, the remuneration of labour. If it should turn out that the price of labour falls within one of the excepted cases—the case which the law of equality between demand and supply does not provide for, because several prices all agree in satisfying that law; we are already able to see that the question between one of those prices and another will be determined by causes which operate strongly against the labourer, and in favour of the employer. For, as the author observes, there is this difference between the labour market and the market for tangible commodities, that in commodities it is the seller, but in labour it is the buyer, who has the initiative in fixing the price. It is the employer, the purchaser of labour, who makes the offer of wages; the dealer, who is in this case the labourer, accepts or refuses. Whatever advantage can be derived from the initiative is, therefore, on the side of the employer. And in that contest of endurance between buyer and seller, by which alone, in the excepted case, the price so fixed can be modified, it is almost needless to say that nothing but a close combination among the employed can give them even a chance of successfully contending against the employers.