Monday, August 31, 2009

Fawcett: "The Regulation of the Hours of Labour by the State" (abridged) IV

by the Sandwichman

One last note on Fawcett's 1872 lecture. Can an economist talk about the hours of work without invoking the specter of 'fallacy'? Apparently not. Fawcett's charge of fallacy, however, is not the classic lump-of-labor version:
It is, however, probable that motives very different from these actuate many who most earnestly appeal to the State to impose a legal limit upon the day's work. This particular movement may be, to a great extent, regarded as a revival of the old fallacy that the wages of labour can be regulated by law.

Signs are not wanting to show that the opinion widely prevails, although it is rarely distinctly avowed, that if a law were passed reducing the day's work from ten hours to nine hours, as much would ultimately be paid for nine as for ten hours' labour. If, however, this should prove to be the case, then it would appear that the State has the power to regulate the remuneration of labour; it would consequently follow that wages depend upon legal enactments, and are not regulated by the recognised principles of economic science.

I shall not attempt [don't you love those pseudo-disavowals that introduce the mention of something with the phrase, "not to mention..."] to argue the case by referring to such well-known facts as that Parliament for centuries tried to control the wages of labour, and that all the numberless statutes that were passed to effect this object signally failed. Neither shall I refer to the general principles of political economy to establish the conclusion that the wages of labour cannot be controlled by the State. Such reasoning would not, in any way, affect the opinions of those who are most strongly in favour of the hours of labour being regulated by the State. According to their views the interposition of the State in this matter involves very different consequences, and is to be defended by very different arguments from any attempt which may be made to fix the rate of wages by Act of Parliament.
In case you're wondering, Fawcett's argument proceeds from the above to the case argued in installment II of this series: namely, that if the hours of work were indeed too long then employers would in every instance be compelled to yield to demands from the workers to shorten them (in spite of the unprecedented nature of the workers' triumph at Newcastle). The mind reels.

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