Thursday, August 13, 2009

Hours of Labour 10

by Sydney J. Chapman (translated and condensed by the Sandwichman)

It would seem, therefore, that at least two reasons can be derived from economic theory for state intervention in the matter of the hours of labor, if it is assumed that the state can discover what is best for the country. One is to correct the tendency of people engaged in industry to agree upon an amount of sacrifice to money-making, which means a large future loss, involving the next generation, for a small present gain; the other is to fortify, if needful, the resistance of workers to the disposition of some employers to secure a greater product at the expense of the workers' convenience. This conclusion would, however, be too hasty a deduction.

Economic matters are settled, not merely by the self-regarding forces that we have hitherto emphasized, but also by social conceptions, embodied in public opinion and class notions of what is right and proper that defy expert analysis and any accurate evaluation as influences. These social conceptions, which are not deliberately framed on a rationalistic basis, but proceed insensibly as it were from the needs of human life, are less intermixed with religious elements now than they used to be, but are none the less powerful. Resting on the seventh day is not at present a religious observance to the extent it was in the past, but it has not universally been found necessary to supplement the declining religious sanction with a legal sanction. How far progress that runs counter to tendencies determined solely by self-regarding forces may be left to the operation of these incalculable motives that sway every community can be settled only by careful observation. It is sufficient now to recognize their existence, and to point to the reductions of the hours of labor in recent years.

I do not propose to consider here the merits of legislation for establishing standards for the hours of labor, except to observe, first, that Government interference aimed at securing reasonable hours for adult males in all the diversified industries of a country would entail elaborate, elastic, and frequent legislation and would no doubt be accompanied by many grave errors; and secondly, that a prima facie case can be made out for the regulation of the hours even of adult males by authoritative boards or by statute, when labor is weakly combined and hours are evidently sweated hours, and evidence is forthcoming that they are detrimental to health or vigor. Nor do I propose to consider whether it might not be better to suffer for a time present ills in the hope that there would grow up in the community an adequate power of self-regulation, possibly accompanied by valuable social consequences that otherwise might never have been elicited. I am hopeful that public opinion, directed by economic and ethical enlightenment will in the future become an increasingly effective factor in progress, apart from its expression in law. Even to-day, in view of the dependence of producers on demand, neither employers nor trade unions can afford to brave for long public sentiment, though unorganized, when it is aroused. Public sentiment in the years ahead may be expected to respond more sensitively to incidents in its surroundings that offend against social conceptions of what is right and proper. The cases of children, young persons, and women, which bring in special considerations, must be ruled off from the subject matter of this address.


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