Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Hours of Labour 9

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

I now would like to compare specifically the effect on wages with the effect on the working day of the mechanical action of pure competition. In the matter of wages, if workers were too weak to have much influence in settling their pay, competition between employers, were it keen and unchecked by combination, would at least secure to the workers as a wage, for a given working day, their marginal worth (within limits set by social friction) in view of their then state of efficiency. Thus in the circumstances supposed the worker would tend to get approximately the utmost possible – apart from the question of the reaction of wages on efficiency – in an active society based on free enterprise, for we may take it that in such a society the bidding of individuals against one another for labor would continue at least up to the known marginal worth of labor.

Observe, however, that the existence of such bidding may imply that new businesses are being established, or that old-established employers are anxious to make considerable extensions because old-established employers, knowing that similar workmen must be paid the same, might avoid a course of action that resulted in a gain less than the loss involved in the elevation of wages. It is doubtful whether employers would as a rule assume that if they did take steps leading to an advance in wages others would do so, for, not unnaturally, employers are commonly indisposed to disturb rates of wages except for strong reasons. Even if employers were endowed with a powerful telescopic faculty, they would not necessarily invest in paying wages in excess of the workers' present marginal productivity (for the purpose of enhancing their future physical and mental vigor) because of the danger that some workers would find employment elsewhere, thus transferring to rival employers the returns from the long-sighted investments made in them.

Other things being equal, of course, the higher the efficiency of labor the greater is the gain, not only of the workman, but also of the employer. Now, as regards the working day, we have already seen that uncombined employers might keep it longer than would be desirable from their point of view, for the same reasons for which they might keep wages lower than would be desirable from their point of view. These reasons are, I repeat again, short-sightedness, or fear of incurring an expense the fruits of which other employers might reap. In this respect competition between employers is equally defective in its bearing on wages and in its bearing on the length of the working day. But, from the perspective of the quality of life of the workers, it has an additional defect in its bearings on the length of the working day; for although competition between employers in an competitive economy would bring about the length of working day that the workers would choose at the wages making it possible, the choice of the workers is apt to be distorted by a limited awareness of the positive effect of shorter hours on productivity and hence wages.


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