Friday, March 17, 2017

The Poor Man's Friend

Dorning Rasbotham, a magistrate from near Bolton, Lancashire wrote a pamphlet in response to those 1779 riots, Thoughts on the Use of Machines in the Cotton Manufacture, that was to leave a lasting impression on polemical political economy. The pamphlet was signed "a Friend to the Poor." Although there has been some confusion the authorship of the pamphlet, a memorial plaque in the church where Rasbotham was buried described him as having "the characters of the poor man's friend." Squire Rasbotham strove to leave no doubt about where his sympathies laid:
I am, from the bottom of my heart, a Friend to the Poor. I wish to plead their cause, and to speak in their favour. I feel tenderly for the poor man and his family. And, if my heart does not deceive me, I would do, I would suffer any thing for their welfare. Led by no other principle, but regard to the Poor, I now wish to enter into free and friendly conversation with you, my poor but esteemed friends, on the subject of our machines.
Rasbotham's free and friendly conversation consisted of a series of assertions, many of which may strike the reader as condescending and several of which express notions that are repeated perennially as commonplaces in economic thought:
  1. The interests of the poor should have the highest priority (after all, what would become of the rich if there were no poor people to till their grounds, and pay their rent?);
  2. There is not so great a difference between the real interests of the rich and of the poor;
  3. Trade is a large and difficult subject that requires deep thought, long study, extensive reading and large experience to form a true judgment;
  4. Machines distinguish men in society from men in a savage state. There are many examples showing how machines invariably benefit people;
  5. All improvements at first produce some difficulty but many receive the benefit while only a few suffer (probably not much and hopefully not for too long), Those who are inconvenienced should be grateful for the opportunity to make a sacrifice for their fellow man;
  6. Trade will find its own level. Those thrown out of their old employments will find or learn new ones. Those who get a disproportionate gain will soon find many rivals and lose their temporary advantage;
  7. There is a disposition among people to be unduly alarmed by new discoveries;
  8. Even if machines are evils they are necessary evils. We might as well make the best of them;
  9. This would be a prosperous time for the poor, if only they would show some initiative and weren't so inclined to carry their money to the alehouse;
  10. Anyone who disagrees with the above truths is an irreligious, conscienceless scoundrel and nincompoop; and, last but not least,
  11. The belief that "there is only a certain quantity of labour to be performed" is a false principle.
John Ramsey McCulloch, one of the more prolific, second-rank political economists of the early 19th century was effusive in his praise for the sensibility and soundness of Mr. Rasbotham's opinion, emphasizing the observation that "There is, in fact, no idea so groundless and absurd, as that which supposes that an increased facility of production can under any circumstances be injurious to the labourers." Rasbotham's own indictment of that "groundless and absurd" idea merits quotation in full if only because future economists echoed it incessantly for two centuries hence -- presumably without the faintest clue as to its origin:
There is, say they, a certain quantity of labour to be performed. This used to be performed by hands, without machines, or with very little help from them. But if now machines perform a larger share than before, suppose one fourth part, so many hands as are necessary to work that fourth part, will be thrown out of work, or suffer in their wages. The principle itself is false. There is not a precise limited quantity of labour, beyond which there is no demand. Trade is not hemmed in by great walls, beyond which it cannot go. By bringing our goods cheaper and better to market, we open new markets, we get new customers, we encrease the quantity of labour necessary to supply these, and thus we are encouraged to push on, in hope of still new advantages. A cheap market will always be full of customers. [emphasis in original]

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