The cardinal point in wages

Writing editorially in “The Gas World ” of July the 15th, a learned scribe asks how the cardinal point of wages in a certain locality and for a particular description of work, is determined.

Lord Robert Cecil, we are informed, delivered himself, at the last Co-partnership Conference, of some pearls of economic wisdom. The “ultimate” sanction of rates of wages payable, he said for instance, is the law of supply and demand, but the employers only know from time to time what wages they can afford to pay.

The clarity with which the scion of a noble house elaborated his case can only be compared with a good old-fashioned November fog. For he leaves the Editor of “The Gas World” rolling up the whites of his eyes and inquiring what determines wages.

“So far as we can see for the present,” says the editor, “the principle of co-partnership does not touch this dictum.”

May I ask the literary gentleman what laws determine the wages of the printers, compositors, and others whose labour produces that scintillating wonder of Bouverie Street, “The Gas World” ? If the supply of these workmen was not equal to the demand, they could secure higher wages. If the supply and demand were equal and there was no surplus either way, then supply and demand cancel each other. Now take conditions as they really are. There is, to-day, a greater supply of labour-power than there is demand for. According to Lord R. Cecil, wages fall steadily pro rata, as the balance of labour-power exceeds the demand.

It is clear, however, that this is absurd, that something else is necessary to determine wages.

Before touching this let us consider what is necessary to permit of the issuing of a single copy of “The Gas World.”

First we must have the raw material—paper, type, ink, etc. These, shovelled into a heap, would make a fearful mess, and though the resemblance to the editor’s economics might be striking, its resemblance to “The Gas World” would be undiscernible.

The thing essential to the assembling of the raw materials in such manner that they will lure the wily coppers out of the pockets of a wide and ever increasing clientele is human energy.

Now in reckoning out the selling price of the paper it has to be considered that if the price is too high a competitor will be let in. This fact will keep the price down, just as a superabundance of labour-power will keep wages down.

But suppose a competitor does appear—is that fact going to run the price of the journal down to zero ? No, you then begin to tot up the cost of production, and when you find that you are not making the necessary profit and have no chance of freezing out your rival, you think of the official receiver and cease publication. So supply and demand are not the only factors in the determination of price.

In the same manner wages, which are the price of labour-power, though fluctuating with supply and demand, find their “cardinal point” in something very different. That something is the necessary cost of subsistence—the cost, that is, of the production of the labour-power.

If the noble lord is left with only supply and demand to determine wages, then, with the application of science in industry continually displacing labour and making the supply increasingly in excess of the demand, a time would be reached when the workers’ wage would consist of air and daylight. This consummation of the dreams of the advocates of co-partnery is, however, too absurd for anybody but a lord.


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