Thursday, March 2, 2017

Masters and Men

We published yesterday with much pleasure a long letter from Mr. Frederic Harrison, in which he “offered a few sentences, not of controversy or even of defence, but of additional explanation," in answer to an article which we lately wrote on a paper of his in the Fortnightly Review about trades unions. We hardly know why Mr. Harrison is so careful to say that our article, being "courteous and candid," ought not to be called controversial, and that his reply is not by way of controversy. Controversy or discussion is surely the means by which truth, if not discovered, is at all events exhibited to the public, and we hope that there is no necessary opposition between controversy and courtesy and candour. At all events, with Mr. Harrison on the other side, there is neither any excuse for a defect in those particulars nor any temptation to be guilty of it.

Mr. Harrison letter, so far as it regards ourselves, is so interesting that we return to the subject to which it refers. Mr. Harrison states the question at issue, which we regard as most important, in the following words:-- "Why may not the employer of labour contract with his men as freely as the purchaser of goods can contract with the seller? in other words, is labour a commodity? The issue arises thus: It is insisted that unions impose on the contract of hiring restrictions which are not known and would be very burdensome in the contract of sale. I say the contract of hiring differs from the contract of sale in very many of its incidents and conditions. You say it does not but if you buy a house, or if you buy the services of a bricklayer, it is the same thing."

An averment is wanting to the completeness of this statement which Mr. Harrison could not have made, and which he therefore very properly does not make, but for want of which his statement is lame. After the words "it is insisted" he ought to have said "by you," and after the words "contract of sale" he should have added “for which reason you condemned trades unions.” His answer would then have been relevant-- so would our reply, and the issue would have been properly joined. He did not insert the words which we have italicized because neither they nor anything like them were to be found in our article. If he reads it again he will find that the earlier part of it is an express justification of trades unions for imposing on the contract of hiring restrictions which are not known and would be very burdensome in a contract of sale. We say in so many words, "If on the whole the terms described by Mr. Harrison are those on which the mass of the workmen deliberately wish to work, it is impossible to say that there is anything either illegal or positively immoral in their insisting on them." We carefully guarded ourselves against saying that labour ought to be sold on the same terms as houses or coats. It would, indeed, have been mere nonsense to say so. No two things are sold on the same terms. A horse which costs £10 is sold on different terms from one which costs £20. We said that in each case there was a contract, a transfer of a commodity, which we defined as "an advantage, something profitable or desirable," for valuable consideration. We said that the principles regulating the transfer of each class of advantage were the same, although of course the terms on which they were transferred might differ indefinitely. We also showed that the three distinctions which Mr. Harrison pointed out between the two classes of contracts were merely accidental.

If this looks like verbal controversy, we have only to observe that, words being the only vehicles of thought, verbal controversy appears to us important and beneficial, especially when the opposite party to the controversy is an honest and patient thinker, like Mr. Harrison.  That which cannot be stated so as to bear verbal discussion has not yet been thought out. Leaving this, however, we will try to state broadly what is the difference between Mr. Harrison and ourselves, and to show that our view is in no degree inconsistent with the strongest regard for the interests of working men. We cordially agree with Mr. Harrison in the opinion that a prudent man entering into a contract of hiring will introduce many more terms into his contract than a prudent man entering into a contract of sale. For instance, a governess or secretary would be vise to contract not merely for the payment of a certain sum of money, but for certain arrangements as to meals and lodging. We also think that when the contract of hiring is made, certain duties, in some cases legal and in other cases moral, arise out of the relation of the parties, although their discharge does not form a term of the contract. Thus the master is (as Mr. Harrison says) under a legal duty to fence dangerous machinery, and under a moral duty not to permit his servant to expose himself to certain risks. We further think that where the relation of master and servant exists between good people, it naturally produces, after a time, sentiments which go far beyond the limits both of law and of positive morality. For instance, a master would be a great brute if he let an old and faithful servant go to the workhouse; and we should not think much of a servant who left a kind master after many years as soon as he saw his way to a slight advantage in the way of increased wages. In conformity with these principles we think that employers of labour are under a moral obligation to consider most anxiously the terms on which they contract with their labourers, to take great care that those terms are neither morally nor physically injurious to them, and to sacrifice their own money interests for that purpose. Money so sacrificed appears to us to be one of the noblest forms of charity possible in the present state of society. We think that when the contract is made the master is under a moral obligation to do much more for his workmen than is contained in the contract. He ought to provide whatever means are required to make his employment physically and morally wholesome to all persons employed in it, young and old. Lastly, we think that over and above this, both masters and servants ought to regard each other with feelings of regard and confidence; they ought to take a pride in their common undertaking, and to have something of that esprit de corps, which belongs to a school or a regiment.

If these concessions-- if he regards them in that light-will satisfy Mr. Harrison, there is no difference between us; but his article led us to believe, rightly or wrongly, that they would not. According to our view the relation between master and servant, involving, as it does, all such relations as we have described, and many others, is nevertheless founded ultimately upon contract, and its great leading feature, namely, the amount of wages paid, is and ought to be determined by the principle of sale, or supply and demand. The reason why a man pays his nurse-who has lived in the family forty years, has brought up all the children, and is as much attached to them all as her master and mistress-- £25 a year, and not £100, is simply that £25 a year is the market price of her services. The kindest and best masters act in this way. If they did not, they would spoil their servants, and there would be no independence in the relationship between them. We will give Mr. Harrison a real case which will illustrate our meaning. A barrister's clerk applied to his master, with whom he had lived from his childhood, to raise his wages, because he wanted to marry. His master said, "If I raised your wages beyond their market value, merely because you want to marry, I should make you absolutely dependent on me, and if I died or left the profession you would be thrown into great distress. Find out for me what you could get elsewhere, or what other clerks in your circumstances get, and I will give you that and something over." The bargain was readily struck on these terms to the satisfaction of both parties.

We understood Mr. Harrison article, or rather some parts of it (for particular expressions looked the other way), to be meant to deny that the relation between master and servant ought to be a relation of contract at all, or at least of contract determined in the main by the principle of supply and demand; and we showed that any such view must destroy one of two principles-- the principle of personal freedom or the principle of private property. If he means only that the terms of the contract require careful adjustment, and that important moral relations not included in those terms grow out of the relation when it has been constituted, we not only do not deny it, but we never yet met with or heard of any one who did. Communism, or bargains more or less gilded by generosity and a sense of moral obligations, are the only principles on which the relations between master and servant can be based. The defect of Mr. Harrison’s article appeared to us to be that he had too much sense to embrace the one conclusion, and not quite logic enough to embrace the other. It is hard to sit between two stools.

We have dwelt on this matter at length because of its vast importance, but we are well aware that the conclusion just expressed neither is nor ought to be welcome.  Communism for many reasons is out of the question.  Bargain does in fact tend in very many cases to extreme harshness.  The generous philanthropic employer will always be an exceptional person.  The obligations which law can safely superadd to contracts of hiring are few and slight.  The obligations which positive morality can superadd to it are vauge, and have a sanction so weak as to be nearly inefficient.  Is there, then, no remedy for the evils which Mr. Harrison and his friends feel so keenly, and which it is highly honourable to them to feel?  We think that there is, and that no one knows it better than themselves.  Get the working men to become capitalists themselves, or to avail themselves of the competition between capitalists for investment.  The Rochdale pioneers, the French co-operative builders, and a score of other enterprises for which Mr. Harrison knows the details far better than we, afford the true solution of the question how to raise the condition of the labouring class.  We quite agree in the opinion that this is the great problem of the age, and we do not despair of seeing considerable progress made towards its solution; but whatever progress is made must be founded on the principles of human nature and human society.  These principles make it impossible for men to get advantages without  paying a price for them as it is to lift a certain weight without exerting a certain amount of force.  Working men must earn that freedom from the tyranny of capitalists themselves.  The power of the capitalist, which no doubt is often used most inconsiderately and most oppressively, is real power, and he cannot be deprived of it without unsettling the very foundations of society; but it is open to every one to acquire a share of it, and if the magnificent qualities which are at present devoted to the support of trades unions were turned in the direction of founding co-operative associations, the working men would rapidly assume an entirely different position in the world.  They would become masters themselves without ceasing too be workmen, and would not only be richer than they are, but would be able to regulate their modes and times of working by their inclination.  Surely it is better and wiser in every respect to try to get what results you want out of the force of gravitation as it is, than to go about agitating against its mode of procedure, and depicting the terrible results which it occasionally produces.

Pall Mall Gazette, December 8, 1865.

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