The Economics of Anarchy

A Study of the Industrial Type (1890)

by Dyer D. Lum (1839-1893)

IV. Free Labor

EA-4.1 If land were free it by no means follows that labor must needs be so likewise. The restrictions upon the exercise of our activities does not solely depend upon the monopolization of the soil; however onerous may be the toll rent, its abolition would not emancipate labor. That labor should be free is “a glittering generality” everywhere acknowledged, though why it is not is the cause of much discussion. That free access to all vacant land would open multifarious channels for labor is a self evident proposition, but such cannot be said of its ability to use such opportunity. It is estimated that one half of the area of New York City s held unused, kept vacant for a speculative increase in price, and as an inevitable result it is a city of contrasted splendor and squalor, luxurious palaces and filth-reeking tenement blocks, where wealth, ostentation, and dissipation but set off in darker relief its accompaning [sic] shade of vice, crime, and misery. That access of land would tend to empty the tenement houses of the ambitious and reduce rents for those remaining; that it would cause the utilization of the vacant space for cleaner and more healthful dwellings need not be questioned. Even those destitute of all available means would be benefitted in the lowering of rents and in the general desire to secure tenants, which would alike arise in possessors of the new and the old buildings. Again, its immediate effect upon wages would be felt, for with such opportunities opening before him the wants of the toiler would expand, and increased wages ever follow a higher standard of living. The standard of wages is not the lowest subsistence line, socialistic deductions from Ricardo’s sophism to the contrary notwithstanding, but the standard of comfort and decency, [Online editor’s note: English economist David Ricardo (1772-1823) had argued in his 1817 Principles of Political Economy and Taxation that there was a natural tendency for wages to approach the cost of production of labour, which he held to be the bare cost of keeping the labourer alive and able and willing to work; however, he also held a) that wages may be kept above this natural rate indefinitely in an improving economy, and that b) willingness to work depends in any case on cultural factors (including prevailing standards of comfort and decency). Dropping these qualifications, Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-1864) and other socialist thinkers developed Ricardo’s theory into an Iron Law of Wages according to which wages are doomed to stand forever at bare physical subsistence so long as the wage system survives. – RTL] and this is never determined by the poorest paid labor, but by the struggles of the better paid whose standard of comfort and decency is higher as their wants are more numerous, and who by their combinations and struggles drag up the inert mass to a higher level than they would unaided attain.
EA-4.2 But in this transitional industrial age the freedom of labor demands other requirements than possession of soil. John Bright once said: [Online editor’s note: Classical liberal English statesman John Bright (1811-1889), free-trade and anti-imperialist activist; the quotation is from Bright’s Glasgow University installation speech in March 1883. – RTL]
“In the City of Glasgow 41,000 families out of 100,000 families live in houses having only one room. In Scotland nearly one-third of the whole people dwell in houses of only one room.”
EA-4.4 That these families would reap in many cases direct benefit, and in every case indirect advantage from free access to vacant land is conceded, but what proportion would choose to avail themselves of the opportunity is unknown. Occupancy and use are not the same, to move on and occupy is simple, to use opportunity granted is often more difficult. Even though all land within the vicinity of their daily avocations was not utilized, the ability to turn farmer or to build would not be operative to a large number. How many artisans offered a plot of ground for immediate use could avail themselves of the opportunity? At cheaper rents they would continue on at the routine work which their lives have been devoted to acquire. The thrifty and enterprising alone would push off to avail themselves of new opportunities, but the thriftless, the spiritless, those in whom the springs of activity have been destroyed by the drudgery of factory life would cling around the factory walls. To thousands possessing even natural abilities the means to use opportunity would be lacking, there would still hover over them some impalpable obstacle to complete emancipation, inability to secure the means for building, or incapacity, for opportunity does not always work a change from injudiciousness to ability; or even when increased earnings afforded means their withdrawal would but still further intensify the distinction between the fortunate and the unfortunate, between the independent land occupier and the dependent factory drudge.
EA-4.5 It is folly to imagine all toilers leaving the mill to become independent on an acre more or less of land. The demand for products would be augmented by increased wants, and this in turn would tend to heighten wages, but the factory system would remain essentially the same, hours of labor would not necessarily be shortened, the wage-system would still dominate to curb the spirit of the toiler until in time he must either submit or emigrate. As a farmer he would be a failure. Granting all that can be said of the indirect benefits of lower rents and higher wages, still labor would not be free as long as other causes existed by which ability to use did not equal opportunity to possess land. Even with rent largely reduced, the incubus of interest would still press heavily upon labor , for upon its shoulders all burdens are eventually shifted; and interest, so zealously defended by Henry George, would remain even under the freedom of land “limited” of his school. Following interest there is its sequence – profits left undisturbed. If the standard of comfort generally recognized as necessary and decent for poor workers determines the point below which wages will not fall, the higher standard of comfort required for “wages for superintendence” and the profit monger[s] in boulevard mansions will still prevent wages for drudgery from reaping aught at the expense of profits. Then taxation remains to defend the claims of privilege, to secure undisturbed the standard of comfort of profit mongers and protect the speculative value of property created but not owned by the drudges. Even if taxation were of the single-tax species, where increasing social desire for “public baths, museums, gardens, lecture rooms, music and dancing halls, theatres, universities, technical schools, shooting galleries, play grounds, gymnasiums, etc.” to say nothing of “roads lined with fruit trees”, and the “thousand ways” public ends could be subserved by “direction”, it would increase appraisement and certainly would not lessen the supply the public cow could be milked to yield. [Online editor’s note: Whatever source Lum is quoting (presumably by Henry George) is evidently to be found reprinted in the 1901 Sunset Club. – RTL]
EA-4.6 Free labor will never be attained under any instituted system wherein what George calls “direction” guides and administers for it; neither can it possibly result under Nationalism wherein compulsory enlistment is relied upon to secure supply for demand to clean sewers and domestic service, subject to draft when this proves unavailing. Labor free to use free land can only result when all restrictions upon industrial activity shall have been swept away, when it can obtain full reward for exertion without meeting enforced toll from any other source whatever, where wages for toiling for another equal wages in working for self. Destroying one head of the Cerberus Privilege, [Online editor’s note: In Greek mythology Cerberus was the three-headed dog who guarded the entrance to the underworld. – RTL] which constitutes our present industrial system, gives no security that the remaining mouths of the once triple-headed beast will not consume as much as ever, and bite as hard and devour as well as before.
EA-4.7 It is this ability that labor requires, with less emancipation will not be fulfilled. Let us look farther and see some of the restrictions which would still remain to remove before labor would be indeed free and be able to apply itself untrammeled to production.

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