Equal Exchange of Labor

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Equal Exchange of Labor," New York Sentinel and Working Man's Advocate, 1, 44 (July 17, 1830), 1.

---. The Free Enquirer, 2, 39 (July 17, 1830), 308.

Equal Exchange of Labor.—In conversing lately with a gentleman from Ohio, our attention has been called to a principle which has been partially carried into effect, our informant tells us, in the city of Cincinnati—viz: the Equal Exchange of Labor.

This expression did not at first convey to us, and probably will not to many of our readers, any very distinct or definite idea. But further explanation threw more light on the subject; and, without expressing any decided opinion on the practicability or probable effects of the principle in question, we think it, at least, well worthy of careful examination.

We have already given our reasons for the opinion, that any system of reform based on a community of goods, is not calculated, (at the present time at least,) to afford relief from the oppression of riches and the degradation of poverty. It tends, indeed, to equality, but it tends also, to a curtailment of human liberty; and it demands a sacrifice not only of individual interests, but of individual independence, which in the present generation, would probably lead to idleness and consequent dissatisfaction, and in any generation, might be found to impose an unnecessary and injurious restraint on the feelings, pursuits, occupations and tastes of the individual.

Such is our opinion of the Community System, as it has been called. We cannot perceive that it is practicable.—We wish we could; for it has much that is in accordance with the best feelings of our nature, and much that is attractive to the friends of equal liberty to recommend it. But we do not see its practicability; nor do we see, that, if practicable, it would leave sufficient scope for the free exercise of those varieties of individual character, which give to society much of its pleasure and interest.

The principle advocated by our Cincinnati informant seem to us, (from a cursory view of it,) at once more practicable, and more in accordance with the spirit of individual freedom. He proposes no association, no society, no general rules to apply to all characters, however dissimilar, and to all tastes, however opposed. He proposes only, that, by gradual and voluntary consent, men should agree, in all their commercial intercourse with each other, to buy, sell, barter or exchange, on the principle of labor for equal labor.

Thus, if any article, say a pair of shoes of a given quality, require the expense of (raw material included) say, ten hours labor of an average workman, that pair of shoes should be worth—not two dollars one day and perhaps three dollars the next, just as the market may rise or fall—but worth ten hours; and should be exchanged (among those of course, who may feel the justice of the principle, and agree to follow it out in practice,) for any other article requiring, on an average, the same number of hours to produce it.

Thus all articles would be estimated by time, not by money, silver and gold among the number.

This plan proposes the making out of a list of all the staple articles of consumption, estimating their cost in time, and affixing that time cost as their real value. If, to produce the article, much preparation (in the form of apprenticeship, college education, &c.) be indispensable, justice points out that this preparation, (as involving loss of time) should be taken into account, in making out these estimates. Our informant thinks however, that as the mysteries of all professions have hitherto greatly exaggerated the difficulties of acquiring them, the above would form but a small item in the sums total.

Our first objection to this plan was—but we will throw our objections and the gentleman’s replies into dialogue form, preserving, as near as we recollect, the exact substance of the conversation.

Objector. This proposal of yours offers no reward for superior skill and industry.

Informant. I beg your pardon. It offers the just reward for both. If a man succeeds in making, in two hours, a pair of shoes as good as another makes in twelve, he receives double for his skill and industry. If the shoes sell for ten hours, he receives ten hours for six, while his less industrious or less skilful neighbor receives only ten hours for twelve.

Objector. But, at least, you provide no adequate reward for genius and intellectual attainments

Informant. These would find their own value. Genius is seldom avaricious; and it is not a monied reward which gives the spur to the higher order of intellectual powers. It is true, that lawyers might not be able to make it appear that two hours head-work beside a desk deserves the same reward as twenty or two hundred hours of the laborer in the corn-field: but there would be no great harm in that.

Objector. But, as the whole is voluntary, a lawyer might ask in the same extravagant proportion as he does now.

Informant. Certainly, he might ask it; but only if he refused to submit to have his labor estimated according to the principle of equal exchange, and, if other men fell into the plan, and he refused to follow their example, it would afford strong presumptive evidence, that his profession is one of unjust extortion.

Objector. There is presumptive of that already.

Informant. True; but it does not sufficiently come home to men’s feelings. If a lawyer charged a thousand hours for a week’s work, while all men know, that a week (day and night included) has only a hundred and sixty-eight hours, the very sound would be startling. I think that the mere habit of so calculating would be of infinite service in producing equality of remuneration for labor.

We had many other objections, some of which lid not appear to us so satisfactorily answered but the length of our article admonishes us to conclude for the present.