The Laborer and the Capitalist

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Joshua King Ingalls

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Twentieth Century, November 9, 1893, 7-8.

I make an apology for interfering in a discussion so ably conducted as is the one in TWENTIETH CENTURY, especially as one of the disputants is a lady, whose defense of the fortunate wealth accumulator is ingenious and unusually logical for the class apologists. Some of her positions are so self-contradictory, however, that they can hardly mislead. Mr. Boyd replies to the statement that "all laborers are capitalists," with an equally true or hypothetical statement that "all capitalists are laborers." His position that "only labor produces wealth" seems to me impregnable. It is the only logical deduction from Mrs. Dietrick’s own premises. Mr. Mallock also asserts that "what is progressive in social growth and wealth is the use of the skill and knowledge of the men by whom labor is directed," which is labor, not wealth, though knowledge and skill may be in its most exact sense capital.

Not only money but all forms of wealth produced by labor should be eliminated from the term capital, if that term is to be retained in the new economics. With its passive factor, the land, embracing the productive forces of nature, the labor capacity of brawn and brain is the only capital or source of wealth. Macleod labors to show that labor is only one incident in creating values, but instances only what he calls the "fiat of the human will," giving values caused by favoring legislation, operating through civil and canon law. He asks triumphantly: "If labor is the cause of value what is the cause of the value of labor?" and the old political economists have no reply. Evidently the value of any particular labor is the value of the useful product it has created as related to the products of the labor of others and the amount of other useful labor it can be exchanged for or command.

That wealth can reproduce wealth is a patent fallacy. The Socialist or labor reformer who admits this is off his base; for if any labor created wealth creates more wealth, then the wealth so created will, create more, and so go on in duplicate geometrical ratio, and profit, interest and rent are justified as permanent quantities of value. If a tool or machine will create more instruments of use, why should the maker of the first be deprived of what is the necessary result of his labor? To admit that "means of production" embraces the thing produced is to "give away" the labor position at the start.

And yet Mr. Boyd will find it difficult to show that a man cannot produce more with a tool than without one, and so increase his product above the cost of his subsistence. To meet this difficulty it is necessary to consider that associated effort and division of labor augments its power of production. Why wealth ever appears to the superficial observer to become productive is from this fact merely, as the use of ready produced wealth enables us to cöoperate with past labor as if it were present, and the use of credit, a lien upon future labor, makes that coöperative too. One man has cut down a tree, another has drawn it to the mill, another sawed and planed the lumber, still another has transported the lumber, and another applied it to a needed use. By this division of labor it has been made more productive than if the carpenter had performed all these labors by himself, and more even than these five men could have effected if working together in the same time and place, though such coöperation would also have its advantages over isolated effort. That all did not work on the same day does not prove that any part is not the product of labor. Had the carpenter done all this work himself in successive days no one would think there was anything but labor in the form of created use. Even were the tree of cultivated growth, the same truth applies to its production The tool which a man wears out in affecting a useful product costs him so much extra labor to procure, and necessarily is added to the labor cost of whatever is produced. The production is not caused by the tool, but by the labor procuring it. I suppose this is what Macleod means by "debt is a distinct addition to one’s capital."

The same is true of all wealth used in conservation or changed to different uses. The principle of "demand and supply " operates here between the conserved wealth of past labor and that form demanded for immediate consumption to satisfy current labor, and thus in our wage system causes fluctuation in wages. If political economy has clearly established any one principle it is that free competition constantly tends to bring all forms of production to an equilibrium in price with the labor cost. If wages are low it increases the demand for conserved wealth. This in turn begets demand for present labor. If the one form of wealth were in excess that form of wealth would diminish in its relation to the other in price. Under monopoly of land and of opportunity, demand increases as supply diminishes, and the economic reactionary effect is suspended or wholly prevented, so that the equilibriating forces no longer effect due adjustment.

Mrs. Dietrick has found, I think, one true cause of labor’s many troubles in the attempts to legislate for its protection. But she can hardly be so verdant as to suppose that protective tariffs, legal tender, specie basis and special banking laws afford more than the most shallow pretence of benefitting the worker, while designed to promote class rule and private emolument of the favored few. She must be aware that the most ostentatious show of favoring the industrial classes are but masked batteries to be turned against the wage laborer in the end. She must know that the most invasive and unjust legislation is usually waged with pathetic profession of regard for the interests of the laboring man. His deepest wrongs have been worked in the name of law and order. Thirty centuries of legislation have done little but hedge the worker’s way to freedom from the slavery to which he was reduced by barbaric war. It were useless to inquire who is most to blame for the subordination of labor, or whether the victim or victimized, would be improved by reversing positions. The eras of antagonism are declining with the extension of intelligence, and wealth is seen now to be the achievement of cooperative endeavor.

In truth, all social wealth is the creature of coöperative labor. Labor could effect no noticeable improvement in human conditions were the effort made in personal isolation and disjoined from the product of the labors of the past and the anticipated future. The only question practically arising is one of division and ownership. Shall the division to the labor of brain and brawn, of the past, present and future production of wealth, be made by a ratio of deed, of work performed, or by a rule of birth, of class, of militant dominion and of usurped privilege? Mrs. D. should choose definite ground, on the site of human right and equal freedom, or with the exclusives, the privileged "by the grace of God."

On no defensible ground can it be claimed that the present division of the products of our social industry proceeds by any ‘definite ratio to the work performed. I have wrought in a number of fields for more than three-score years, and noticed wide differences in the productive power of workers; have known one man to produce double as much as the average employé. It may have occurred that still greater differences obtained, though I have no distinct recollection of such. When one man’s wages were more than three times that of another, there was always some other reason than the discrepancy in productive power. Bearing in mind that all production of wealth is cooperative, and that landlord, speculator or banker can have no relation to it, but as laborer or exploiteur, let us examine the regime under which the capitalistic division now proceeds. To the toiler say one dollar per day, while toiling, with uncertain tenure of opportunity to work at all. To each million income of the capitalist $5.00 per minute for ten hours per day, for all the working days and one-half of the Sabbaths of the year, and which income is made permanent and perpetual by every device which interested or purchased legislation can contrive. It is difficult to comprehend how such division of a common fund can have relation to any principle of ethics or economics.