This section is from the "The Science Of Wealth" book, by Amasa Walker.
Although wages rise and fall with the general rise and fall of commodities, they do not in equal proportion. The fact is one of common observation; but the reason of this difference we do not recollect to have seen stated by any writer. For nearly all products there is both an actual and speculative, or a present and prospective, demand: for labor there is only an actual, present demand. When business begins to be particularly prosperous, there is a general demand for all kinds of merchandise, and prices gradually begin to improve. This at once occasions a speculative demand; for to buy will be to realize an advance: the larger the purchases, the greater the amount of profits. Every operation pays. The rise continues until every article bought and sold as merchandise goes up to the highest point.
But no one speculates in wages. No one can, if he would, buy a hundred thousand dollars' worth of labor, and hold it for an advance, as he can of flour, sugar, or tea. Of course, labor has no advantage from this kind of demand, but must rely entirely on that which is immediate and actual. Therefore it is that a general rise of prices, so far as occasioned by speculation, must always operate against the laborer, or the person employed on salary or wages.
But wages not only never rise so much as commodities, but do not rise so soon. The reason is, that the rise of commodities is greatly accelerated by speculation; while labor, as before stated,- is not affected by that kind of demand. Hence it does not begin to rise until speculation has engendered a spirit of extravagance and increased consumption; then wages make an advance about half as great, on an average, as that of merchandise in general.
And, again, wages fall sooner than merchandise, because the latter may be held for high prices, if need be. The fall of merchandise is broken by the disposition and ability of the owner to hold on, and, as far as possible, prevent loss; but the laborer cannot do this,—he must sell his commodity at once for the most it will bring.
It is for those obvious reasons that wages, in times of depression, must fall, not only sooner, but lower, than property in general.
A real rise or fall in wages is a matter difficult to ascertain with certainty. Fluctuations, since the introduction of mixed currency, have been frequent and violent, not in the rate of wages only, but of those commodities upon which the laborer subsists, and in which his real wages must be estimated. To determine whether actual value wages have advanced or not since the commencement of the present century, for example, we must have the nominal rates, say, in 1810, also in 1860. We must then take the prices of commodities at the two periods; and, by comparison, we may arrive at a general conclusion. We should, undoubtedly be satisfied that there has been a decided increase in the average value of wages. In our investigation, we should find that some articles were higher and some lower in price in 1860 than fifty years before. For example, while one dollar per day for labor was probably as high wages in 1810 as one dollar and a half in 1860, corn was worth the same at each end of the half-century; but cotton cloth, which was worth forty cents a yard in 1810, could be bought in 1860 for ten cents. In all manufactured articles, the difference is against the earlier labor; so that it is true the laborer of to-day enjoys many comforts to which his predecessors could not aspire. The wants of the laborer have immensely increased. It would be impossible to give an inventory of them; but, could we compare the consumption of those classes in 1810 with their consumption in 1860, we should find the advance surprising. The amount expended for pleasure-travel, for example, by this class is immense, while fifty years ago it was hardly appreciable. So of the luxury of newspapers, magazines, &c. Some part of the expenditures of the poorer classes are for articles (like photographs) which were absolutely unknown a generation since.
Workmen may be less satisfied with their compensation now than fifty years ago; but it is really far greater. We do not say they have no cause for complaint, yet they are vastly better off than those who went before them. Wages, when realized in commodities, have increased. The general product has been enlarged by the introduction of labor-saving machinery, and therefore their absolute share is greater. Whether their relative share, as compared with that of the capitalist or employer, is greater, we shall find place elsewhere to discuss.*
The laborer suffers nothing, but gains much, in the progress of civilization, if he is not despoiled by an unsound currency. That is his greatest oppressor, because his real wages — what he obtains in commodities for his labor — is determined to a considerable extent by the character of the circulating medium of the country. If the value of that, or its purchasing power, is less than it professes to be, he cannot fail to be injured by it.