A Workingman's Word on Over-Production

I WANT to say a word upon one of the urgent topics of the hour; a word which could be better said by another,—for I have had all too little training in the art of expression, — but to the saying of which my experience peculiarly urges me. I was driven into the machine-shop when thirteen years old, and have been held there until now I have passed full a quarter of a century as a worker for daily wages. I have had my share of the vicissitudes of the times. I do not stand among the least skillful or trustworthy of mechanics, and yet for years now I have not found the opportunity to earn at my trade the means of a decent and comfortable subsistence, and my heart has ached in view of the privation and suffering which industrious and worthy men, and those dear as life to them, have had to endure under the stern grip of circumstance.

The ages have scarcely produced a more helpless and pitiable object than a man out of work in the midst of our roaring century. To such a one, or to one over whom such a fate seems impending, over-production is apparently a self-evident, as it certainly is a terrible inference. No one who would understand the present state of affairs, and especially no one who is in any measure a shaper of other men’s thoughts, can safely ignore the thorough fright and desperation of the workingman in the presence of this gigantic bugbear, To comprehend how completely the fear of over-production has taken possession of the minds of workingmen, we may note how perfect a key it is to the interpretation of every distinctive workingman’s “movement.” To check the advance of this towering terror is the motive of their every proposition. The workingman depends upon the labor of his hands to obtain for him every good, but over-production is suggesting to him that his opportunities are hopelessly circumscribed. The hope of advancement, which was once with him a strong incentive, is gone ; he cannot even hope long to hold his own. Circumstances have narrowed about him, until, so to speak, he can no longer use his fins, and. like a fish in a water-pipe, he is borne helplessly down by the current.

Many, blindly following the lead of this idea, attain to positions as absurd as they are pitiable. It has been argued to me personally, and in all sincerity, that even those who live upon the vices of the people, in so far as they are therefore not competitors for the work which is already insufficient for the workers, are a help and a blessing.

Holding such a conviction very distinctly, the workingman is impelled by the instinct of self-preservation to oppose the tendency of the times with all his strength and persistence. The tradesunion attempts to limit the number of apprentices in any given trade, and thereby hopes to keep down the number of competing workmen. It attempts in the shops to limit the amount that a man may do for a day’s work. It would reduce the hours of daily labor. So the workingman’s party opposes all productive convict labor, because it competes with paid labor. The national labor party lately proposed that government should print a vast amount of greenbacks, and pay them out for constructing various public works, as a way of “ making work ” for workingmen.

So far as I know, propositions of this character constitute the whole of the workingman’s wisdom upon the subject. But if the danger be really so great as he honestly believes it, is it not evident that these are all temporizing and contemptible expedients against it? Even the indefinite extension of our foreign trade, of which we have now some glimmering hopes, carries with it a promise of lasting help scarcely less illusory. We must eventually diffuse our methods where we diffuse our products, and then we shall be as bad off as ever, so far as that assistance is concerned. We have been trying quack specifics for a cure which can be brought about only by a radical change of life.

If over-production be the terrible fact, machinery is as clearly the cause of it. But machinery is human success. It is the accomplishment, still but partial, of the life-long purpose of the race. It wrests from nature as much as possible of material good at as little cost as possible of human exertion. To check its action is simply not to use what we have toiled long to attain. It is a ripened fruit of the tree of knowledge, whose roots are in primeval soil, and it were indeed unwise to cast it from us, or to let it rot on our hands, instead of filling ourselves with its lusciousness.

The joy of the worker, too, is not a thing to be lightly taken from him. What is life worth to me if I must hereafter aim to do as little as possible of whatever I undertake ? What of health or vigor may I know if I must always crawl at a snail’s pace? I count it not less than a misfortune to a man that he may not swing to the full reach and strength of it the faculty which for the time he is using. Over-production is a false landmark. The road which, in sight of it, we are laying out for ourselves is a most unsatisfactory one, and the view ahead, if we look straight and far, is gloomier still. The way is so bad that there must be a better.

Double-entry is of great service as a preventive of errors in accounts, and is a necessity in recording the transactions of any extensive business. Why will not men more generally keep their ideas by double-entry? Over-production affords a striking illustration of its applicability. While over-production apparently expresses what is meant with satisfactory precision, it is merely a relative term, and it at best expresses but a single relation of an extensive fact. There is a correlative term equally applicable to precisely the same facts, but referring to other relations and suggesting a very different view of the sequences of events; and if we can learn to employ the two terms instead of the one, they will together open to our view a wider field in which to choose the path of our progress.

We hear much on every hand concerning over-production, but we hear little anywhere of under-consumption. What workingman, or, indeed, who of any class, habitually remembers the reciprocal relation which he holds ? When we make the debit entry, who of us are equally careful to make the corresponding credit entry? Let the workingman who is so troubled about over-production consider his relations as a consumer also, and he may see that he is a shaper of circumstance even as others are, and that he is not so helpless and abject as he has been in the habit of thinking himself. I gather from the self - styled “workingmen’s” papers that there is but one perfect tiling in this world: the blamelessness and innocence of the working classes is the only thing without a flaw. “ The king can do no wrong ” was the doctrine of the olden time; but the doctrine of to-day, taught him at least by implication and by suggestive silence, is that the workingman can do no wrong. Yet in the face of it I venture to probe my fellows with a searching practical question. Let every one who complains that sufficient remunerative employment is not provided for him ask himself whether he does, or whether in better times he did, so use his own earnings as best to provide work for others. I do not know why that is not a perfectly fair and proper question, although I doubt not I actually surprise some workingmen by suggesting it. If there be any obligation of support, it is certainly a mutual one, and that is how I would have it. The workingman has the power, in natural and peaceful ways, of directing the relative tendencies of supply and demand, and by a wise and wide use of that power of enhancing the value of his services. The value of a man’s labor, or its ability to purchase the results of another man’s labor, is determined by two distinct considerations. The practical value of a man’s wages varies: first, with the ratio which his labor bears to the total labor of the people; and, secondly, with the ratio which the product of his labor bears to the total consumption. Let the consumption of the world be fixed ; then, if we increase the product of the worker, as machinery has done, the relative value of the individual product is lessened. If the product of the world be fixed and the consumption of the world increased, the relative value of the product, and so of the ability to produce, is increased. The value of a man’s labor varies directly with the consumption, and inversely with the production, of the world.

If, then, we can but maintain the due ratio of consumption to production, the same number of people in the world may have and enjoy much as well as they may enjoy little ; and in the use of the much instead of the little, in the fuller and larger life of all the people, is the true intent and the practical realization of progress, The workingman looks every way but upward; and yet upward is the way of safety, and the one way toward which circumstances urgently beckon him. Our wisdom has been at fault in that we have dealt with but one of the two elements of labor value. While we have been trying, by puny and contemptible methods, to check the current of production, we have paid little attention to consumption, allowing it to stand unchanged, or witnessing with unconcern instances of actual retrogression. The promise of succor for the workingman appears to me to lie in his working at the other end of the line. The promotion of a wider and healthier consumption, and of the fuller life which it implies, and not a compulsory reduction of production, is the thing to be attempted. The workingman holds the consumption end of the chain of life with a far more commanding grasp than he does the production end of it. A man must take what work he can get, and follow it steadily ; his production is closely limited by circumstances, and he can do little either to increase or diminish it. But the expenditure of every cent of his wages involves some choice as to the channel in which it shall be spent, and every change of expenditure makes a difference as to the amount of consumption involved in or promoted by it.

The necessity of a broader popular education may be enforced by higher Considerations than those which we have got the habit of urging for it. Perhaps what wo esteem our weightiest reason for desiring a better education for the masses is in the increased security which it promises the state, by securing to her in each educated man a more law-abiding citizen. But education is growth: the educated man is a man of larger appetite; he draws more vigorously of all the good things of life; he reaches out after and enjoys more of the appliances of culture; he uses more of the world’s products; he is a greater consumer. Wo find in workingmen as markedly as in any class this difference, due to the various degrees of their development. Of men working side by side in the shop and earning equal wages, there is a vast discrepancy in the scope of their expenditure, and in the good which it is made to yield them. Can we for a moment think of them each as giving equal stimulus to the productive forces of the country? The struggle for respectability; the keeping up of appearances, as the. stereotyped phrase is, — the keeping up of facts, rather, — against formidable obstacles; the heroic upholding of a home where love and truth and purity shall dwell secure, where taste and knowledge shall increase, is worthy of all honor. They of the humbler classes who would maintain and indeed advance the standard of our home life against all opposing forces are in truth, though they perhaps know it not, the patriots of today; and in them, if anywhere, is the hope and promise of our restoration.

It will be well for the world to remember that the workingman is to bo led, even as other men are. There is a trace of human nature remaining in him, and there is a directing power in the example and sympathy of other men by which, in part consciously, and in part unconsciously, his course is modified. The broad plan of a man’s life and the elaboration of its details are determined by what he thinks of himself, what others think of him, and, as important as either, what he thinks that they think of him; and he who is wise and seeking the good of all will aim to treat all with just consideration. It is not a little thing for one man to lose his influence among his fellows; but when a class despises and throws away, or when it transforms and reverses, its influence upon another class, the evil is a serious one. The selfrespect of the workingman, bracing him to rectitude and widening the range of his necessities, is an important industrial factor; and they who, from whatever motive, or lack of motive, do aught to diminish it, or to weaken his honest pride, not only wrong him, but strike at the national life a blow whose force recoils upon themselves. The workingman needs good advice, of course; but he needs sympathy and appreciation more. Through the lack of these, he is driven away from some of the sources of sound information and elevating influence by which the course of this age is directed. The respectable press has less than its due weight with him. Of course he can be only a loser by it. The papers published “ in the interest of labor ” are not in the interest of intelligent thought or of fair discussion. I really do not know how to bring my convictions fairly and directly to his notice. I can only start my word as high as possible, hoping that the farther it is to sift down through the masses, the wider it may spread in its descent.

Frank Richards.