Letter – Maximum, Justice, 10th June, 1899, p.3.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Some years ago I wrote in Justice and also lectured on the subject of the indispensable need of a maximum price being fixed for all the necessaries of life as a supplement to any legislation for the shortening of hours, or still more for a minimum wage. Without this I contended such legislation must do more harm than good. My, as I thought, very obviously reasonable proposal, was almost universally given the cold shoulder to, in the movement. I was reminded on one side of the fact that wages do not necessarily and in all cases enter into price, which, even if it were true, would not alter the fact that other things being equal, i.e., in general, they do.
The obstacles in the way of carrying out a law of maximum were further enlarged upon, the objectors being oblivious of the circumstance that it had already been done in history, and that the difficulties of enforcing a legal limit of hours in many industries is for obvious reasons infinitely greater. It was yet further declared to be absolutely unnecessary as eight hours, with perhaps a minimum wage, would assuredly solve all difficulties.
In short a nervous horror of the idea of a maximum displayed itself, which I could only attribute to a survival of the influence of the old laissez-faire theory in the otherwise emancipated minds of Socialistic economists. That men who could laugh at the Cobden-Bright school objections to state interference with the conditions of free-contract where the sale of labour-power was concerned should suddenly develop a sense of the impotency or prejudicial effect of State-interference touching the sacred region of exchange in the products of labour – in commodities – struck me as a curious psychological phenomenon.
Events have been unexpectedly quick in giving a practical justification of my contention. In New Zealand, as we all know “Socialistic legislation,” has for some years past been the order of the day. A legal eight hours day has been in operation in most industries for some time, while, recently, a minimum wage has been introduced into various trades with the inevitable result that in spite of shortened hours, higher wages, and other advantages, the workman finds it increasingly hard to make two ends meet. In the trades concerned, the price of commodities, we are told, has already, risen more than proportionately to the rise in wages, and, as we are further informed, as new trades are being “roped in”, “the cost of living is still rising,” The Auckland Observer states that “the outlook for the workman who has a family of growing lads to push forward in the world is rapidly thickening.”
All this might have been foreseen. “Socialistic legislation,” as we know, is not Socialism, but most Socialists are in favour of such legislation in some form or shape, as a “stepping-stone.” Now, it cannot be too strongly impressed upon all such that the present illogical way of carrying out this legislation must inevitably tend to discredit it. And such illogicality must continue to obtain so long as the rags of old Cobden-Brightism still cling to those concerned to the extent that, while convinced of the beneficence of State-regulation of the conditions of labour, they draw back at the idea of the State-regulation of prices. The sooner they recognise that a legal maximum of price for the necessaries of life is the sine qua non of successful “labour legislation” the better, “in my humble judgement” (as a friend of ours would say) – Yours fraternally,
E. Belfort Bax
Last updated on 25.5.2004