What is Labor? Labor History, Labor and the Economists


Labor may be defined as the physical or mental effort of human beings for the attainment of some object other than the pleasure of the effort itself.


Source: pixabay.com

Simple as this definition is there is scarcely a word in it but what has been the subject of discussion. The popular use of the word labor restricts it to those who engage in manual toil, but this is of course too narrow. Any scientific definition must include mental effort. In modern industry brains are needed as well as muscle. Men must organize the productive forces and direct their employment along chosen lines. Upon their ability quite as much as upon the skill and strength of the manual workers, and indeed to an even greater degree, depends the success of modern enterprise. Today this concept is fully recognized and not even the most extreme socialist would deny the productive character of mental effort.

Labor is generally limited in popular usage to that of human beings but not ali economists have so defined it. Adam Smith spoke of “labouring cattle,” and said more than once that “nature labours along with man.” The Scottish economist John Ramsay McCulloch, who always exaggerated or distorted any half-truth of his intellectual father, Adam Smith, went so far as to say that no distinction should be made between the operations of domestic animals, of machinery, of nature, and of man. Labor, he said, is “any sort of action or cooperation, whether performed by man, the lower animals, machinery, or natural agents, that tends to bring about any desirable result.” Such a definition is, however, confusing rather than helpful. Today practically ali economists restrict the term labor to that of human beings. Labor means human labor.

More difficult of restriction within the ringfence of a definition is the next concept. Some writers have denied the term labor to any exertions which yield pleasure or are undertaken for the sake of the pleasure accompanying tlıem. Painful effort only is labor. Thus the English economist YVilliam Stanley Jevons wrote, “Labor, I should say, is any painful exertion of mind or body undergone partly or wholly with a view to future good.” And yet even Jevons pointed out that most forms of labor, after the initial irksomeness had been overcome, yielded distinct pleasure to the worker, a principle which the French socialist Fournier had earlier made the basis of his scheme for the organization of labor. It is impossible thus to limit the term, for it would exclude some of the highest forms of creative art or literature or even handicraft and confine it only to distasteful or painful occupapations. Indeed the same kind of exertion might at one time be called labor and at another time be denied that name. The whole psychology of labor is moreover involved in this limitation of the idea. Labor is regarded as a curse. But the purpose of economic progress and of human invention is, or should be, to lighten the burden upon labor, to associate with the performance of necessary tasks a pleasure and pride in workmanship. In its highest aspect labor should be regarded as a privilege rather than a curse.

The final notion involved in this definition is that the labor is performed for the sake of some ulterior object or some useful purpose. Quite aside from the question of whether pleas-ureable effort is entitled to the name of labor, it is contended that it must be productive. The distinction was early made between productive and unproductive labor. The physiocrats, for instance, insisted that only the work of agricul-ture was productive, the labors of manufacturers, merchants, and others being sterile. Even Adam Smith thought that the work of servants was unproductive. The modern conception, however, is that any effort which satisfies a want or creates a utility is productive—that of the actor, the fireman, or the judge, as well as that of the farmer, the miner, the cotton-spinner, or the locomotive engineer. Effort di-rected toward the rendering of some intangible or transient pleasure is held to be productive as well as that engaged in extractive industry or in fashioning some durable object. In no case does man create anything; he can never do more than change the form or the place of ma-terial things. It is, therefore, as impossible to draw a line of distinction between the labor of those engaged in raising grain and those em-ployed in serving bread at the table as it is to make a distinction between manual and mental effort.


Free and Slave Labor

Thus far only free labor has been considered, but historically prob-ably more of the work of the’ world has been performed by unfree labor than by free. Slav-ery has existed as far back as historical records go into the dim past. Indeed it has been as-serted, rather paradoxically, that the institu-tion of human slavery marked the greatest step forward that had yet been made in human progress. From an ethical standpoint slavery was certainly an improvement over cannibalism, and from an economic standpoint it marked a great advance because now for the first time there was provided a fund of labor that could be directed to steady and arduous toil. Until this time man had lived by hunting and fishing primarily; but now settled agriculture became possible, permanent homes were established, cattle domesticated, and some accumulation of property began. Primitive man did not work willingly and the compulsion of slavery fur-nished the training school in which the human race painfully and slowly learned the lessons of labor.

The question has been raised and much de-bated as to whether the course of human progress has been from a state of original freedom and equality to one of inequality and bondage, or the reverse. The view was formerly widely held that the original tribal organization early gave place to a closer union in the village com-munity, or mark. Freedom, equality of rank and possessions, and, in the case of the mark, communal ownership and cultivation of the land characterized these early communities. As a result of conquest and other forces this original state of freedom gave way to one of in-equality, both political and economic, which has persisted to this day. Modern democracy and socialism are simply efforts to restore the original and natural heritage of mankind. About 1880 however another school developed, in England and France especially, which denied the accuracy of the historical data upon which the mark theory had been built up, and gave a different explanation of the existing economic constitution of society and the position of labor. These writers denied that early societies had enjoyed freedom and communal ownership of the land, but insisted that as far back as his-tory can be traced there had always existed a system of primitive serfdom and private property. The evolution of human progress has therefore been from a condition of slavery and inequality to one of increasing freedom and equality of opportunity and possessions. Labor has progressed from bondage to freedom and is ever moving further in the same direction

Perhaps the best evidence of the growing dignity and importance, as well as the well-being of labor, is the esteem in which it has been held by economists. In this respect there has been steady progress. By the Greeks and Romans, if we may accept as typical the utter-ances of their leading philosophers, labor was held in low esteem. Artisans belonged to the lowest caste, and labor was held to be degrad-ing. Slavery was generally practiced and of course did not help to elevate the status of the free laborer. The later Roman writers, however, condemned this institution on economic grounds. The spread of Christianity led also to moral condemnation, and during the Middle Ages slavery was generally modified into serfdom, according to which the serf was bound to the soil but was personally free. Although the church taught the equality and brother-hood of man, these doctrines did not amelio-rate his condition during this period. Men’s chief intellectual interests were theological rather than economic, war absorbed the ener-gies of the ruling classes, and the primitive methods of agriculture, manufactures, and transportation as well as insecurity of life and property prevented the working classes from making any economic advances.

Labor and the Economists

The Renais-sance and the discovery of the New World brought far-reaching changes in economic institu-tions and thought. The rudimentary beginnings of a modern science of economics saw several at-tempts to define labor as part of a larger social and economic mechanism. The Mercantilists as-signed to it a position of considerable importance; John Locke, writing in 1690, asserted: “It is İabour indeed that puts the difference of value on everything.” But in the last analysis the Mercantilists stressed trade and money rather than labor.

The Physiocrats of the 18th century introduced the distinction between productive and unproduc-tive labor; according to them the only productive labor was that which added something material to the world’s stock of goods, and they then con-fined the term to work done in agriculture and in the extractive industries ; merchants and manufac-turers they considered unproductive and sterile. Thus emphasis was placed rather upon the direc-tion of labor than upon the well-being of laborers. Land and the bounty of nature were at the true center of the Physiocratic system.

Adam Smith (1723-1790) put labor in the very arch of his economic philosophy. His book, The Wealth of Nations, begins with a discus-sion of labor as the source of wealth, and its first chapter describes division of labor as a means of increasing production. The opening sentence of this book reads: “The annual İabour of every nation is the fund which originally supplies it with ali the necessaries and conveniences of life.” Labor is both the cause of value and its measure. In spite of the high position thus assigned to labor in Smith’s economic system, the practical results of his philosophy in the hands of his followers were bad. He had insisted on the need of greater freedom of enterprise and of contract, and this doctrine was erected into the principle of laissez faire by the classical school. Competition was given full sway and ali restrictive barriers were removed, inevitably producing labor’s ex-ploitation and degradation. Early in the 19th century, David Ricardo and Thomas Robert Malthus register in their writings the hopeless attitude of economists toward the problem of improving the condition of labor; this pessimism persists even in the works of John Stuart Mill (1806-1873).

Before 1900, however, a reaction was to begin. The Socialists insisted upon the rights of labor and emphasized the injustice of existing methods of distribution. The changes wrought by the In-dustrial Revolution brought many industrial re-adjustments and serious economic ills, including widespread poverty and unemployment. Increas-.ng consideration began to be given to the subject Df distribution, replacing the hitherto almost ex-clusive preoccupation with problems of production and exchange. Social reformers interested them-selves in the practical work of abolishing specific abuses. The labor movement of the 20th century oecame too important to ignore, securing from economists not only increased attention but also more sympathetic and understanding examination.


Leave A Reply