‘A Certain Quantity of Labour to be Performed’

The Moral Philosophers’ Stone: A Compleat History of ‘A Certain Quantity of Labour to be Performed’

Two weeks ago Back in 2011 a hunch about Charles Dickens and Edward Carleton Tufnell led me to the discovery of what I surmised might be the prototype of the idea that has come to be known to economists as “the lump of labor.” To my surprise, it was a subtle and articulate defense by a fairly prominent early 19th-century political economist of the proposition that “…there is a certain quantity of work to be done; and this quantity, generally speaking, does not admit of being much extended, merely on the temptation of labour being offered at a cheaper rate…”

The author was the Scottish church leader, Thomas Chalmers, whose neglected 1808 treatise on “the Extent and Stability of Natural Resources” has been described by A. M. C. Waterman as a “missing link” between T. R. Malthus and David Ricardo. Chalmers’s later article appeared in the May 1820 issue of the Edinburgh Review, the flagship journal of Whig political economy.

Alas, my Eureka moment was destined to be short-lived, however, because one week later, while searching the Goldsmiths’-Kress archives for a quote from James Phillips Kay’s The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes Employed in the Cotton Manufacture in Manchester, I discovered an even more venerable specimen in a pamphlet signed “A Friend of the Poor” but attributed to a gentleman with the picturesque handle of Dorning Rasbotham, Esq. The 1780 pamphlet, “Thoughts on the Use of Machines in the Cotton Manufacture,” was written in response to disturbances occasioned by the introduction of Richard Arkwright’s spinning jenny. The following passage contains the tell-tale phrase, “a certain quantity of labour to be performed” and pronounces the alleged principle false:

There is, say they, a certain quantity of labour to be performed. This used to be performed by hands, without machines, or with very little help from them. But if now machines perform a larger share than before, suppose one fourth part, so many hands as are necessary to work that fourth part, will be thrown out of work, or suffer in their wages. The principle itself is false. There is not a precise limited quantity of labour, beyond which there is no demand. Trade is not hemmed in by great walls, beyond which it cannot go. By bringing our goods cheaper and better to market, we open new markets, we get new customers, we encrease the quantity of labour necessary to supply these, and thus we are encouraged to push on, in hope of still new advantages. A cheap market will always be full of customers.

Now, “a certain quantity of work to be done” was part of the dictionary definition of the verb, to task, that is, to assign a person to perform a certain amount (and kind) of work within a particular time and place. It is useful to keep this definition in mind because the difference between Rasbotham’s “certain quantity of labour” and Chalmers’s “certain quantity of work” commences in a not-so-subtle shift from an indefinite abstract possibility to a finite empirical fact. But the latter fact is not some crude, static “assumption” — it is a theoretically-refined empirical prediction, which takes into account both the abstract indefiniteness and the practical constraints upon realizing that theoretical potential.

In terms of both chronology and demonstrated familiarity with the “founding fathers” of classical political economy, Chalmers must be presumed to have an edge over Rasbotham. This is not to say that he is necessarily right, only that it would be presumptuous to dismiss his claim peremptorily — to “view [it] with contempt,” as Paul Krugman put it.

In modern terms, the second part of Chambers’s sentence — “…this quantity, generally speaking, does not admit of being much extended, merely on the temptation of labour being offered at a cheaper rate…” — expresses the concept of the price elasticity of demand. In fact, Chambers uses the term, “elasticity,” to describe the phenomenon. By contrast, Rasbotham’s pamphlet deals optimistically in stark dichotomies of good versus bad effects, with the preponderance of expected benefits rendering “some little difficulty, in particular cases… a sacrifice we ought to make chearfully for the common good.”

In an 1827 essay on the progress and prospects of the British cotton industry, John Ramsay M’Culloch judged Rasbotham’s opinion as having been proven sound by the results, employment rising from less than 30,000 in 1767 to nearly a million fifty years later, concluding “There is, in fact, no idea so groundless and absurd, as that which supposes that an increased facility of production can under any circumstances be injurious to the labourers” [emphasis added]. Not under any circumstances?

continued: see The Elixir of Commerce