The Worker’s Hire

“They hang the man, and flog the woman,
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leave the greater felon loose
Who steals the common from the goose.

The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who takes things that are yours and mine.
The poor and wretched don’t escape
If they conspire the law to break;
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law.
They hang the man, and flog the woman,
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back.”
Anon., The Goose and the Common
The Tolpuddle Martyrs formed a union because their plummeting wages barely kept body and soul together.  It wasn’t that farmers couldn’t afford to pay their labourers more; they just chose to keep the money to themselves in an era of over-supply of labour brought on by mechanisation.
Today, the idea of a ‘Living Wage’ is still alive and not-so-well.  The phrase is one that was being used over 80 years ago by the Independent Labour Party (not the same as the Labour Party), who made it the first item in their 1928 political programme.  The alternative to a living wage is what exactly?  In a society with any sort of conscience (or a reasonable fear of crime), the alternative is to make up the gap between wages and the cost of living through social security payments to those in work.  What that means is that well-run businesses that can afford to pay decent wages pay tax to subsidise the labour costs of badly-run businesses that can’t or won’t.  If you’re a businessman, why should you be paying for somebody else’s workforce?  They work for him, not you.
Do minimum wages destroy jobs by imposing demands the market cannot bear?  The point of a minimum wage isn’t to make it more difficult for employers to take on labour, even though that may be a consequence.  It’s to reduce the burden on taxpayers generally that is caused by allowing specific employers to take on labour at below true cost.  (Miliband’s call this month for tax breaks for employers who pay a living wage is flawed for this reason: the public purse still suffers.)
Depressingly, none of this is new.  In 1795 the Justices of the Peace for Berkshire met in Quarter Sessions at The Pelican Inn, Speenhamland, near Newbury.  They decided to raid the rates to supplement the wages paid by the local farmers, thereby staving off the threat of revolution.  The amount of the subsidy depended upon the price of corn and the size of the labourer’s family.  The ‘Speenhamland system’ had already been trialled in some parishes and was soon copied by parish after parish across southern England (it was never very common further north).  The results, predictably, were a large increase in the poor rate, improvident marriages, and a general pauperisation of the agricultural labourers.
Another similar scheme was the roundsman system, where the farmers employed paupers in turn and the parish subsidised their low wages.  In other districts farmers agreed to employ a certain quota of paupers according to the rateable value of their property (a system known as the labour rate).  Farmers, naturally, preferred subsidised pauper labour to the labour of free men because it was cheaper.  The independent labourers were frequently dismissed and in time became paupers too.  Folk grew accustomed to accepting relief, and demoralisation spread.  Malthus, whose famous essay on population was published in 1798, condemned outdoor relief as leading to an over-populated countryside.
Farmers as a class suffered too because of the heavy burden of the poor rate.  Moreover, while the guaranteed income prevented malnutrition and thus appeared to maintain productivity, it also removed labour market competition – and any incentive to work harder for the farmer’s benefit – and in this respect caused productivity to decline.  The result was the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834that replaced outdoor relief with the workhouse.  (In fact, in southern England a great deal of outdoor relief continued to be granted to able-bodied folk, which is one reason why Chartism never took hold in Wessex.)
Regulating wages by law has a long history, maximum wages being as likely a theme as minimum ones, though always for occupations at the bottom of the social scale and never for those at the top.  In the aftermath of the Black Death, for example, the Statute of Labourers 1351 sought to force wages back to pre-plague levels.  (It was never going to work, as supply was far less than demand and the labourers had never had it so good.)
An incomes policy that aims to be fair should treat wages and welfare holistically.  It shouldn’t rob efficient businesses to pay inefficient ones.  Nor should it allow low-wage employers to avoid contributing to the top-up by moving their tax affairs offshore.  International companies incapable of honest accounting shouldn’t just be fined: they shouldn’t be permitted to go on trading here.  We have plenty of our own folk capable of replacing them.
An incomes policy that aims to be fair shouldn’t tackle child poverty in ways that create incentives to have large families that others then fund.  Large families, often a burden on the taxpayer, are always a burden on the planet and we cannot expect responsibility from the Third World if we do not set an example.
An incomes policy that aims to be fair should recognise that when the London regime tells Wessex that we need hyper-growth in population to drive prosperity up, the reality is that a larger workforce competing for jobs will drive wages down.  Jobs can only expand in line with population if environmental resources are degraded at an accelerated rate.
History confirms all of this, but we don’t want to know about the past, do we?  We’d rather auto-pilot on raw emotions.  The truth is that past generations have responded to the very same emotions in sometimes disastrous ways.
But there is new ground to be broken.  Many schemes have been devised for income redistribution, including a basic income for all, in effect paying everyone what is currently paid only to the poor.  Why has it not been tried?  Is it because it demonstrably wouldn’t work?  (It long worked for child benefit, and small-scale experiments confirm its practicality.)  Or is it because its revolutionary potential is all too real?
Payments could be funded from a progressive income tax, an inheritance tax, a land value tax, or, if the idea of public ownership is successfully rehabilitated, from the returns on natural monopolies as a ‘social dividend’.  More radically still, new money could be issued directly to individuals instead of to banks, who would have to rely on attracting deposits to gain access to it.  The savings in administrative costs could be huge.  Tax and social security systems could be integrated and simplified.  So too could utility bills, council tax and ground rents if we think radically enough.  The region can make a good case to be the best scale at which to organise such things because it aligns with the technical requirements of many of the utilities.
The moral argument is compelling: since no-one chooses to be born into our society then our society has an obligation to ensure the basics of life to all who comprise it, without discrimination.  The political argument is equally compelling: universal public education and health care have created a middle class interest in securing the best for themselves that also secures the best for others.  The same would be true of universal welfare payments.
The first section of the National Assistance Act 1948 formally abolished the despised legal status of pauper.  It’s more than a shame that today’s London politicians and the right-wing media still haven’t caught up with the fact.  Instead they argue that the dismantling of universal systems is fair because the rich cannot be made to pay towards them and the only, feeble way to get back at the rich is through means testing.  Not so.  The way to plug the gap between an increasingly powerless poor and a class of super-rich who can laugh at sovereignty is through politics – and accountancy – with teeth.  If the rich choose not to contribute to society, then society, through its definition of the property and asset-movement rights it choosesto uphold, must cease to protect them.  In short, the law must die if justice is to be born.

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