The Institutionalization of a Market in Labor
The restrictions on the level of wages which had proven so useful to British employers during the genesis of capitalist relations of production were thrown aside but a few generations later. To be sure, the statutory rates of wages could restrain pay increases. Under altered circumstances, however, they also limited wage reductions. Since the employment relation did not arise through free contract, masters could be required to support dependent laborers both when there was work to be done and when there was not. The employing class that had once welcomed legal intrusions to bind and discipline workers came to find the limitations on their purchase of labor power odious. "The Statutes for regulating wages and the price of labour," wrote Dean Tucker in 1757, "are another absurdity and a very great hurt to trade. Absurd and preposterous it must surely appear for a third person to attempt to fix the price between buyer and seller without their own consents. . . . How can any stated regulations be so contrived as to make due and reasonable allowance for plenty or scarcity of work, cheapness or dearness of provisions, difference of living in town or country?" By the time Tucker and others, including textile entrepreneurs, had formulated their criticisms, however, regulation was becoming superfluous. As the landholdings of wage earners shrank, they became increasingly dependent on wage labor for their subsistence and unable to withhold their labor from the marketplace. To curb wages, manufacturers could rely on the coercive power of the market alone.
The statutory rating of wages had weakened in some trades when the eighteenth century commenced; by the middle of the century it was moribund in many branches, though not forgotten. The system, Sir John Clapham judged, "died harder than historians used to think—and the memory of it did not die." In the textile trade, as ever the leading department of manufacture, the assessment of wages by the justices became ever more difficult as the varieties of weaving proliferated in response to market enticements. The surviving records do not let investigators date the demise of wage assessments for cloth production with precision. In the West Riding of Yorkshire the steady enforcement of assessments faded after 1732. In Gloucestershire, the clothiers generally ignored the rating of wages issued in 1728. With the slow disappearance of assessments to guarantee minimum earnings, the judicial rationale for compel-
ling idle laborers to work for any farmer or tradesperson needing help also faded.
The changes in the institutional framework for determining the price of labor established the background for a momentous change in the appreciation of labor as a marketable ware. During the first century of liberal commercialism in Britain, the belief persisted that workers delivered their labor only under the compulsions of law and hunger. Many enterprises in pottery, mining, and textiles bound their laborers by servile terms of indenture that held them to the same employer for terms of one to twenty years. After the middle of the eighteenth century, employers began to rely upon cash rather than coercive stipulations to secure labor. The opinion slowly and tentatively took hold that workers could be stimulated to work harder by the promise of higher earnings. It required several decades for this viewpoint to become general. By 1776 Adam Smith was able to draw upon it confidently. "Where wages are high," Smith observed, "accordingly, we shall always find the workmen more active, diligent, and expeditious, than where they are low." Indeed, some eighteenth-century employers came to worry that if laborers were remunerated according to the quantity of their output, they would overexert themselves and ruin their constitutions. By the time Smith set down his thoughts, the Statutes of Elizabeth that had mandated terms of apprenticeship as a requisite for legal exercise of ancient craft occupations were dead letters. Labor power was belatedly christened as a commodity.
But under what name? The employment of wage labor was assimilated to the prior notion of labor sold as it was embodied in the product of an independent artisan. Strange to say, this continuity is illustrated most vividly in what may otherwise appear to be an historical rupture: the issuance of Smith's Wealth of Nations. Smith's formulations about the efficiency of the market may have recast the field of high theory, but his portrayal of labor rested upon the appropriation of simple, long-standing ideas from social practice.