Incompetent Employers


The preceding article by John Chamberlain will serve to introduce Professor Walker. These are excerpts from the 1888 third edi­tion of his advanced course in Political Econ­omy.

Notwithstanding all the magnif­icent premiums of business suc­cess, the men of real business power are not so many but that no small part of the posts of indus­try and trade are filled by men in­adequately qualified, and who, con­sequently, have a very checkered career and realize for themselves, taking their whole lives together, a meager compensation, so meager that, for purposes of scientific rea­soning, we may treat it as consti­tuting no profits at all. Live they do, partly by legitimate toll upon the business that passes through their hands, partly at the cost of their creditors, with whom they make frequent compositions, partly at the expense of friends, or by the sacrifice of inherited means. This bare subsistence, ob­tained through so much of hard work, of anxiety, and often of humiliation, we regard as that minimum which, in economics, we can treat as nil. From this low point upwards, we measure profits.

If this view of the employing class be correctly taken, it appears that, under perfect competition, that is, where the conditions of a good market are supplied, manu­facturing profits, for instance, are not obtained through any deduc­tion from the wages of mechanical labor; and, secondly, manufactur­ing profits do not constitute a part of the price of manufactured goods.

The price of manufactured goods of any particular descrip­tion is determined by the cost of production of that portion of the supply which is produced at the greatest disadvantage. If the de­mand for such goods is so great as to require a certain amount to be produced under the manage­ment and control of persons whose efficiency in organizing and super­vising the forces of labor and capi­tal is small, the cost of production of that portion of the stock will be large, and the price will be cor­respondingly high, yet, high as it is, it will not be high enough to yield to the employers of this grade any more than that scant and difficult subsistence which we have taken as the no-profits line.

The price at which these goods are to be sold, however, will de­termine the price of the whole supply, since, in any one market, at any one time, there is but one price for different portions of the same commodity. Hence, whatever the cost of production of those portions of the supply which are produced by employers of a higher industrial grade, they will com­mand the same price as those por­tions which are produced at the greatest disadvantage. The differ­ence, so measured, will go as profits to each individual em­ployer, according to his own suc­cess in production.

Profits Not Subtracted from Wages

Do profits, then, come out of wages? Not at all. The employers of the lowest industrial grade—the no-profits employers, as we have called them—must pay wages sufficient to hire laborers to work under their direction. These wages constitute an essential part of the cost, to the employer, of the pro­duction of the goods. The fact that these wages are so high is the rea­son why these employers are un­able (their skill and power in or­ganizing and energizing labor and capital being no greater than they are), to realize any profits for themselves.

The employers of the higher in­dustrial grades will pay the same wages to their laborers. Why, in equity or in economics, should a laborer who works for a strong, prudent, and skillful master, re­ceive higher wages than one whose fortune it is to work for a vacil­lating, weak, or reckless employer? The one laborer is as efficient as the other, and works as hard. The difference in production, which enables the employer to secure a profit, is due to no superiority in the quality of the labor or the capital employed, over that of the labor and the capital employed where no profits are realized. It is due to the superior abilities or opportunities of him who conducts industry.

In the latter case, the employer, paying wages at the same rate to his laborers, and interest, at the same rate, to the capitalist, for so much as he has to borrow, and selling his goods, so far as they are of equal quality, at the same price as the employer who makes no profits, is yet able to accumu­late a clear surplus after all ob­ligations are discharged, which surplus is called profits. This is effected by his careful study of the sources of his materials; by his comprehension of the demands of the market; by his steadiness and self-control in the presence of temptations to extravagance or wild ventures; by his organizing force and administrative ability; by his energy, economy, and pru­dence.

A Misplaced Sympathy for the Underdog

A failure to discern the true re­lations of profits to wages has led to a mistaken appreciation of the interests of the community, and especially of the laboring classes, regarding the employers of labor. While the large profits of the suc­cessful employer have been the subject of much jealousy, and al­most uniformly excite in the minds of the unthinking the sense of personal wrong, there is an entire lack of jealousy exhibited towards the unsuccessful man of business, who often receives a great deal of sympathy from the laboring class. So far as the sympathy extended towards the unsuccessful man of business is of a personal nature, flowing from a kindly disposition towards the unfortunate, it is, of course, very amiable. But there is reason to believe that this senti­ment is not wholly of a good ori­gin, but is quite as largely pro­duced by a misapprehension of economic relations. The laborers appreciate, in some degree, the cares under which the unsuccess­ful employer labors, the anxieties from which he suffers, the humili­ation into which he is occasionally plunged. They know he has a pretty poor time of it on the whole, and they are not envious of him. On the contrary, they use his hard lot to sharpen their envy of the man who reaps large profits from the conduct of business and the employment of labor. They compare the rich rewards of the one, who, perhaps, in time, be­comes worth his millions, with the meager recompense of the other, who, at the end of a long life of labor, has little to show for it all; and the comparison tends to heighten the feeling of loss and of wrong with which the gains of the former are contemplated.

If, however, we have rightly in­dicated the source of profits, not only is the unsuccessful employer deserving of no special economic sympathy, but his conduct of busi­ness, his control of labor-force and capital-force is at a great cost to the laboring class, as forming a part of the general community.

Profits are measured upwards from the level of the no-profits class of employers; and any cause which brings incompetent persons into the conduct of business, or keeps them there against the natu­ral tendency of trade to throw them out, increases the profits of the successful employers, as a class, by enhancing the cost of production and, consequently, the price of that portion of the supply which is produced at the greatest disadvantage. This enhancement of price is at the expense of all who consume the goods so pro­duced; the laboring class equally with others, in theory; probably in fact more than any other, on account of their limited ability to look out for their own interests in retail trade.

Causes of Incompetency

What causes help to swell the proportion of incompetent em­ployers of labor? Shilly-shally laws relating to insolvency do this; bad money does this; truck does this; protection, in my judgment, does this. Each of these causes enables men to escape the consequences of incompetency, and to hang miser­ably on to business, where they are an obstruction and a nuisance. Slavery, in like manner, enables men to control labor and direct production, who never would be­come, on an equal scale, the em­ployers of free labor; and it is not more to the inefficiency of the slave than to the incompetency of the master, that the unproductive­ness of chattel labor is due.

The lower the industrial quality of free labor, the more ignorant and inert the individual laborer, the lower may be the quality of the men who can just sustain themselves in the position of em­ployers. Men become the employers of cheap labor who would never become the employers of dear labor, and who ought not to be the employers of any sort of labor. The more active becomes the com­petition among the wages class, the more prompt their resort to market, the more persistent their demand for every possible in­crease of remuneration, the greater will be the pressure brought to bear upon such em­ployers to drop out of the place into which they have crowded themselves at the cost of the gen­eral community, and where they have been able to maintain them­selves only because the working classes have failed, through ig­norance or inertia, to exact their full terms.


October 1959

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