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Part Four: Catallactics or Economics of the... > Chapter XXI. Work and Wages

3. Wages

Labor is a scarce factor of production. As such it is sold and bought on the market. The price paid for labor is included in the price allowed for the product or the services if the performer of the work is the seller of the product or the services. If bare labor is sold and bought as such, either by an entrepreneur engaged in production for sale or by a consumer eager to use the services rendered for his own consumption, the price paid is called wages.

For acting man his own labor is not merely a factor of production but also the source of disutility; he values it not only with regard to the mediate gratification expected but also with regard to the disutility it causes. But for him, as for everyone, other people's labor as offered for sale on the market is nothing but a factor of production. Man deals with other people's labor in the same way that he deals [p. 593] with all scarce material factors of production. He appraises it according to the principles he applies in the appraisal of all other goods. The height of wage rates is determined on the market in the same way in which the prices of all commodities are determined. In this sense we may say that labor is a commodity. The emotional associations which people, under the influence of Marxism, attach to this term do not matter. It suffices to observe incidentally that the employers deal with labor as they do with commodities because the conduct of the consumers forces them to proceed in this way.

It is not permissible to speak of labor and wages in general without resorting to certain restrictions. A uniform type of labor or a general rate of wages do not exist. Labor is very different in quality, and each kind of labor renders specific services. each is appraised as a complementary factor for turning out definite consumers' goods and services. Between the appraisal of the performance of a surgeon and that of a stevedore there is no direct connection. But indirectly each sector of the labor market is connected with all other sectors. An increase in the demand for surgical services, however great, will not make stevedores flock into the practice of surgery. Yet the lines between the various sectors of the labor market are not sharply drawn. There prevails a continuous tendency for workers to shift from their branch to other similar occupations in which conditions seem to offer better opportunities. Thus finally every change in demand or supply in one sector affects all other sectors indirectly. All groups indirectly compete with one another. If more people enter the medical profession, men are withdrawn from kindred occupations who again are replaced by an inflow of people from other branches and so on. In this sense there exists a connexity between all occupational groups however different the requirements in each of them may be. There again we are faced with the fact that the disparity in the quality of work needed for the satisfaction of wants is greater than the diversity in men's inborn ability to perform work.4

Connexity exists not only between different types of labor and the prices paid for them but no less between labor and the material factors of production. Within certain limits labor can be substituted for material factors of production and vice versa. The extent that such substitutions are resorted to depends on the height of wage rates and the prices of material factors.
The determination of wage rates--like that of the prices of material factors of production--can be achieved only on the market. There is no such thing as nonmarket wage rates, just as there are no nonmarket prices. As far as there are wages, labor is dealt with like any [p. 594] material factor of production and sold and bought on the market. It is usual to call the sector of the market of producers' goods on which labor is hired the labor market. As with all other sectors of the market, the labor market is actuated by the entrepreneurs intent upon making profits. Each entrepreneur is eager to buy all the kinds of specific labor he needs for the realization of his plans at the cheapest price. But the wages he offers must be high enough to take the workers away from competing entrepreneurs. The upper limit of his bidding is determined by anticipation of the price he can obtain for the increment in salable goods he expects from the employment of the worker concerned. The lower limit is determined by the bids of competing entrepreneurs who themselves are guided by analogous considerations. It is this that economists have in mind in asserting that the height of wage rates for each kind of labor is determined by its marginal productivity. Another way to express the same truth is to say that wage rates are determined by the supply of labor and of material factors of production on the one hand and by the anticipated future prices of the consumers' goods.

This catallactic explanation of the determination of wage rates has been the target of passionate but entirely erroneous attacks. It has been asserted that there is a monopoly of the demand for labor. Most of the supporters of this doctrine think that they have sufficiently proved their case by referring to some incidental remarks of Adam Smith concerning "a sort of tacit but constant and uniform combination" among employers to keep wages down.5 Others refer in vague terms to the existence of trade associations of various groups of businessmen. The emptiness of all this talk is evident. However, the fact that these garbled ideas are the main ideological foundation of labor unionism and the labor policy of all contemporary governments makes it necessary to analyze them with the utmost care.

The entrepreneurs are in the same position with regard to the sellers of labor as they are with regard to the sellers of the material factors of production. They are under the necessity of acquiring all factors of production at the cheapest price. But if in the pursuit of this endeavor some entrepreneurs, certain groups of entrepreneurs, or all entrepreneurs offer prices or wage rates which are too low, i.e., do not agree with the state of the unhampered market, they will succeed in acquiring what they want to acquire only if entrance into the ranks of entrepreneurship is blocked through institutional barriers. If the emergence of new entrepreneurs or the expansion of the activities [p. 595] of already operating entrepreneurs is not prevented, any drop in the prices of factors of production not consonant with the structure of the market must open new chances for the earning of profits. There will be people eager to take advantage of the margin between the prevailing wage rate and the marginal productivity of labor. Their demand for labor will bring wage rates back to the height conditioned by labor's marginal productivity. The tacit combination among the employers to which Adam Smith referred, even if it existed, could not lower wages below the competitive market rate unless access to entrepreneurship required not only brains and capital (the latter always available to enterprises promising the highest returns), but in addition also an institutional title, a patent, or a license, reserved to a class of privileged people.

It has been asserted that a job-seeker must sell his labor at any price, however low, as he depends exclusively on his capacity to work and has no other source of income. He cannot wait and is forced to content himself with any reward the employers are kind enough to offer him. This inherent weakness makes it easy for the concerted action of the masters to lower wage rates. They can, if need be, wait longer, as their demand for labor is not so urgent as the worker's demand for subsistence. The argument is defective. It takes it for granted that the employers pocket the difference between the marginal-productivity wage rate and the lower monopoly rate as an extra monopoly gain and do not pass it on to the consumers in the form of a reduction in prices. For if they were to reduce prices according to the drop in costs of production, they, in their capacity as entrepreneurs and sellers of the products, would derive no advantage from cutting wages. The whole gain would go to the consumers and thereby also to the wage-earners in their capacity as buyers; the entrepreneurs themselves would be benefitted only as consumers. To retain the extra profit resulting from the "exploitation" of the workers' alleged poor bargaining power would require concerted action on the part of employers in their capacity as sellers of the products. It would require a universal monopoly of all kinds of production activities which can be created only by an institutional restriction of access to entrepreneurship.

The essential point of the matter is that the alleged monopolistic combination of the employers about which Adam Smith and a great part of public opinion speak would be a monopoly of demand. But we have already seen that such alleged monopolies of demand are in fact monopolies of supply of a particular character. The employers would be in a position enabling them to lower wage rates by concerted action only if they were to monopolize a factor indispensable for every kind of production and to restrict the employment of this factor [p. 596] in a monopolistic way. As there is no single material factor indispensable for every kind of production, they would have to monopolize all material factors of production. This condition would be present only in a socialist community, in which there is neither a market nor prices and wage rates.

Neither would it be possible for the proprietors of the material factors of production, the capitalists and the landowners, to combine in a universal cartel against the interests of the workers. The characteristic mark of production activities in the past and in the foreseeable future is that the scarcity of labor exceeds the scarcity of most of the primary, nature-given material factors of production. The comparatively greater scarcity of labor determines the extent to which the comparatively abundant primary natural factors can be utilized. There is unused soil, there are unused mineral deposits and so on because there is not enough labor available for their utilization. If the owners of the soil that is tilled today were to form a cartel in order to reap monopoly gains, their plans would be frustrated by the competition of the owners of the submarginal land. The owners of the produced factors of production in their turn could not combine in a comprehensive cartel without the cooperation of the owners of the primary factors.

Various other objections have been advanced against the doctrine of the monopolistic exploitation of labor by a tacit or avowed combine of employers. It has been demonstrated that at no time and at no place in the unhampered market economy can the existence of such cartels be discovered. It has been shown that it is not true that the job-seekers cannot wait and are therefore under the necessity of accepting any wage rates, however low, offered to them by the employers. It is not true that every unemployed worker is faced with starvation; the workers too have reserves and can wait; the proof is that they really do wait. On the other hand waiting can be financially ruinous to the entrepreneurs and capitalists too. If they cannot employ their capital, they suffer losses. Thus all the disquisitions about an alleged "employers' advantage" and "workers' disadvantage" in bargaining are without substance.6

But these are secondary and accidental considerations. The central fact is that a monopoly of the demand for labor cannot and does not exist in an unhampered market economy. It could originate only as an outgrowth of institutional restrictions of access to entrepreneurship.

Yet one more point must be stressed. The doctrine of the monopolistic [p. 597] manipulation of wage rates by the employers speaks of labor as if it were a homogeneous entity. It deals with such concepts as demand for "labor in general" and supply of "labor in general." But such notions have, as has been pointed out already, no counterpart in reality. What is sold and bought on the labor market is not "labor in general," but definite specific labor suitable to render definite services. Each entrepreneur is in search of workers who are fitted to accomplish those specific tasks which he needs for the execution of his plans. He must withdraw these specialists from the employments in which they happen to work at the moment. The only means he has to achieve this is to offer them higher pay. Every innovation which an entrepreneur plans--the production of a new article, the application of a new process of production, the choice of a new location for a specific branch or simply the expansion of production already in existence either in his own enterprise or in other enterprises--requires the employment of workers hitherto engaged somewhere else. The entrepreneurs are not merely faced with a shortage of "labor in general," but with a shortage of those specific types of labor they need for their plants. The competition among the entrepreneurs in bidding for the most suitable hands is no less keen than their competition in bidding for the required raw materials. tools, and machines and in their bidding for capital on the capital and loan market. The expansion of the activities of the individual firms as well as of the whole society is not only limited by the amount of capital goods available and of the supply of "labor in general." In each branch of production it is also limited by the available supply of specialists. This is, of course, only a temporary obstacle which vanishes in the long run when more workers, attracted by the higher pay of the specialists in comparatively undermanned branches, will have trained themselves for the special tasks concerned. But in the changing economy such a scarcity of specialists emerges anew daily and determines the conduct of employers in search for workers.

Every employer must aim at buying the factors of production needed, inclusive of labor, at the cheapest price. An employer who paid more than agrees with the market price of the services his employees render him, would be soon removed from his entrepreneurial position. On the other hand an employer who tried to reduce wage rates below the height consonant with the marginal productivity of labor would not recruit the type of men that the most efficient utilization of his equipment requires. There prevails a tendency for wage rates to reach the point at which they are equal to the price of the marginal product of the kind of labor in question. If wage rates drop below this point, the gain derived from the employment of every [p. 598] additional worker will increase the demand for labor and thus make wage rates rise again. If wage rates rise above this point, the loss incurred from the employment of every worker will force the employers to discharge workers. The competition of the unemployed for jobs will create a tendency for wage rates to drop.

  • 4. Cf. above, pp. 133-135.
  • 5. Cf. Adam Smith, an Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Basle, 1791), vol. I, Bk. I, chap. viii, p. 100. Adam Smith himself seems to have unconsciously given up the idea. Cf. W.H. Hutt, The Theory of Collective Bargaining (London, 1930), pp. 24-25.
  • 6. All these and many other points are carefully analyzed by Hutt, op. cit., pp. 35-72.