But because there are limits beyond which the returns to the workingmen cannot go, it by no means follows that the ordinary returns to workingmen at present are fair and just. What determines the rate of wages ? At first sight it may seem as if it were the worth of the service rendered. It is certainly true that as a rule skilled labor is more highly paid than unskilled; but if we go a little deeper, and ask the reason why, it is not hard to discover that skilled labor is paid more highly, not because it is skilled, but because it is rare. In what branch of work is more mind required than in teaching in our schools ? What service ranks higher in relation to the welfare of the community ? Who exercise more power for good or for ill than those who are giving the first lessons in knowledge and virtue to our children and youth ? Why, then, are our teachers so poorly rewarded ? The only answer is, to put it bluntly, because there are so many of them, at least, so many ready to be teachers. And why are teachers who are women paid less than teachers who are men, though they may be just as capable, though they may even take the same places that men have occupied ? Because there are so many more women ready to be teachers than there are men. In other words, it is not the worth or dignity or intellectual character of the services rendered, but the number of those who are ready to render them, that determines their price. In technical language, it is supply and demand. If skilled labor, through trade-schools or the incorporation of manual training into the public schools, should become more common than it now is, there is hardly a doubt, other conditions remaining the same, that it would command less high wages than it now does. I say not a word against manual training, and believe in it as much as any one can; I simply note what I think would be the fact. If skilled labor should become as common as unskilled labor now is, its wages would be just as low. When the value of a thing is regulated by supply and demand, in proportion as it is common it is cheap.
Now, there can be no objection to this so far as the value of commodities in general is concerned. Air is so free now, so cheap, that it costs nothing at all: no one would wish it to be different. Water is almost as cheap ; and commodities in general shoes, hats, clothing of every description can hardly be too abundant and too cheap. But when we come to human life, every one with a heart feels as by instinct that the problem changes. All these commodities exist for man ; air, water, and the very earth we value according to their power to serve him, and to contribute to his happiness. Other things exist for man, but man exists for himself; we feel it to be a kind of degradation, a kind of profanation of the highest and holiest we know, to turn him too into a commodity, and treat him as we would a garment which one wears or the food which one eats. Yet human labor is indistinguishable from human life; it is the means by which in most cases life is supported. That labor shall be cheap means that life shall be miserable. It means less food and poorer; it means scantier clothing ; it means less opportunities for the mind ; and if not necessarily, yet all too naturally, it means increased temptation to dissipation, to vice and shame.
We want commodities cheap for man's sake ; but for whose sake, in Heaven's name, will you make man himself cheap ? The fact is that man is never made cheap save that some other man, who ought to be his brother, may get rich off his labor. Man is never made merchandise of save that somebody may make money out of him. Oh, the shame of it, that we who are brothers to one another, and should hold one another in honor and seek one another's good, should not hesitate to use one another and make profit out of one another, and gain for ourselves by making our brother lose, yes, perhaps by beating him down to the very dust! For this is what the law of supply and demand often involves when men apply it in their dealings with one another. It means that the many shall be sacrificed to the few. It means that the few capable of leading in business enterprises shall have great returns for their services, shall have great returns simply because they are few, and that the many, who perform the physical labor and are just as necessary as the few, shall have small and often pitiful returns. It means that the few shall buy out the many ; and because the many are many, and each must have bread and covering for his back, they crowd against one another, each in his anxiety making a lower bid than the other,and the result is that those who make the lowest bid, other things being equal, succeed in getting the employment, and wages as a rule tend to the lowest point that men will consent to live upon. The employers gain by this process, and perhaps also society, so far as it is not made up of working-people; but the laborers, I hold, are wronged. It is this sense of wrong that gives rise to socialistic and anarchistic agitation, though the wrong may often be exaggerated and so give plausible occasion on the other side to a denial that any wrongs exist. Any one is wronged who has an honest service to render to society, which society needs, and is yet beaten down by competition to take returns for it that will barely hold soul and body together. Competition is good within limits. There may be services that are held too high; competition is good to bring them down to something normal and reasonable. There are many places in our industrial system where not less, but more, competition is needed. But competition, when it pauperizes people, when it leads men to struggle against one another for the very chance to live, is worse than useless, it is a curse. Competition at the best can never be more than a maxim, a rule of expediency; it can never be a principle in a true political economy. For principles we must look to morality, to the sentiments of justice and equity, which are as rightfully sovereign in industry as they are in law, in government, in religion, in every department of human life.