A Cardinal on the Rights of Labour

A Cardinal on the Rights of Labour

The two following extracts are taken from Cardinal Manning’s “Miscellanies,” Vol. II, p. 81. The first, which deals with the much vexed question of the “liberty” of working men, is perhaps as striking an instance as could be found of the extraordinary inability, even on the part of men of high position and attainments, to distinguish between the substance and the shadow of liberty, between the false liberty which permits men to labour “when and where they will,” and the true liberty which secures them something definite to labour for.

“Once more, labour has a right of liberty. . . . . Every labourer has a right to work or not to work. If he refuses to work, as an idler, there is an old law which says—“If a man will not work, neither let him eat.” That law has never been repealed. And the same law says that “the labourer is worthy of his hire,” and I am happy to say that law still stands in the statute book. Well, a labourer has a right to determine from whom he will work, and when he will work. . . . At the present time the labour of Englishmen is, I may say, as free as the air. They may go where they will; they may labour when they will; they may labour for whom they will; they may labour for what they can obtain; they may even refuse to labour.”

As regards the “old law,” the existence of which gives the Cardinal such unalloyed satisfaction, it should be remarked that, whether “repealed” or not, it has become entirely a dead letter. The rich classes certainly will not work, but they have no intention of discontinuing the habit of eating. The labourer may theoretically be worthy of his hire, but his employers are careful to pay him a very small fraction of the real value of his work. Englishmen, as the Cardinal says, are perfectly free to labour or not, as they choose; but he omits to add that they will starve miserably if they do not accept the terms offered by their employers.

It is pleasant to turn to the second extract, which, to do the Cardinal justice, shows that he takes at any rate a more sensible view of the position than most of our middle-class economists.

“I have a great respect for political economy, but there is one point on which I am sorry to say I am a very lame political economist, and I cannot keep pace with others. I find political economists denouncing all interference, as they call it, of Parliament with the supply and demand in any form of any article whatsoever. But the principle of free trade is not applicable to everything. Why is it not applicable? Because it is met and checked by a moral condition. I am one of those who are of opinion that the hours of labour must be further regulated by law. If the one great end of life were to multiply yards of cloth and cotton twist, and if the glory of England consists or consisted, in multiplying without stint or limit these articles and the like at the lowest possible price, so as to undersell all the nations of the world, well, then let us go on. But if the domestic life of the people be vital above all; if the peace, the purity of homes, the education of children, the duties wives and mothers, the duties of husbands and fathers, be written in the natural law of mankind—then I say if the hours of labour, resulting from the unregulated sale of a man’s strength and skill, shall lead to the destruction of domestic life, to the neglect of children, to turning wives and mothers into living machines and of fathers and husbands into creatures of burden—the domestic life of men exists no longer, and we dare not go on in this path.”

These are wiser words; but it is not easy to see how they can be reconciled with those quoted above.

Henry S. Salt

Justice, No. 83, August 15, 1885, p. 2