One of the dominant threads–sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit–in any modern conversation about employer-side regulation of the workplace (health and safety standards, worker unions etc) is that such constraints are invariably economically inefficient, a burden on the profit-making potential of the enterprise. The parameters for this conversation are drawn from a sparse set consisting of technocratic values: revenue-maximization and technological efficiency, with human welfare as a to-be-hoped-for but not inevitable by-product. Some winners and some losers, you see.
‘Twas ever thus, of course. Consider for instance the debates surrounding the passage of The Factories Act of 1844 by the Parliament of the United Kingdom, to regulate the number of hours worked by women and children in industrial establishments. Some of its benevolent provisions limited the number of hours that children between the ages of 9-13 could work to a mere nine hours a day, others required machinery be fenced in, and yet others required accidental deaths to be reported to a surgeon and investigated.
Unsurprisingly this Act met with determined opposition from factory owners, bemoaning, I presume, the ‘nanny-state’ and busy-body bureaucrats determined to stick their oars into the frictionless, benign churnings of market forces and technological imperatives. For instance, it was ‘inefficient’ to use full-grown workers to do work that could be done just as well–and sometimes better–by children. Adult labor was more expensive; employing it would lead to ruination. Increased poverty and unemployment, decreased competitiveness in the international market for manufactured goods were but the least of these consequences. Sir J. Graham, who spoke up vigorously on behalf of factory owners, said,
We have arrived at a state of society when without commerce and manufactures this great community cannot be maintained. Let us, as far as we can, mitigate the evils arising out of this highly artificial state of society; but let us take care to adopt no step that may be fatal to commerce and manufactures.
Sir Graham then went on to greater concreteness as he noted that reducing the workday for women and children would throw the current depreciation cycle for machinery off-kilter–a factor in assessing year-end balance sheets–and result in lower wages, higher prices for goods and trade imbalances. Thus,
In the close race of competition which our manufacturers are now running with foreign competitors …such a step would be fatal…
Regulation was felt by Sir Graham to be:
[B]ased on a false principle of humanity, which in the end is certain to defeat itself.
Its proponents were disingenuous; for what they were offering was:
[I]n principle an argument to get rid of the whole system of factory labor.
Well said, Sir Graham. Someone has to step up and speak out on behalf of the entrepreneur, constantly on guard against the intrusion of profit-denying Whitehall mavens. The next thing you know these do-gooders will be asking for environmental safeguards against economically-necessary and profit-ensuring pollution. Better to man the barricades now.
Less facetiously, I hope to write a follow up to this little story very soon.
Source: Andrew Feenberg, Between Reason and Experience: Essays in Technology and Modernity (MIT Press, Cambridge: MA, 2010, pp-11-12)