Monday, July 3, 2017

Whigs, Wages, and Wonder



We had last Thursday’s posting on the minimum wage hike in Seattle in mind while doing some research into early nineteenth century socialism, especially the varieties promoted by Henri de Saint-Simon, Félicité de Lamennais, and Charles Fourier.  All three claimed their systems were either a new version of Christianity, or replaced Christianity, whatever best suited their purposes.

Charles Fourier
This led us to an article, “Religious Union of Associationists” in the March 1847 issue of The American Whig Review . . . which, of course, you no doubt have lying around the house or have seen in the doctor’s waiting room.  We were at first amused by the anonymous author’s remarks.  We didn’t know that people in the early nineteenth century could be so . . . sarcastic.  He (or possibly she) clearly did not like Fourierism.
Also interesting was the fact that the author, clearly not a Catholic, was offended at the way the followers of Charles Fourier, the founder of Associationism, were quick to “borrow” Catholic religious music, language, and symbols, but graft their own meanings on to them.  Orestes A. Brownson also noted this, in an essay, “Socialism and the Church,” written about the same time.  As Brownson put it,
Orestes Brownson
The spirit that works in the children of disobedience must . . . affect to be Christian, more Christian than Christianity itself, and not only Christian, but Catholic.  It can manifest itself now, and gain friends, only by acknowledging the Church and all Catholic symbols, and substituting for the divine and heavenly sense in which they have hitherto been understood a human and earthly sense.  Hence the religious character which Socialism attempts to wear.  It rejects in name no Catholic symbol; it only rejects the Catholic sense.  If it finds fault with the actual Church, it is because she is not truly Catholic, does not understand herself, does not comprehend the profound sense of her own doctrines, fails to seize and expound the true Christian idea as it lay in the mind of Jesus, and as this enlightened age is prepared to receive it.  The Christian symbol needs a new and a more Catholic interpretation, adapted to our stage in universal progress. (Orestes A. Brownson, “Socialism and the Church,” Essays and Reviews, Chiefly on Theology, Politics, and Socialism.  New York: D. & J. Sadlier & Co., 1852, 499-500.)
But we digress.  Our concern here is a commentary on the remarks made by a Fourierist lecturer, the Reverend William Henry Channing (1810-1884), a Boston Unitarian socialist who — surprise! — moved in the same circles as Orestes Brownson . . . and who seems to have irritated Brownson a trifle by his wholesale “borrowings” from the Catholic Church to vest his variety of Fourierist socialism with the prestige of what the anonymous author in the Whig Review considered the oldest and most venerable Christian church.  As the anonymous author said, after attending one of Channing’s services/lectures/shows in Boston,
William Henry Channing
Mr. Channing remarked that it was a well-known and generally-admitted principle in political economy, that high or rising wages are the surest sign of public prosperity; and yet, said he, in face of this knowledge we everywhere see people trying to engage labor at the lowest possible rates.  This is one of the inconsistencies which he charges the present misarrangement of society with forcing upon us.  Probably he forgot to add, that high or rising wages are a sign of public prosperity only on condition that the employer is absolutely obliged to pay them; and that if paid gratuitously or voluntarily, they are a sign of no such thing, but rather of the reverse.  (“The Religious Union of Associationists,” The American Whig Review, March 1847, 494-495.)
Now, that didn’t sound right, so we read it a couple more times . . . and it still didn’t sound right.  Then we realized we were reading an article written in 1847 from the perspective of 2017, and things started to make sense.
Free market (sort of).  No minimum wage.  No really big wealth differentials in the economy.
Meaning?
"Hard Times" Token
Meaning that if workers were well off, and had alternate sources of income, an employer would be “absolutely obliged” to offer higher wages in order to be able to hire enough workers.  Things would be so good, people could afford to turn down paying work.
And if things weren’t so good?  Then workers could not afford to hold out for higher pay, and they would be the ones “absolutely obliged” to accept whatever an employer was willing to offer.  Things would be so bad, workers would be willing to take whatever they could get.
Thus, high or rising wages would be the surest sign of public prosperity, and low wages would mean hard times had come again.
In common with other socialists and those trained in a socialist mindset, Channing managed to get this (and a whole raft of other things) exactly backwards.  Noting that high or rising wages are a sign of public prosperity, he assumed that paying higher wages bring about public prosperity.  He confused cause and effect.
A model cargo plane to bring back the real planes.
Like the Cargo Cultists of the South Pacific a few generations later, who assumed that building airstrips and docks would bring the cargo planes and ships back, socialists like Channing (and John Maynard Keynes) assume that you create prosperity by spending more money.
No, people spend more money because they are prosperous, not to become prosperous.  The former is a common sense observation.  The latter is magical thinking, the “law of similarity”; if you act as if you are prosperous, you will be prosperous.
Until the debt comes due, that is. . . .
Thus, the anonymous author commented, “Is it in this way that Mr. Channing is going to guide us out of the labyrinth of sophistry in which he finds us so deplorably involved?”  (Ibid.)
Oddly . . . yes.  Nineteenth century America saw seemingly countless attempts to establish utopian socialist communities, many of them Fourierist — and some of which succeeded . . . as soon as they abandoned socialist principles, that is.  Many prominent people converted to the various forms of socialism, e.g., the noted journalist Horace Greeley . . . for whom the Fourierist commune of Greeley, Colorado, was named.  The town quickly abandoned its socialist principles, becoming a form of coop for a while, and then a “regular” municipality.  (See William B. Shaw, “A Forgotten Socialism,” The New England Magazine, August 1893, 773-776.)
So, in light of the fact that high wages are an effect, not the cause of public prosperity, is it still possible to raise wages somehow when times are hard?  We’ll look at that on Wednesday.
#30#

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