Principles of Political Economy with some of their Applications to Social Philosophy
Book I, Chapter IX
Of Production on a Large, and Production on a Small Scale
§1. From the importance of combination of labour, it is an obvious conclusion, that there are many cases in which production is made much more effective by being conducted on a large scale. Whenever it is essential to the greatest efficiency of labour that many labourers should combine, even though only in the way of Simple Co-operation, the scale of the enterprise must be such as to bring many labourers together, and the capital must be large enough to maintain them. Still more needful is this when the nature of the employment allows, and the extent of the possible market encourages, a considerable division of labour. The larger the enterprise, the farther the division of labour may be carried. This is one of the principal causes of large manufactories. Even when no additional subdivision of the work would follow an enlargement of the operations, there will be good economy in enlarging them to the point at which every person to whom it is convenient to assign a special occupation, will have full employment in that occupation. This point is well illustrated by Mr. Babbage.*41
"If machines be kept working through the twenty-four hours," (which is evidently the only economical mode of employing them,) "it is necessary that some person shall attend to admit the workmen at the time they relieve each other; and whether the porter or other person so employed admit one person or twenty, his rest will be equally disturbed. It will also be necessary occasionally to adjust or repair the machine; and this can be done much better by a workman accustomed to machine-making, than by the person who uses it. Now, since the good performance and the duration of machines depend, to a very great extent, upon correcting every shake or imperfection in their parts as soon as they appear, the prompt attention of a workman resident on the spot will considerably reduce the expenditure arising from the wear and tear of the machinery. But in the case of a single lace-frame, or a single loom, this would be too expensive a plan. Here then arises another circumstance which tends to enlarge the extent of a factory. It ought to consist of such a number of machines as shall occupy the whole time of one workman in keeping them in order: if extended beyond that number, the same principle of economy would point out the necessity of doubling or tripling the number of machines, in order to employ the whole time of two or three skilful workmen.
"When one portion of the workman's labour consists in the exertion of mere physical force, as in weaving, and in many similar arts, it will soon occur to the manufacturer, that if that part were executed by a steam-engine, the same man might, in the case of weaving, attend to two or more looms at once: and, since we already suppose that one or more operative engineers have been employed, the number of looms may be so arranged that their time shall be fully occupied in keeping the steam-engine and the looms in order.
"Pursuing the same principles, the manufactory becomes gradually so enlarged, that the expense of lighting during the night amounts to a considerable sum: and as there are already attached to the establishment persons who are up all night, and can therefore constantly attend to it, and also engineers to make and keep in repair any machinery, the addition of an apparatus for making gas to light the factory leads to a new extension, at the same time that it contributes, by diminishing the expense of lighting, and the risk of accidents from fire, to reduce the cost of manufacturing.
"Long before a factory has reached this extent, it will have been found necessary to establish an accountant's department, with clerks to pay the workmen, and to see that they arrive at their stated times; and this department must be in communication with the agents who purchase the raw produce, and with those who sell the manufactured article." It will cost these clerks and accountants little more time and trouble to pay a large number of workmen than a small number; to check the accounts of large transactions, than of small. If the business doubled itself, it would probably be necessary to increase, but certainly not to double, the number either of accountants, or of buying and selling agents. Every increase of business would enable the whole to be carried on with a proportionately smaller amount of labour.
As a general rule, the expenses of a business do not increase by any means proportionally to the quantity of business. Let us take as an example, a set of operations which we are accustomed to see carried on by one great establishment, that of the Post Office. Suppose that the business, let us say only of the London letter-post, instead of being centralized in a single concern, were divided among five or six competing companies. Each of these would be obliged to maintain almost as large an establishment as is now sufficient for the whole. Since each must arrange for receiving and delivering letters in all parts of the town, each must send letter-carriers into every street, and almost every alley, and this too as many times in the day as is now done by the Post Office, if the service is to be as well performed. Each must have an office for receiving letters in every neighbourhood, with all subsidiary arrangements for collecting the letters from the different offices and re-distributing them. To this must be added the much greater number of superior officers who would be required to check and control the subordinates, implying not only a greater cost in salaries for such responsible officers, but the necessity, perhaps, of being satisfied in many instances with an inferior standard of qualification, and so failing in the object.
Whether or not the advantages obtained by operating on a large scale preponderate in any particular case over the more watchful attention, and greater regard to minor gains and losses, usually found in small establishments, can be ascertained, in a state of free competition, by an unfailing test. Wherever there are large and small establishments in the same business, that one of the two which in existing circumstances carries on the production at greatest advantage will be able to undersell the other. The power of permanently underselling can only, generally speaking, be derived from increased effectiveness of labour; and this, when obtained by a more extended division of employment, or by a classification tending to a better economy of skill, always implies a greater produce from the same labour, and not merely the same produce from less labour: it increases not the surplus only, but the gross produce of industry. If an increased quantity of the particular article is not required, and part of the labourers in consequence lose their employment, the capital which maintained and employed them is also set at liberty; and the general produce of the country is increased by some other application of their labour.
Another of the causes of large manufactories, however, is the introduction of processes requiring expensive machinery. Expensive machinery supposes a large capital; and is not resorted to except with the intention of producing, and the hope of selling, as much of the article as comes up to the full powers of the machine. For both these reasons, wherever costly machinery is used, the large system of production is inevitable. But the power of underselling is not in this case so unerring a test as in the former, of the beneficial effect on the total production of the community. The power of underselling does not depend on the absolute increase of produce, but on its bearing an increased proportion to the expenses; which, as was shown in a former chapter,*42 it may do, consistently with even a diminution of the gross annual produce. By the adoption of machinery, a circulating capital, which was perpetually consumed and reproduced, has been converted into a fixed capital, requiring only a small annual expense to keep it up: and a much smaller produce will suffice for merely covering that expense, and replacing the remaining circulating capital of the producer. The machinery therefore might answer perfectly well to the manufacturer, and enable him to undersell his competitors, though the effect on the production of the country might be not an increase but a diminution. It is true, the article will be sold cheaper, and therefore, of that single article, there will probably be not a smaller, but a greater quantity sold; since the loss to the community collectively has fallen upon the work-people, and they are not the principal customers, if customers at all, of most branches of manufacture. But though that particular branch of industry may extend itself, it will be by replenishing its diminished circulating capital from that of the community generally; and if the labourers employed in that department escape loss of employment, it is because the loss will spread itself over the labouring people at large. If any of them are reduced to the condition of unproductive labourers, supported by voluntary or legal charity, the gross produce of the country is to that extent permanently diminished, until the ordinary progress of accumulation makes it up; but if the condition of the labouring classes enables them to bear a temporary reduction of wages, and the superseded labourers become absorbed in other employments, their labour is still productive, and the breach in the gross produce of the community is repaired, though not the detriment to the labourers. I have restated this exposition, which has already been made in a former place, to impress more strongly the truth, that a mode of production does not of necessity increase the productive effect of the collective labour of a community, because it enables a particular commodity to be sold cheaper. The one consequence generally accompanies the other, but not necessarily. I will not here repeat the reasons I formerly gave, nor anticipate those which will be given more fully hereafter, for deeming the exception to be rather a case abstractedly possible, than one which is frequently realized in fact.
A considerable part of the saving of labour effected by substituting the large system of production for the small, is the saving in the labour of the capitalists themselves. If a hundred producers with small capitals carry on separately the same business, the superintendence of each concern will probably require the whole attention of the person conducting it, sufficiently at least to hinder his time or thoughts from being disposable for anything else: while a single manufacturer possessing a capital equal to the sum of theirs, with ten or a dozen clerks, could conduct the whole of their amount of business, and have leisure too for other occupations. The small capitalist, it is true, generally combines with the business of direction some portion of the details, which the other leaves to his subordinates: the small farmer follows his own plough, the small tradesman serves in his own shop, the small weaver plies his own loom. But in this very union of functions there is, in a great proportion of cases, a want of economy. The principal in the concern is either wasting, in the routine of a business, qualities suitable for the direction of it, or he is only fit for the former, and then the latter will be ill done. I must observe, however, that I do not attach, to this saving of labour, the importance often ascribed to it. There is undoubtedly much more labour expended in the superintendence of many small capitals than in that of one large capital. For this labour however the small producers have generally a full compensation, in the feeling of being their own masters, and not servants of an employer. It may be said, that if they value this independence they will submit to pay a price for it, and to sell at the reduced rates occasioned by the competition of the great dealer or manufacturer. But they cannot always do this and continue to gain a living. They thus gradually disappear from society. After having consumed their little capital in prolonging the unsuccessful struggle, they either sink into the condition of hired labourers, or become dependent on others for support.
§2. Production on a large scale is greatly promoted by the practice of forming a large capital by the combination of many small contributions; or, in other words, by the formation of joint stock companies. The advantages of the joint stock principle are numerous and important.
In the first place, many undertakings require an amount of capital beyond the means of the richest individual or private partnership. No individual could have made a railway from London to Liverpool; it is doubtful if any individual could even work the traffic on it, now when it is made. The government indeed could have done both; and in countries where the practice of co-operation is only in the earlier stages of its growth, the government can alone be looked to for any of the works for which a great combination of means is requisite; because it can obtain those means by compulsory taxation, and is already accustomed to the conduct of large operations. For reasons, however, which are tolerably well known, and of which we shall treat fully hereafter, government agency for the conduct of industrial operations is generally one of the least eligible of resources, when any other is available.
Next, there are undertakings which individuals are not absolutely incapable of performing, but which they cannot perform on the scale and with the continuity which are ever more and more required by the exigencies of a society in an advancing state. Individuals are quite capable of despatching ships from England to any or every part of the world, to carry passengers and letters; the thing was done before joint stock companies for the purpose were heard of. But when, from the increase of population and transactions, as well as of means of payment, the public will no longer content themselves with occasional opportunities, but require the certainty that packets shall start regularly, for some places once or even twice a day, for others once a week, for others that a steam ship of great size and expensive construction shall depart on fixed days twice in each month, it is evident that to afford an assurance of keeping up with punctuality such a circle of costly operations, requires a much larger capital and a much larger staff of qualified subordinates than can be commanded by an individual capitalist. There are other cases, again, in which though the business might be perfectly well transacted with small or moderate capitals, the guarantee of a great subscribed stock is necessary or desirable as a security to the public for the fulfilment of pecuniary engagements. This is especially the case when the nature of the business requires that numbers of persons should be willing to trust the concern with their money: as in the business of banking, and that of insurance: to both of which the joint stock principle is eminently adapted. It is an instance of the folly and jobbery of the rulers of mankind, that until a late period the joint stock principle, as a general resort, was in this country interdicted by law to these two modes of business; to banking altogether, and to insurance in the department of sea risks; in order to bestow a lucrative monopoly on particular establishments which the government was pleased exceptionally to license, namely the Bank of England, and two insurance companies, the London and the Royal Exchange.
*43Another advantage of joint stock or associated management, is its incident of publicity. This is not an invariable, but it is a natural consequence of the joint stock principle, and might be, as in some important cases it already is, compulsory. In banking, insurance, and other businesses which depend wholly on confidence, publicity is a still more important element of success than a large subscribed capital. A heavy loss occurring in a private bank may be kept secret; even though it were of such magnitude as to cause the ruin of the concern, the banker may still carry it on for years, trying to retrieve its position, only to fall in the end with a greater crash: but this cannot so easily happen in the case of a joint stock company, whose accounts are published periodically. The accounts, even if cooked, still exercise some check; and the suspicions of shareholders, breaking out at the general meetings, put the public on their guard.
These are some of the advantages of joint stock over individual management. But if we look to the other side of the question, we shall find that individual management has also very great advantages over joint stock. The chief of these is the much keener interest of the managers in the success of the undertaking.
The administration of a joint stock association is, in the main, administration by hired servants. Even the committee, or board of directors, who are supposed to superintend the management, and who do really appoint and remove the managers, have no pecuniary interest in the good working of the concern beyond the shares they individually hold, which are always a very small part of the capital of the association, and in general but a small part of the fortunes of the directors themselves; and the part they take in the management usually divides their time with many other occupations, of as great or greater importance to their own interest; the business being the principal concern of no one except those who are hired to carry it on. But experience shows, and proverbs, the expression of popular experience, attest, how inferior is the quality of hired servants, compared with the ministration of those personally interested in the work, and how indispensable, when hired service must be employed, is "the master's eye" to watch over it.
The successful conduct of an industrial enterprise requires two quite distinct qualifications: fidelity, and zeal. The fidelity of the hired managers of a concern it is possible to secure. When their work admits of being reduced to a definite set of rules, the violation of these is a matter on which conscience cannot easily blind itself, and on which responsibility may be enforced by the loss of employment. But to carry on a great business successfully, requires a hundred things which, as they cannot be defined beforehand, it is impossible to convert into distinct and positive obligations. First and principally, it requires that the directing mind should be incessantly occupied with the subject; should be continually laying schemes by which greater profit may be obtained, or expense saved. This intensity of interest in the subject it is seldom to be expected that any one should feel, who is conducting a business as the hired servant and for the profit of another. There are experiments in human affairs which are conclusive on the point. Look at the whole class of rulers, and ministers of state. The work they are entrusted with, is among the most interesting and exciting of all occupations; the personal share which they themselves reap of the national benefits or misfortunes which befall the state under their rule, is far from trifling, and the rewards and punishments which they may expect from public estimation are of the plain and palpable kind which are most keenly felt and most widely appreciated. Yet how rare a thing is it to find a statesman in whom mental indolence is not stronger than all these inducements. How infinitesimal is the proportion who trouble themselves to form, or even to attend to, plans of public improvement, unless when it is made still more troublesome to them to remain inactive; or who have any other real desire than that of rubbing on, so as to escape general blame. On a smaller scale, all who have ever employed hired labour have had ample experience of the efforts made to give as little labour in exchange for the wages, as is compatible with not being turned off. The universal neglect by domestic servants of their employer's interests, wherever these are not protected by some fixed rule, is matter of common remark; unless where long continuance in the same service, and reciprocal good offices, have produced either personal attachment, or some feeling of a common interest.
Another of the disadvantages of joint stock concerns, which is in some degree common to all concerns on a large scale, is disregard of small gains and small savings. In the management of a great capital and great transactions, especially when the managers have not much interest in it of their own, small sums are apt to be counted for next to nothing; they never seem worth the care and trouble which it costs to attend to them, and the credit of liberality and openhandedness is cheaply bought by a disregard of such trifling considerations. But small profits and small expenses often repeated, amount to great gains and losses: and of this a large capitalist is often a sufficiently good calculator to be practically aware; and to arrange his business on a system, which if enforced by a sufficiently vigilant superintendence, precludes the possibility of the habitual waste, otherwise incident to a great business. But the managers of a joint stock concern seldom devote themselves sufficiently to the work, to enforce unremittingly, even if introduced, through every detail of the business, a really economical system.
From considerations of this nature, Adam Smith was led to enunciate as a principle, that joint stock companies could never be expected to maintain themselves without an exclusive privilege, except in branches of business which, like banking, insurance, and some others, admit of being, in a considerable degree, reduced to fixed rules. This, however, is one of those over-statements of a true principle, often met with in Adam Smith. In his days there were few instances of joint stock companies which had been permanently successful without a monopoly, except the class of cases which he referred to; but since his time there have been many; and the regular increase both of the spirit of combination and of the ability to combine, will doubtless produce many more. Adam Smith fixed his observation too exclusively on the superior energy and more unremitting attention brought to a business in which the whole stake and the whole gain belong to the persons conducting it; and he overlooked various countervailing considerations which go a great way towards neutralizing even that great point of superiority.
Of these one of the most important is that which relates to the intellectual and active qualifications of the directing head. The stimulus of individual interest is some security for exertion, but exertion is of little avail if the intelligence exerted is of an inferior order, which it must necessity be in the majority of concerns carried on by the persons chiefly interested in them. Where the concern is large, and can afford a remuneration sufficient to attract a class of candidates superior to the common average, it is possible to select for the general management, and for all the skilled employments of a subordinate kind, persons of a degree of acquirement and cultivated intelligence which more than compensates for their inferior interest in the result. Their greater perspicacity enables them, with even a part of their minds, to see probabilities of advantage which never occur to the ordinary run of men by the continued exertion of the whole of theirs; and their superior knowledge, and habitual rectitude of perception and of judgment, guard them against blunders, the fear of which would prevent the others from hoarding their interests in any attempt out of the ordinary routine.
It must be further remarked, that it is not a necessary consequence of joint stock management, that the persons employed, whether in superior or in subordinate offices, should be paid wholly by fixed salaries. There are modes of connecting more or less intimately the interest of the employés with the pecuniary success of the concern. There is a long series of intermediate positions, between working wholly on one's own account, and working by the day, week, or year for an invariable payment. Even in the case of ordinary unskilled labour, there is such a thing as task-work, or working by the piece: and the superior efficiency of this is so well known, that judicious employers always resort to it when the work admits of being put out in definite portions, without the necessity of too troublesome a surveillance to guard against inferiority in the execution. In the case of the managers of joint stock companies, and of the superintending and controlling officers in many private establishments, it is a common enough practice to connect their pecuniary interest with the interest of their employers, by giving them part of their remuneration in the form of a percentage on the profits. The personal interest thus given to hired servants is not comparable in intensity to that of the owner of the capital; but it is sufficient to be a very material stimulus to zeal and carefulness, and, when added to the advantage of superior intelligence, often raises the quality of the service much above that which the generality of masters are capable of rendering to themselves. The ulterior extensions of which this principle of remuneration is susceptible, being of great social as well as economical importance, will be more particularly adverted to in a subsequent stage of the present inquiry.
As I have already remarked of large establishments generally, when compared with small ones, whenever competition is free its results will show whether individual or joint stock agency is best adapted to the particular case, since that which is most efficient and most economical will always in the end succeed in underselling the other.
§3. The possibility of substituting the large system of production for the small, depends of course, in the first place, on the extent of the market. The large system can only be advantageous when a large amount of business is to be done: it implies, therefore, either a populous and flourishing community, or a great opening for exportation. Again, this as well as every other change in the system of production is greatly favoured by a progressive condition of capital. It is chiefly when the capital of a country is receiving a great annual increase, that there is a large amount of capital seeking for investment: and a new enterprise is much sooner and more easily entered upon by new capital, than by withdrawing capital from existing employments. The change is also much facilitated by the existence of large capitals in few hands. It is true that the same amount of capital can be raised by bringing together many small sums. But this (besides that it is not equally well suited to all branches of industry) supposes a much greater degree of commercial confidence and enterprise diffused through the community, and belongs altogether to a more advanced stage of industrial progress.
In the countries in which there are the largest markets, the widest diffusion of commercial confidence and enterprise, the greatest annual increase of capital, and the greatest number of large capitals owned by individuals, there is a tendency to substitute more and more, in one branch of industry after another, large establishments for small ones. In England, the chief type of all these characteristics, there is a perpetual growth not only of large manufacturing establishments, but also, wherever a sufficient number of purchasers are assembled, of shops and warehouses for conducting retail business on a large scale. These are almost always able to undersell the smaller tradesmen, partly, it is understood, by means of division of labour, and the economy occasioned by limiting the employment of skilled agency to cases where skill is required; and partly, no doubt, by the saving of labour arising from the great scale of the transactions; as it costs no more time, and not much more exertion of mind, to make a large purchase, for example, than a small one, and very much less than to make a number of small ones.
With a view merely to production, and to the greatest efficiency of labour, this change is wholly beneficial. In some cases it is attended with drawbacks, rather social than economical, the nature of which has been already hinted at. But whatever disadvantages may be supposed to attend on the change from a small to a large system of production, they are not applicable to the change from a large to a still larger. When, in any employment, the régime of independent small producers has either never been possible, or has been superseded, and the system of many work-people under one management has become fully established, from that time any further enlargement in the scale of production is generally an unqualified benefit. It is obvious, for example, how great an economy of labour would be obtained if London were supplied by a single gas or water company instead of the existing plurality. While there are even as many as two, this implies double establishments of all sorts, when one only, with a small increase, could probably perform the whole operation equally well; double sets of machinery and works, when the whole of the gas or water required could generally be produced by one set only; even double sets of pipes, if the companies did not prevent this needless expense by agreeing upon a division of the territory. Were there only one establishment, it could make lower charges, consistently with obtaining the rate of profit now realized. But would it do so? Even if it did not, the community in the aggregate would still be a gainer: since the shareholders are a part of the community, and they would obtain higher profits while the consumers paid only the same. It is, however, an error to suppose that the prices are ever permanently kept down by the competition of these companies. Where competitors are so few, they always end by agreeing not to compete. They may run a race of cheapness to ruin a new candidate, but as soon as he has established his footing they come to terms with him. When, therefore, a business of real public importance can only be carried on advantageously upon so large a scale as to render the liberty of competition almost illusory, it is an unthrifty dispensation of the public resources that several costly sets of arrangements should be kept up for the purpose of rendering to the community this one service. It is much better to treat it at once as a public function; and if it be not such as the government itself could beneficially undertake, it should be made over entire to the company or association which will perform it on the best terms for the public. In the case of railways, for example, no one can desire to see the enormous waste of capital and land (not to speak of increased nuisance) involved in the construction of a second railway to connect the same places already united by an existing one; while the two would not do the work better than it could be done by one, and after a short time would probably be amalgamated. Only one such line ought to be permitted, but the control over that line never ought to be parted with by the State, unless on a temporary concession, as in France; and the vested right which Parliament has allowed to be acquired by the existing companies, like all other proprietary rights which are opposed to public utility, is morally valid only as a claim to compensation.
§4. The question between the large and the small systems of production as applied to agriculture—between large and small farming, the grande and the petite culture—stands, in many respects, on different grounds from the general question between great and small industrial establishments. In its social aspect, and as an element in the Distribution of Wealth, this question will occupy us hereafter: but even as a question of production, the superiority of the large system in agriculture is by no means so clearly established as in manufactures.
I have already remarked, that the operations of agriculture are little susceptible of benefit from the division of labour. There is but little separation of employments even on the largest farm. The same persons may not in general attend to the live stock, to the marketing, and to the cultivation of the soil; but much beyond that primary and simple classification the subdivision is not carried. The combination of labour of which agriculture is susceptible, is chiefly that which Mr. Wakefield terms Simple Co-operation; several persons helping one another in the same work, at the same time and place. But I confess it seems to me that this able writer attributes more importance to that kind of co-operation, in reference to agriculture properly so called, than it deserves. None of the common farming operations require much of it. There is no particular advantage in setting a great number of people to work together in ploughing or digging or sowing the same field, or even in mowing or reaping it unless time presses. A single family can generally supply all the combination of labour necessary for these purposes. And in the works in which an union of many efforts is really needed, there is seldom found any impracticability in obtaining it where farms are small.
The waste of productive power by subdivision of the land often amounts to a great evil, but this applies chiefly to a subdivision so minute, that the cultivators have not enough land to occupy their time. Up to that point the same principles which recommend large manufactories are applicable to agriculture. For the greatest productive efficiency, it is generally desirable (though even this proposition must be received with qualifications) that no family who have any land, should have less than they could cultivate, or than will fully employ their cattle and tools. These, however, are not the dimensions of large farms, but of what are reckoned in England very small ones. The large farmer has some advantage in the article of buildings. It does not cost so much to house a great number of cattle in one building, as to lodge them equally well in several buildings. There is also some advantage in implements. A small farmer is not so likely to possess expensive instruments. But the principal agricultural implements, even when of the best construction, are not expensive. It may not answer to a small farmer to own a threshing machine, for the small quantity of corn he has to thresh; but there is no reason why such a machine should not in every neighbourhood be owned in common, or provided by some person to whom the others pay a consideration for its use; especially as, when worked by steam, they are so constructed as to be moveable.*44 *45 The large farmer can make some saving in cost of carriage. There is nearly as much trouble in carrying a small portion of produce to market, as a much greater produce; in bringing home a small, as a much larger quantity of manures, and articles of daily consumption. There is also the greater cheapness of buying things in large quantities. These various advantages must count for something, but it does not seem that they ought to count for very much. In England, for some generations, there has been little experience of small farms; but in Ireland the experience has been ample, not merely under the worst but under the best management; and the highest Irish authorities may be cited in opposition to the opinion which on this subject commonly prevails in England. Mr. Blacker, for example, one of the most experienced agriculturists and successful improvers in the North of Ireland, whose experience was chiefly in the best cultivated, which are also the most minutely divided, parts of the country, was of opinion, that tenants holding farms not exceeding from five to eight or ten acres, could live comfortably and pay as high a rent as any large farmer whatever. "I am firmly persuaded," (he says,*46) "that the small farmer who holds his own plough and digs his own ground, if he follows a proper rotation of crops, and feeds his cattle in the house, can undersell the large farmer, or in other words can pay a rent which the other cannot afford; and in this I am confirmed by the opinion of many practical men who have well considered the subject... The English farmer of 700 to 800 acres is a kind of man approaching to what is known by the name of a gentleman farmer. He must have his horse to ride, and his gig, and perhaps an overseer to attend to his labourers; he certainly cannot superintend himself the labour going on in a farm of 800 acres." After a few other remarks, he adds, "Besides all these drawbacks, which the small farmer knows little about, there is the great expense of carting out the manure from the homestead to such a great distance, and again carting home the crop. A single horse will consume the produce of more land than would feed a small farmer and his wife and two children. And what is more than all, the large farmer says to his labourers, go to your work; but when the small farmer has occasion to hire them, he says, come; the intelligent reader will, I dare say, understand the difference."
One of the objections most urged against small farms is, that they do not and cannot maintain, proportionally to their extent, so great a number of cattle as large farms, and that this occasions such a deficiency of manure, that a soil much subdivided must always be impoverished. It will be found, however, that subdivision only produces this effect when it throws the land into the hands of cultivators so poor as not to possess the amount of live stock suitable to the size of their farms. A small farm and a badly stocked farm are not synonymous. To make the comparison fairly, we must suppose the same amount of capital which is possessed by the large farmers to be disseminated among the small ones. When this condition, or even any approach to it, exists, and when stall feeding is practised (and stall feeding now begins to be considered good economy even on large farms), experience, far from bearing out the assertion that small farming is unfavourable to the multiplication of cattle, conclusively establishes the very reverse. The abundance of cattle, and copious use of manure, on the small farms of Flanders, are the most striking features in that Flemish agriculture which is the admiration of all competent judges, whether in England or on the Continent.*47
The disadvantage, when disadvantage there is, of small or rather of peasant farming, as compared with capitalist farming, must chiefly consist in inferiority of skill and knowledge; but it is not true, as a general fact, that such inferiority exists. Countries of small farms and peasant farming, Flanders and Italy, had a good agriculture many generations before England, and theirs is still , as a whole, probably the best agriculture in the world. The empirical skill, which is the effect of daily and close observation, peasant farmers often possess in an eminent degree. The traditional knowledge, for example, of the culture of the vine, possessed by the peasantry of the countries where the best wines are produced, is extraordinary. There is no doubt an absence of science, or at least of theory; and to some extent a deficiency of the spirit of improvement, so far as relates to the introduction of new processes. There is also a want of means to make experiments, which can seldom be made with advantage except by rich proprietors or capitalists. As for those systematic improvements which operate on a large tract of country at once (such as great works of draining or irrigation) or which for any other reasons do really require large numbers of workmen combining their labour, these are not in general to be expected from small farmers, or even small proprietors, though combination among them for such purposes is by no means unexampled, and will become more common as their intelligence is more developed.
Against these disadvantages is to be placed, where the tenure of land is of the requisite kind, an ardour of industry absolutely unexampled in any other condition of agriculture. This is a subject on which the testimony of competent witnesses is unanimous. The working of the petite culture cannot be fairly judged where the small cultivator is merely a tenant, and not even a tenant on fixed conditions, but (as until lately in Ireland) at a nominal rent greater than can be paid, and therefore practically at a varying rent always amounting to the utmost that can be paid. To understand the subject, it must be studied where the cultivator is the proprietor, or at least a métayer with a permanent tenure; where the labour he exerts to increase the produce and value of the land avails wholly, or at least partly, to his own benefit and that of his descendants. In another division of our subject, we shall discuss at some length the important subject of tenures of land, and I defer till then any citation of evidence on the marvellous industry of peasant proprietors. It may suffice here to appeal to the immense amount of gross produce which, even without a permanent tenure, English labourers generally obtain from their little allotments; a produce beyond comparison greater than a large farmer extracts, or would find it his interest to extract, from the same piece of land.
And this I take to be the true reason why large cultivation is generally most advantageous as a mere investment for profit. Land occupied by a large farmer is not, in one sense of the word, farmed so highly. There is not nearly so much labour expended on it. This is not on account of any economy arising from combination of labour, but because, by employing less, a greater return is obtained in proportion to the outlay. It does not answer to any one to pay others for exerting all the labour which the peasant, or even the allotment-holder, gladly undergoes when the fruits are to be wholly reaped by himself. This labour, however, is not unproductive: it all adds to the gross produce. With anything like equality of skill and knowledge, the large farmer does not obtain nearly so much from the soil as the small proprietor, or the small farmer with adequate motives to exertion: but though his returns are less, the labour is less in a still greater degree, and as whatever labour he employs must be paid for, it does not suit his purpose to employ more.
But although the gross produce of the land is greatest, cæteris paribus,under small cultivation, and although, therefore, a country is able on that system to support a larger aggregate population, it is generally assumed by English writers that what is termed the net produce, that is, the surplus after feeding the cultivators, must be smaller; that therefore, the population disposable for all other purposes, for manufactures, for commerce and navigation, for national defence, for the promotion of knowledge, for the liberal professions, for the various functions of government, for the arts and literature, all of which are dependent on this surplus for their existence as occupations, must be less numerous; and that the nation, therefore (waiving all question as to the condition of the actual cultivators), must be inferior in the principal elements of national power, and in many of those of general well-being. This, however, has been taken for granted much too readily. Undoubtedly the non-agricultural population will bear a less ratio to the agricultural, under small than under large cultivation. But that it will be less numerous absolutely, is by no means a consequence. If the total population, agricultural and non-agricultural, is greater, the non-agricultural portion may he more numerous in itself, and may yet be a smaller proportion of the whole. If the gross produce is larger, the net produce may be larger, and yet bear a smaller ratio to the gross produce. Yet even Mr. Wakefield sometimes appears to confound these distinct ideas. In France it is computed  that two-thirds of the whole population are agricultural. In England, at most, one-third. Hence Mr. Wakefield infers, that "as in France only three people are supported by the labour of two cultivators, while in England the labour of two cultivators supports six people, English agriculture is twice as productive as French agriculture," owing to the superior efficiency of large farming through combination of labour. But in the first place, the facts themselves are overstated. The labour of two persons in England does not quite support six people, for there is not a little  food imported from foreign countries, and from Ireland. In France, too, the labour of two cultivators does much more than supply the food of three persons. It provides the three persons, and occasionally foreigners, with flax, hemp, and to a certain extent with silk, oils, tobacco, and latterly sugar, which in England are wholly obtained from abroad; nearly all the timber used in France is of home growth, nearly all which is used in England is imported; the principal fuel of France  is procured and brought to market by persons reckoned among agriculturists, in England by persons not so reckoned. I do not take into calculation hides and wool, these products being common to both countries, nor wine or brandy produced for home consumption, since England has a corresponding production of beer and spirits; but England has  no material export of either article, and a great importation of the last, while France supplies wines and spirits to the whole world. I say nothing of fruit, eggs, and such minor particles of agricultural produce, in which the export trade of France is enormous. But not to lay undue stress on these abatements, we will take the statement as it stands. Suppose that two persons, in England, do bonâ fide produce the food of six, while in France, for the same purpose, the labour of four is requisite. Does it follow that England must have a larger surplus for the support of a non-agricultural population? No; but merely that she can devote two-thirds of her whole produce to the purpose, instead of one-third. Suppose the produce to be twice as great, and the one-third will amount to as much as the two-thirds. The fact might be, that owing to the greater quantity of labour employed on the French system, the same land would produce food for twelve persons which on the English system would only produce it for six: and if this were so, which would be quite consistent with the conditions of the hypothesis, then although the food for twelve was produced by the labour of eight, while the six were fed by the labour of only two, there would be the same number of hands disposable for other employment in the one country as in the other. I am not contending that the fact is so. I know that the gross produce per acre in France as a whole (though not in its most improved districts) averages much less than in England, and that, in proportion to the extent and fertility of the two countries, England has, in the sense we are now speaking of, much the largest disposable population. But the disproportion certainly is not to be measured by Mr. Wakefield's simple criterion. As well might it be said that agricultural labour in the United States, where, by a late census (1840), four families in every five appeared to be engaged in agriculture, must be still more inefficient than in France.
The inferiority of French cultivation (which, taking the count as a whole, must be allowed to be real, though much exaggerated) is probably more owing to the lower general average of industrial skill and energy in that country, than to any special cause; and even if partly the effect of minute subdivision, it does not prove that small farming is disadvantageous, but only (what is undoubtedly the fact) that farms in France are very frequently too small, and, what is worse, broken up into an almost incredible number of patches or parcelles, most inconveniently dispersed and parted from one another.
As a question, not of gross, but of net produce, the comparative merits of the grande and the petite culture, especially when the small farmer is also the proprietor, cannot be looked upon as decided. It is a question on which good judges at present differ. The current of English opinion is  in favour of large farms: on the Continent, the weight of authority seems to be on the other side. Professor Rau, of Heidelberg, the author of one of the most comprehensive and elaborate of extant treatises on political economy, and who has that large acquaintance with facts and authorities on his own subject, which generally characterises his countrymen, lays it down as a settled truth, that small or moderate-sized farms yield not only a larger gross but a larger net produce: though, he adds, it is desirable there should be some great proprietors, to lead the way in new improvements.*48 The most apparently impartial and discriminating judgment that I have met with is that of M. Passy, who (always speaking with reference to net produce) gives his verdict in favour of large farms for grain and forage; but, for the kinds of culture which require much labour and attention, places the advantage wholly on the side of small cultivation; including in this description, not only the vine and the olive, where a considerable amount of care and labour must be bestowed on each individual plant, but also roots, leguminous plants, and those which furnish the materials of manufactures. The small size, and consequent multiplication, of farms, according to all authorities, are extremely favourable to the abundance of many minor products of agriculture.*49
It is evident that every labourer who extracts from the land more than his own food, and that of any family he may have, increases the means of supporting a non-agricultural population. Even if his surplus is no more than enough to buy clothes, the labourers who make the clothes are a non-agricultural population, enabled to exist by food which he produces. Every agricultural family, therefore, which produces its own necessaries, adds to the net produce of agriculture; and so does every person born on the land, who by employing himself on it, adds more to its gross produce than the mere food which he eats. It is questionable whether, even in the most subdivided districts of Europe which are cultivated by the proprietors, the multiplication of hands on the soil has approached, or tends to approach, within a great distance of this limit. In France, though the subdivision is confessedly too great, there is proof positive that it is far from having reached the point at which it would begin to diminish the power of supporting a non-agricultural population. This is demonstrated by the great increase of the towns; which have of late  increased in a much greater ratio than the population generally,*50 showing (unless the condition of the town labourers is becoming rapidly deteriorated, which there is no reason to believe) that even by the unfair and inapplicable test of proportions, the productiveness of agriculture must be on the increase. This, too, concurrently with the amplest evidence that in the more improved districts of France, and in some which, until lately, were among the unimproved, there is a considerably increased consumption of country produce by the country population itself.
*51Impressed with the conviction that, of all faults which can be committed by a scientific writer on political and social subjects, exaggeration, and assertion beyond the evidence, most require to be guarded against, I limited myself in the early editions of this work to the foregoing very moderate statements. I little knew how much stronger my language might have been without exceeding the truth, and how much the actual progress of French agriculture surpassed anything which I had at that time sufficient grounds to affirm. The investigations of that eminent authority on agricultural statistics, M. Léonce de Lavergne, undertaken by desire of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences of the Institute of France, have led to the conclusion that since the Revolution of 1789, the total produce of French agriculture has doubled; profits and wages having both increased in about the same, and rent in a still greater ratio. M. de Lavergne, whose impartiality is one of his greatest merits, is, moreover, so far in this instance from the suspicion of having a case to make out, that he is labouring to show, not how much French agriculture has accomplished, but how much still remains for it to do. "We have required" (he says) "no less than seventy years to bring into cultivation two million hectares" (five million English acres) "of waste land, to suppress half our fallows, double our agricultural products, increase our population by 30 per cent, our wages by 100 per cent, our rent by 150 per cent. At this rate we shall require three quarters of a century more to arrive at the point which England has already attained."*52
After this evidence, we have surely now heard the last of the incompatibility of small properties and small farms with agricultural improvement. The only question which remains open is one of degree; the comparative rapidity of agricultural improvement under the two systems; and it is the general opinion of those who are equally well acquainted with both, that improvement is greatest under a due admixture between them.
In the present chapter, I do not enter on the question between great and small cultivation in any other respect than as a question of production, and of the efficiency of labour. We shall return to it hereafter as affecting the distribution of the produce, and the physical and social well-being of the cultivators themselves; in which aspects it deserves, and requires, a still more particular examination.*53
Notes for this chapter
Page 214 et seqq.
Supra, chap. vi.
Book I. Chapter IX. Section 2
[This paragraph was added in the 6th ed. (1865).]
Book I. Chapter IX. Section 4
 The observations in the text may hereafter require some degree of modification from inventions such as the steam plough and the reaping machine. The effect, however, of these improvements on the relative advantages of large and small farms, will not depend on the efficiency of the instruments, but on their costliness. I see no reason to expect that this will be such as to make them inaccessible to small farmers, or combinations of small farmers.
[This reference to steam threshing machines was inserted in the 5th ed. (1862); and "until lately" in the reference to Ireland, infra, p. 149.]
Prize Essay on The Management of Landed Property in Ireland, by William Blacker (1837), p. 23.
"The number of beasts fed on a farm of which the whole is arable land," (says the elaborate and intelligent treatise on Flemish Husbandry, from personal observation and the best sources, published in the Library of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge,) "is surprising to those who are not acquainted with the mode in which the food is prepared for the cattle. A beast for every three acres of land is a common proportion, and in very small occupations, where much spade husbandry is used, the proportion is still greater. After comparing the accounts given in a variety of places and situations of the average quantity of milk which a cow gives when fed in the stall, the result is, that it greatly exceeds that of our best dairy farms, and the quantity of butter made from a given quantity of milk is also greater. It appears astonishing that the occupier of only ten or twelve acres of light arable land should be able to maintain four or five cows, but the fact is notorious in the Wacs country." (pp. 59, 60.)
This subject is treated very intelligently in the work of M. Passy, Des Systêmes de Culture et de leur Influence sur l'Economie Sociale, one of the most impartial discussions, as between the two systems, which has yet appeared in France.
"Without doubt it is England that, on an equal surface, feeds the greatest number of animals; Holland and some parts of Lombardy can alone vie with her in this respect: but is this a consequence of the mode of cultivation, and have not climate and local situation a share in producing it? Of this I think there can be no doubt. In fact, whatever may have been said, wherever large and small cultivation meet in the same place, the latter, though it cannot support as many sheep, possesses, all things considered, the greatest quantity of manure-producing animals.
"In Belgium, for example, the two provinces of smallest farms are Antwerp and East Flanders, and they possess on an average for every 100 hectares (250 acres) of cultivated land, 74 horned cattle and 14 sheep. The two provinces where we find the large farms are Namur and Hainaut, and they average, for every 100 hectares of cultivated ground, only 30 horned cattle and 45 sheep. Reckoning, as is the custom, ten sheep as equal to one head of horned cattle, we find in the first case, the equivalent of 76 beasts to maintain the fecundity of the soil; in the latter case less than 35, a difference which must be called enormous. (See the statistical documents published by the Minister of the Interior.) The abundance of animals, in the parts of Belgium which are most subdivided, is nearly as great as in England. Calculating the number in England in proportion only to the cultivated ground, there are for each 100 hectares, 65 horned cattle and nearly 260 sheep, together equal to 91 of the former, being only an excess of 15. It should besides be remembered, that in Belgium stall feeding being continued nearly the whole year, hardly any of the manure is lost, while in England grazing in the open fields diminishes considerably the quantity which can be completely utilized.
"Again, in the Department of the Nord, the arrondissements which have the smallest farms support the greatest quantity of animals. While the arrondissements of Lille and Hazebrouek, besides a greater number of horses, maintain the equivalent of 52 and 46 head of horned cattle, those of Dunkirk and Avesnes, where the farms are larger, produce the equivalent of only 44 and 40 head. (See the statistics of France published by the Minister of Commerce.)
"A similar examination extended to other portions of France would yield similar results. In the immediate neighbourhood of towns, no doubt, the small farmers, having no difficulty in purchasing manure, do not maintain animals: but, as a general rule, the kind of cultivation which takes most out of the ground must be that which is obliged to be most active in renewing its fertility. Assuredly the small farms cannot have numerous flocks of sheep, and this is an inconvenience; but they support more horned cattle than the large farms. To do so is a necessity they cannot escape from, in any country where the demands of consumers require their existence: if they could not fulfil this condition, they must perish.
"The following are particulars, the exactness of which is fully attested by the excellence of the work from which I extract them, the statistics of the commune of Vensat (department of Puy de Dôme), lately published by Dr. Jusseraud, mayor of the commune. They are the more valuable, as they throw full light on the nature of the changes which the extension of small farming has, in that district, produced in the number and kind of animals by whose manure the productiveness of the soil is kept up and increased. The commune consists of 1612 hectares, divided into 4600 parcelles, owned by 591 proprietors, and of this extent 1466 hectares are under cultivation. In 1790, seventeen farms occupied two-thirds of the whole, and twenty others the remainder. Since then the land has been much divided, and the subdivision is now extreme. What has been the effect on the quantity of cattle? A considerable increase. In 1790 there were only about 300 horned cattle, and from 1800 to 2000 sheep; there are now 676 of the former and only 533 of the latter. Thus 1300 sheep have been replaced by 376 oxen and cows, and (all things taken into account) the quantity of manure has increased in the ratio of 490 to 729, or more than 48 per cent, not to mention that the animals being now stronger and better fed, yield a much greater contribution than formerly to the fertilization of the ground.
"Such is the testimony of facts on the point. It is not true, then, that small farming feeds fewer animals than large; on the contrary, local circumstances being the same, it feeds a greater number: and this is only what might have been presumed; for, requiring more from the soil, it is obliged to take greater pains for keeping up its productiveness. All the other reproaches cast upon small farming, when collated one by one with facts justly appreciated, will be seen to be no better founded, and to have been made only because the countries compared with one another were differently situated in respect to the general causes of agricultural prosperity." (pp. 116-120.)
See pp. 352 and 353 of a French translation published at Brussels in 1839, by M. Fred. de Kemmeter, of Ghent.
"In the department of the Nord," says M. Passy, "a farm of 20 hectares (50 acres) produces in calves, dairy produce, poultry, and eggs, a value of sometimes 1000 francs (£40) a year: which, deducting expenses, is an addition to the net produce of 15 to 20 francs per hectare." Des Systèmes de Culture, p. 114.
 During the interval between the census of 1851 and that of 1856, the increase of the population of Paris alone exceeded the aggregate increase of all France: while nearly all the other large towns likewise showed an increase.
[This and the following paragraph were added in the 5th ed. (1862).]
Economie Rurale de la France depuis 1789. Par M. Léonce de Lavergne, Membre de l'Institut et de la Société Centrale d'Agriculture de France. 2mo éd. p. 59.
[See Appendix H. Large and Small Farming.]
Book I. Chapter X. Section 2
End of Notes
Return to top