Serfdom vs capitalist exploitation

If the condition of Vagabondage were so unappetising, then there would have been no need for laws to prevent it. Runaways would have seen the error of their ways and, chastened by the scathing experience of freedom, crawled back to the manor.

1388 The Statute of Cambridge (“Poor Law”) concerning Labourers, Servants and Beggars strengthened the powers of the justices of the peace; distinguished between “sturdy beggars” capable of work and “impotent beggars” incapacitated by age or infirmity; forbade servants to move out of their “hundred” without legal authority; and made each “hundred” responsible for housing and keeping its own paupers, but made no special provision for maintaining the sick poor. This statute pointed the way to the Tudor Poor Laws, but for the next two centuries the aged and infirm depended upon charity for survival.
1494 Vagabonds and Beggars Act. “Vagabonds, idle and suspected persons shall be set in the stocks for three days and three nights and have none other sustenance but bread and water and then shall be put out of Town. Every beggar suitable to work shall resort to the Hundred where he last dwelled, is best known, or was born and there remain upon the pain aforesaid”. Beggars who were too infirm to work were to remain in their Hundred and be permitted to beg.

These laws are based on the proposition that the marginal labourer was of greater utility tied to his master and community than “free” to seek his own livelihood as he saw fit. In other words, the master was expected to say to his labourers, “You must work for me and for none other, whether you like it or not.”

Howard’s IR laws are based on the opposite proposition. In other words, the employer is expected to say to her labourers, “If you don’t want to work for me under the condtions that I find acceptable, there’s the door.”

I didn’t mean to be pedantic about this question of serfdom, because serfdom has a fairly precise meaning. And the experience of serfdom was almost universal in Europe and most of Asia. And it is a practice which has only quite recently disappeared from the world.
As a labour management (IR) device, serfdom is based on the supposition that there will be episodic need for labour that may outstrip its supply at various times of the year, and based on the supposition that the fixed capital costs of keeping surplus labour around at other times of the year will be tolerable.

Howard’s IR reforms are based on the supposition that the costs of keeping surplus labour during troughs in the economic cycle will be intolerable for employers.

This represents a long-term and enormous change in the relationship between the factors of production.


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