Wednesday 16 November 2016

16th October 1816: 'Investigator' writes to the Leeds Mercury in defence of Machinery

Mr. EDITOR—I do not all agree with "Observator," in your last week’s Mercury, in the recommendation of a Tax on Machinery, neither do I think many of his arguments and conclusions are good ones. His remarks appear to have arisen from a desire to relieve his country from the difficulties under which it labours. But I conceive that, as well as many others, he has mistaken the legitimate objects that occasion our distress, and of course failed in pointing out where we are to look for remedies. Though pauperism may have increased with the extension of machinery, it does not follow that they should be cause and effect, nor even that there should be any connection between them. I believe there has not been any general scarcity of work for these many years past, until the present, nor while our trade flourished, did many apply to their parishes for want of work. Though they might be displaced by machinery yet they found employ in some other department, and I believe seldom had occasion to apply to their parishes. The great increase of pauperism may be accounted for by the lax state of the morals of the lowest class, and the decay of those principles of honour, which, from considering it shameful to become chargeable to their parish, taught them to provide for themselves against a time of need. What ought to have been laid up for the winter has been too often spent in the false sunshine of dissipation. There are still townships where this honour is preserved, when the labourer, like the industrious ant, provides against a day of scarcity, and I wish this were more general; but improvidence is one of the marked characteristics of our manufacturing poor. I agree with "Observator" that the factory system has had a great share in sapping the morals of the poor, and I lament it extremely with him.

His idea of a tax on machinery is so extremely speculative and impolitic, that I think very few words needful on that subject. For it is plain to be seen that such a tax on machinery as would create an expensive demand for manual labour, must be extremely high; machinery being so much cheaper a power, not to say any thing of the superior manner in which it performs many of the operations of the manufacturing process. Whatever tax might be laid on machinery would ultimately fall on the manufactured article, and would raise the price so much, that there is little doubt it would extinguish our export trade. If this is to be extinguished, as seems to be threatened from all more quarters than one, it is time for the British merchants, whose cheif trade is in the export of manufactured goods, to be looking around for some other country, where they may employ their capital unrestrainedly.

Instead of pressing remedies that would be worse than the evil they seek to cure, it is the duty of every Briton, quietly to wait a little longer for the amendment of the times. There is already in many places a considerable improvement, and I have no doubt the evil will work its own cure. We are not alone in our difficulties; so far from this, I know few countries where the people are in a better situation than in our own. If the disposition that is shown to relieve distresses by those are able to give, be met with equal readiness by the poor to submit to their deprivations for a time, I have no doubt but the sun, which has for a season been covered with spots, will again shine with increased splendour on the people of Great Britain.


Leeds, November 11th, 1816.

This letter was published in the Leeds Mercury of 16th November 1816.

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