Mr. Birney to Mr. Evarts.
The Hague, September 30, 1877. (Received October 13.)
Sir: Your “separate” communication of August 7th ultimo invites my attention to the question how the United States may best enlarge their trade with the Netherlands, and refers me to a rule which directs reports to be sent “upon such miscellaneous subjects as may be of importance,” specifying among others “price of labor and food.”[Page 125]
The first essential in aid of interchange of commodities is the possession of adequate shipping, fitted out, supplied and manned at a rate of expenditure that will enable the United States to compete successfully with the merchant marine of the Netherlands. The United States have an advantage over nearly all the nations of Europe by being in possession of virgin forests that furnish all the timber necessary for ship-building. But the Dutch trader can send his vessels to the United States, import the timber, and with it build a vessel at less cost than he could build or buy it in the United States. This is owing to the much lower wages which he pays for labor here. Also, when he proceeds to equip, supply, and man the vessel, he does it in this country at a very much lower rate. He will, for example, engage a crew of able-bodied seamen for from $10 to $12 per month each, at a rate lessened by half, at least, from that which he would be obliged to pay in the ports of the United States.
It is only stating what is self-evident to all commercial dealers, that, for the encouragement of interchange of commodities vessels must have remunerative freights upon outward as well as return trips. The statistics of the last year show that vessels coming from the United States to this country brought cargoes, but that one-third of the number returned in ballast. Within a few years the article of petroleum has come into universal use in Holland. It is all imported from the United States, but the vessels that bring it, for the most part, return freighted only with empty casks. There is also here continuous and reliable demand for cotton, grain, meat, lard, bacon, tobacco, and resin. The importation of these articles would be much larger if the vessels that bring them could carry back profitably coffee, madder, tin, glassware, gin, wine, linen goods, and other manufactured articles. Holland being so centrally situated, has choice of the markets of the world. As a matter of course, she will take her wares where the cost of introducing them will be the least; and she will select what she needs for home consumption from the countries that can furnish them at the cheapest rate. Her ships, equipped and manned at the reduced rate referred to, will successfully compete with the vessels of any nation having a higher rate.
In the present antagonism between capital and labor in the United; States, I cannot aid your inquiries better than by giving facts in regard to the price of labor and the condition of laborers in Holland.
In this country, upon an area of somewhat more than 20,000 English square miles, there live four millions of people. There perhaps cannot be found elsewhere an equal number occupying a similar area in which a larger amount of wealth has been accumulated in individual ownership, and in which the operatives or producers are more contented, and in possession of more of the ordinary needs of life, and less embarrassed by debt.
The average compensation of laborers in Holland does not exceed one-third of the average compensation of the same class in the United States. (I may note here that when I speak of prices, it will be more convenient to the reader to use the terms of the United States currency, the Holland florin, or its 100 cents, being of the same value as 40 cents United States.) The ordinary workman in this country receives from 40 to 60 cents per day, according to the number of hours in which he may have worked. It will not be amiss to remark that the difficulty which has often threatened to be serious in the United States has been satisfactorily solved here by paying the workman by the hour, and giving him the privilege to work as many hours as he pleases. The result is, that the time of work, instead of being less than ten hours, is almost invariably [Page 126]in excess. Some continue at work ten, some eleven, some twelve, and others even thirteen or fourteen hours. During the summer months there are eighteen hours of daylight in this latitude. They can commence, the working day at live or six o’clock in the morning, rest for breakfast between seven and eight, rest for second meal between twelve and one and a half, and the third time between four and five, quitting at any time before dark, which does not set in at that season until nine or nine and a half o’clock. That I may speak reliably, I have before me the time-book of the superintendent of the workmen of a large brick building being constructed for one of the government departments. The highest rate to the brick-layers is 7.20 cents per hour; others received from 5.20 cents to 6 cents per hour. So that for a day of ten hours, the best received 72 cents, the inferior 52 cents, and at the same rate for additional hours, many of them making 14 hours per day. Men employed in sweeping the streets of the city receive 40 cents per day. Farm hands in the country receive less. Nor is this low rate of compensation confined to those called laborers. It pervades all callings. The policemen of the city are paid from $2.80 to $4 per week; letter-carriers are paid at the same rate; well trained men servants who speak more than one language offer their services for from $8 to $10 per month; female cooks for from $3 to $4 per month; house-maids for from $2.50 to $3.50 for the same time. An experienced coachman hires for $15 per month, and supports himself, wife, and child upon this sum.
Efficient merchant-clerks receive $300to$600 per annum; schoolteachers in academies receive from $400 to $500, and the rector or principal of the chief high school in the city receives $1,100 per annum. The annual allowance for members of Parliament is $800, and for ministers of state or cabinet officers $5,000 per annum. Barristers are regarded as at the top of the profession when their receipts reach $8,000.
Sitting one day at dinner with a very intelligent and prominent officer of the government, I inquired of him how it was possible for employés to live upon such meager wages. “Possible!” said he; “they live very well; and experience has shown that the laborers have more laved, as a general rule, at the end of the year at the present rate than when the compensation was higher.”
After many inquiries and some consideration given to the subject, I infer that the laboring population maintain themselves by the low rates of compensation for the following reasons:
1. They are accustomed to a careful economy. If their wages are only $3 per week, they will live within that amount by denying themselves indulgence in the more costly articles. For purposes of revenue the government treats meat and sugar as luxuries, and a tax is assessed upon so much of these articles as may be consumed within the country. They are therefore very sparingly used by workingmen. Meat is of higher price here than in the United States, and this price is kept up by the demand in the London market, where all that Holland can spare finds ready sale. On account of cheap labor, vegetables and other products of the farm sell very low. The cheaper grains are used for bread. The laboring man obtains his rent at a reasonable rate. As he lives chiefly in towns and cities, he takes an apartment or so much space as he actually needs for his family. Rents are low, because the taxes upon real estate are very moderate. In his dress he adopts the style and material that has been in use for many years. This can be made up at home, without resort to the shops. If he is employed on damp ground, he uses the wooden instead of leather shoes. Many articles he uses are as much lower in price than the same articles in the United States as the [Page 127]rate of his wages is lower than those given there. This difference in price may be illustrated by an example. Holland and the United States each import the stock or body of the silk hat from the same country. When you go into a store here to buy the article, after it, has passed through the hands of the operatives, you will be charged only $2.80 for the best quality, but you may pay for a similar article in the cities of the United States the sum of $8; and a like disparity will be found in the price of linen goods and other articles of ordinary wearing apparel.
2. Their economy is promoted by the careful preparation and prompt execution of the laws; of their country.
All the laws are prepared and proposed by the ministers of state, having each in his department the responsibility of the conduct of the government. They propose nothing for which they do not anticipate the approval of a majority of both branches of the legislative assembly. When a bill is introduced, it is subject to all the amendments that may occur to any of the members. If, after being thus thoroughly considered, it passes into law, it is duly respected by all concerned, and its provisions are thoroughly and efficiently executed. The consequence of this care is that but few laws are passed, and those already passed are not frequently altered by amendments. All subordinates who have any share in their administration are faithful in their application. The result is that litigation is diminished in a remarkable degree.
Judges and magistrates are selected discreetly and from men of solid character and ripe experience. Certainty in the execution of the law is so invariable, that very few of the minor differences among men find their way into the courts. Disagreements between employers and employés have ready solution without the aid of attorneys or magistrates. The costs and fees of frivolous actions are in this way saved. In the city of the Hague, having a population of 100,000, there are only about a dozen lawyers who subsist upon practice at the bar.
3. The laboring population do not incur the expense of time and money connected with the excitement of political strife. Political elections here proceed as quietly as any other matter of business. Candidates for office are selected from men so well known to electors that scarcely any one deems it necessary to give them any more information than they already have. Processions, mass-meetings, and addresses to crowds are not in fashion. The government, in regulating the extent of suffrage, has regard to the protection of property by making the right dependent upon a property qualification. Every citizen in the Hague who pays taxes equal to $20 can vote $ and every citizen in Amsterdam who pays taxes equal to $50 votes. So that the limitation is affected by the size of the city in which the voter exercises the privilege of suffrage. In the country it is as low as $8. By long usage a candidate here has nothing to do with urging his own claims for office. A member of Parliament may be elected from any one of the districts of the realm, but he never appears in the district with the view of canvassing. To do so would only jeopardize his prospects of success.
As the non-voter is not occupied with the effort to gain office for himself or in hearing the harangues of others who would secure it, he devotes the time and money thus saved to the making of his tenement more comfortable. He cultivates and ornaments the patch of ground he may have about it. There is scarcely a house in Holland whose windows or surroundings are not decorated with flowers.
As offices are not used for partisan purposes, those who may be in office do not lose time in the apprehension of being suddenly ejected. The clerk of the first house of Parliament resigned a few days since, [Page 128]having served that body in the same capacity for thirty-five years. His deputy, who had been with him for twenty-five years, was made his successor. The register of deeds for this district has been in that office for forty years. One of the public printers has been in the service of the government for sixty-six years. Of the city board, or common council, of the Hague, seven members have been in office since 1851, having been re-elected at each successive election during that period. A public dinner was recently given to them in commemoration of their quarter-century service. In a town near by the postmaster holds the office that has been held by members of the same family for over one hundred and fifty years, his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather having been his predecessors. The present incumbent has had uninterrupted possession during the last twenty-five years. These instances show either that there is no great pressure on the part of outsiders, or that the appointing power is not moved by the clamor of applicants so long as the incumbent is competent and faithful.
4. There is economy in the steadiness of habit and pursuit. The business in which a young man has been trained is generally his business for life. He does not readily change from one pursuit to another. He is content with moderate gains without risk. Failure in business is a lasting stigma; so much so, that it descends from father to son and to grandson. The man who should fail in this country cannot well set up again. His business career is ended.
Instances are numerous in which employés have remained with their employers for twenty-five or thirty years and even longer. A large portion of the population, though constantly coming in contact with people from all parts of the world, retain the same habits, customs, and style of dress which their ancestors for many generations had. This saves the expense arising from change of fashion and change of material.
It is owing to this steadiness of pursuit and carefulness in regard to business obligations that what are called crises, or revulsions, in the commercial world do not occur in Holland. There are periods when business is said to be less active or profitable than at other times, sympathizing in this respect with the countries with which she has trade. Banks are conducted frugally, with no attempt at display or show, and consider that they are doing well if they realize from 3 to 4 per cent. per annum. One of the best informed gentlemen of Holland tells me that during the past forty-four years there has not been an instance of a failure among the banks of the country. A defaulting officer would not be tolerated. The currency has for a great while been perfectly sound, the paper of the banks during the past sixty years being at all times equal in value to gold.
A large portion of the government debt, contracted years ago by the war with Belgium and other such extraordinary occurrences, bears only 2½ per cent. interest. The government could at any time raise from its own citizens all the money it could need at from 3 to 4 per cent. interest.
5. There is economy to all the people in the fact that the state is moderate and discriminating in its method of assessing taxes. It seeks to draw its revenues chiefly from the productive property, making its assessments light upon what is yielding no income. For example, although the tax upon an unproductive city lot maybe small, yet if the owner gives notice that he is ready to put buildings upon it the lot will be exempted from taxation for seven years. And when the building is completed, if at any time it is unoccupied or tenantless, on application of the owner there will be an abatement of the tax. Taxes are rated upon houses by the number of doors, windows, and chimneys, for by [Page 129]this method the more costly dwellings, owned by the wealthy, pay proportion ably a higher tax.
While the government thus gathers its revenues by moderate assessments, it is in return prompt in extending protection to person and property. An efficient police is maintained, not only in the cities but throughout the country. A trespasser upon land will be at once arrested and made to suffer the penalty. The division line of the owner is as inviolable as the walls of his mansion. The largest possible freedom is allowed to every one so long as he is well disposed, but so soon as a violation of the law is threatened the most summary treatment is dealt out. Not long since there were indications of a formidable riot in Amsterdam, caused by the suppression of a noisy holiday. The government at the capital, upon the requisition of the burgomaster of that city, dispatched a military force that at once quelled the disturbance.
6. There is economy in the mode of building that saves property from destruction by fire. Since my residence here I have not heard a fire alarm, nor have I seen the gathering of an engine company. The only fire that I can obtain any account of during the past fifteen months, was the burning of the inside of a small confectionery shop, caused by the breaking of a gas-pipe. The buildings are constructed of brick or stone, and the roof covered with tile that cannot burn. I have not seen a wooden dwelling in Holland. Incendiarism is unknown. If it should occur, efforts would not cease till the perpetrator should be discovered and so severely punished as to discourage the crime.
In corroboration of the above statement it may be mentioned that the cost of insurance against loss by fire is almost nominal. It does not average more than the half of 1 per cent. And even at this rate insurance companies are very profitable, realizing from 12 to 16 per cent.
On two occasions since I have been here the soot in one of the chimneys of my residence took fire and made more than the usual smoke issue from the top; but before any of my household were aware that anything unusual was happening, the police were ringing hurriedly at the door, with fire-extinguishers in their hands.
Having thus referred to some of the causes which appear to be aids in enabling this people to prosper with a scale of low compensations, I may add generally that no compression is used on the part of the government to promote this condition of moderation. Each individual appears to possess the largest possible personal liberty. The people are more than usually good-humored, kind, and courteous. There is a very noticeable absence of the rougher element that is conspicuous in some countries. Strikes and trades unions seem to have no existence. The government assumes scarcely any responsibility in the direction of sumptuary laws. It does not direct what the subject shall eat or drink. It has adopted no license-law regulating the use or sale of intoxicating liquors. Any citizen may engage in the business of vending liquors, wholesale or retail, without prohibition. The business is taxed like other forms of business. Nor does it take charge of the domestic relations, in so far that it makes no provisions for actions at law for breach of promise to marry. It furnishes no redress by what are called actions of crim con. So far as the state is concerned, marriage is treated as a civil contract, and divorce is granted on proof of violations of its terms.
While the government is thus liberal in regard to the personal rights of its subjects, it is very successful in the management of its internal or fiscal affairs. It projects and carries on public works with a success not [Page 130]surpassed by individual enterprise. “It has ordered and controlled the building of a sufficient number of lines of railroads to accommodate the business of the country. It operates these by the agency of companies, who are joint stockholders; and although it has fixed the tariff of travel at a rate not exceeding one cent per mile for third-class passengers, which forms 75 per cent. of the whole amount of travel, yet it has not suffered a deficiency, and on the trunk-routes distributes satisfactory dividends.” Pilfering by officials rarely, if ever, occurs. It grants no free passes, and when an officer of the road wishes to give his friends a ride or an excursion he pays for the tickets as he would if he had no connection with the road. The greatest possible care is taken to avoid accidents. At every road-crossing a guard attends upon the passing of every train. A telegraph-bell notifies the guard from the last station of the approach of each train. He then closes the gate, and renders it impossible for ordinary vehicles to cross the track when the train is passing.
The government, through its post-office department, delivers by carriers, for two cents each, letters to every house in the kingdom—not only in the cities, but in the entire country. The report of the receipts and expenditures of this department, laid before me by the postmaster-general of Holland, embracing the time between the years 1849 and 1877, shows that for each year the receipts have been largely in excess of the expenditures. Take, for example, the year 1876. The receipts were $1,308,035.78, the expenditures were $865,690.19, giving to the state a profit of $442,345.59. The excess on the side of profit has been about in the same proportion during the past twenty-five years.
The government provides throughout the realm the best of wagon-roads. They are paved with stone or a very hard clinker brick. They are kept in perfect repair by a force that is constantly traversing them for that purpose. As the heavy freight is more cheaply carried by canal, the roads are better preserved. The streets of the city in which this is written are swept within every twenty-four hours, and the sweepings are sold for nearly enough to pay the expense. They are used for fertilizing the farming-land.
The government maintains an army of 60,000 men, besides 23,000 in one of the colonies. The soldiers are well clothed and fed while under training, but receive but nominal pay.
The state relies upon religious societies for the care of the poor within their districts. It has no general system of houses or farms for paupers.
As to education, the obligation the government assumes is to require municipalities to provide abundant schools for all youth between the ages of six and twelve years. The option remains with the municipality whether to make tuition free or to charge a moderate rate.
After this cursory statement of the price of labor and what the government is enabled to do for the people on an economical basis, it is not for me to discuss further the causes of this stable condition of affairs. Suffice it to say that, within the range of my observation, the inhabitants, as a whole, of no country appear more prosperous, more comfortable, or more contented.
The prices of nearly all commodities are placed upon their merits, without artificial props, and the markets of all the world are accessible for the introduction of whatever may be cheapest and most needed.
I have, &c.,