We lately said a word on Rich Folks, hinting that so far from being the monsters of iniquity which moralists and preachers have for ages denounced them, they are, taken all in all, public benefactors; for without the accumulation of wealth, by means of thrift and honest enterprise, the world would still have been in a deplorably backward condition. Riches are of course comparative. An artisan who by savings and diligence in his calling has insured for himself a competence for old age, is doubtless rich and respectable. Doing his best, and with something to the good, he is worthy of our esteem. What he has laid aside in a spirit of economy goes to an augmentation of the national wealth. In a small way he is a capitalist—his modicum of surplus earnings helping to promote important schemes of public interest.
Great Britain, with its immense field for successful industry and enterprise, excels any country in the capacity for saving. In almost every branch of art there is a scope for thrift beyond what is obtainable elsewhere. Thriftiness, however, among the manual labouring classes was scarcely thought of in times within living remembrance. Savings-banks to receive spare earnings came into existence only in the early years of the present century. Now, spread in all directions, and established in the army and navy, they possess deposits amounting to nearly thirty millions sterling. Besides these accumulations, much is consigned to Friendly Societies; and it is pleasing to observe that within the last twenty years, the artisan classes have expended large sums in the purchase of dwellings purposely erected for their accommodation. All this looks like an advance in thrifty habits—a stride in civilisation.
But after every admission of this kind has been made, it is too certain that vast numbers live from hand to mouth, save nothing whatever from earnings however large, and are ever on the brink of starvation. In this respect, the working classes, as they are usually styled, fall considerably below the peasantry of France, who, though noted for their ignorance, and for the most part unable to read, have an extraordinary aptitude for saving; of which there is no more significant proof than their heavy loans to government when pressed to pay an enormous war indemnity to Germany. As the thrift of the French agriculturists sinks to the character of a sordid parsimony, which is adverse to social improvement, no political economist can speak of it with unqualified admiration. It only shews what can be done by two or three things—the economical use of earnings, the economical use of time, and the strict cultivation of temperate habits. From each of these predominating qualities a lesson might be judiciously taken. Though a lively race, fond of amusement, the French peasantry, and we may add, the peasantry of Switzerland, know the value of time. In them the 'gospel of idleness,' so pertinaciously preached up by indiscreet enthusiasts, has no adherents. In all our experience, we have never seen such assiduity in daily labour from early morn till eve, as among the French and Swiss rural population. They would repudiate any dictation of a hard and fast line as to hours. Time is their beneficent inheritance, to make the most of for themselves and families.
Pity it is that in our own country time is so unthriftily squandered. Obviously there is a growing disposition among the operative classes to diminish the daily hours of labour, to the detriment of individual and general prosperity. When we began life, ten hours a day, or sixty in the week, were considered a fair thing. Then came a diminution to nine, to eight hours, along with whole and half-holidays, but no lowering of wages. How this is to go on, we are unable to explain. We fear that unless something like common-sense intervene, a degree of individual and national disaster will ensue scarcely contemplated by the votaries of 'St Lubbock.' In his late speech at the opening of the Manchester Town-hall, Mr Bright adverted to the awkward consequences of indefinitely shortening the hours of labour. He is reported to have said: 'We have for many years past been gradually diminishing the period of time during which our machinery can work. We are surrounded by a combination whose object is not only to diminish the time of labour and the products of labour, but to increase the remuneration of labour. Every half an hour you diminish the time of labour, and every farthing you raise the payment of labour which is not raised by the ordinary economic and proper causes, has exactly the same effect upon us as the increase of the tariffs of foreign countries. Thus we often find, with all our philanthropy in wishing the people to have more recreation, and with our anxiety that the workman should better his condition through his combination, that we are ourselves aiding—it may be inevitably and necessarily—but it is a fact that we are aiding to increase the difficulties under which we labour in sending foreign countries the products of the industry of these districts; and we must bear in mind that great cities have fallen before Manchester and Liverpool were known; and that there have been great cities, great mercantile cities on the shores of the Mediterranean, the cities of Phœnicia, the cities of Carthage, Genoa, and Venice.' Such