Bad Times

by Alfred Russel Wallace (1885)


The present work was written last March, in competition for the Pears prize of one hundred guineas for the best essay on the present depression of trade. It did not obtain the prize, and it is therefore now submitted to the judgment of the public—and more especially of the working classes, with some additional matter in the earlier chapters which could not be compressed within the limits assigned to the competing essays.

As our existing land-system in its relation to depression of trade is somewhat fully treated in the following pages, this seems the proper place to state that twelve years of the writer’s early life were spent in active employment as a land-surveyor and valuer, during which time he lived chiefly among farmers and country people in various parts of England and Wales. The interest in agriculture and rural life then acquired has been supplemented by observation and study during recent years; and in now coming forward as a writer on the land question he is not—as is generally assumed by his critics—taking up a new and unfamiliar subject, but is returning, with wider experience and more matured judgment, to one which occupied much of his attention during the best years of his early life.

Godalming, October 21st, 1885.


Conditions and Causes of Trade Depression

Chapter I—Statement of the Problem.
Commencement and long continuance of the depression—The problem of increasing wealth accompanied by depression and poverty—Our social economy a failure—Trade depression and pauperism probably due to common causes

Chapter II— Popular Explanations of the Depression.
Eight distinct explanations or suggestions recently put forth—Bad harvests not a primary cause—Reasons why the protective tariffs of foreign countries are not a chief cause—Preliminary objection to the currency as a cause of depression—The depreciation of silver, and appreciation of gold, not adequate causes—General argument against the currency theory—Over-production a symptom rather than a cause—The alleged causes may produce local and temporary, not general and long-continued depression

Chapter III—The Criteria of a True Explanation.
Depression of trade is essentially a diminished demand for our manufactured goods—Increase of bankruptcies—Diminution of exports for six consecutive years—A true cause must diminish purchasing power—Must also coincide with the period of depression—Reasons why the drink-traffic is not an effective cause

Chapter IV—Foreign Loans.
Change in relative amount of exports and imports—Foreign loan mania—Its immediate results—Its subsequent results—Railway mania in United States—Causes and effects of over-building ships—Mr. Mongredien on balance of imports and exports—Why our exports diminished—Great excess of imports not a sign of well-being, as alleged by many economists—Illustration of the effects of indiscriminate loans in depressing trade

Chapter V—Increase of War Expenditure.
Causes of recently increased war expenditure in Europe—Amount of the increase—Loss involved of three kinds—General estimate of the loss of human labour—Enormous increase of taxation—Destruction of life and property—Wars of the last twenty years—War as an injury to the merchant and manufacturer—War as it affects the workers—Power of the people to prevent foreign wars.

Chapter VI—Rural Depopulation.
Progressive depopulation of English counties since 1861—The diminution best shown by the registration sub-districts—Estimate of the extent of the exodus to the towns—Resulting decrease of food-production—Diminished consumption of the poor in the towns Pages

Chapter VII—Pauperism in England and in Ireland.
Assertion that pauperism is diminishing—Reasons for doubting this assertion—Evidence that real pauperism is increasing—Proof of this increase—Its effect on our home trade—The depopulation of Ireland—Also tends to increase the depression of trade

Chapter VIII—The Agricultural Depression.
Estimate of loss by the bad harvests—Three chief causes of agricultural depression—Diminution of farmer’s capital and of labourers employed—Decrease of arable land—Loss in food production—Mr. J. W. Barclay on the remedy for agricultural distress—Decrease of cultivated land in Ireland—Increase of bog and waste land

Chapter IX—Millionaires a Cause of Depression.
Increase of incomes since 1860—Progressive increase of millionaires—How great capitalists affect trade—How excessive wealth produces comparative poverty—Mode in which money is spent by different classes—Diffusion not concentration of wealth good for trade—Increase or decrease of special industries since 1871

Chapter X—Speculation and Finance.
Increase of speculation shown by census—Increase of Joint Stock Companies—Number of companies wound up, and their estimated capital—Aggregate loss by the shareholders—Who are the shareholders?—How their losses affect trade—Why the Limited Liability Act has produced such evil results—Probable persistence of the evil

Chapter XI—Adulteration and Dishonesty.
Adulteration of woollen goods—Adulteration of cotton goods—Alleged demand for such goods—Increased mortality of the workmen—Adulteration of silk—Bad quality of woollens and hardware sent to the colonies—Colonial manufactures

Chapter XII—The Wide Area of Depression.
Why the depression has extended to other European countries—Why it has prevailed in the United States—Why it affects all great manufacturing centres—Commerce unites nations, both for good and evil


Chapter XIII—Financial and Commercial Remedies.
Remedies for excessive and immoral foreign loans—For excessive war expenditure—How to check the concentration of capital—How to diminish speculation—The remedy for adulteration and dishonesty in manufactures

Chapter XIV—The Remedy for Agricultural Depression.
The Royal Commission on Agriculture on causes of depression—Case of Mr. Prout, of Sawbridge worth—Testimony of Mr. F. Winn Knight, M. P.—Case of a peasant farmer—Cost of agency, repairs, &c., on great estates—Waste caused by the system—Mr. Barclay on continuity of occupation—Best method of securing this continuity, and other favourable conditions of occupation

Chapter XV—The Remedy for Rural Depopulation.
Deterioration of agricultural labour—How to improve the condition of the labourer—The insufficiency of allotments—Why allotments are to be condemned—Importance of letting labourers have land attached to their cottages—Enormous increase in produce under cultivation by labourers—Lord Tollemache’s practice—Penstrasse Moor and Mr. Little’s remarks on it—The Annandale Estate—Wheat-growing by labourers—Mr. Stubbs’ evidence—Urgent necessity of enabling labourers to have land

Chapter XVI—Summary and Conclusion.
Foreign loans and war expenditure the most potent agents in causing the depression—Land reform offers the most effectual remedy—Summary as to increased produce under peasant cultivation—The depression can be traced to its sources in wrong or immoral action—Concluding remarks

Diagrams—Not included…

Chapter I.
Statement of the Problem.

The present Depression of Trade is remarkable, not so much for its intensity or for its extent—in both of which respects it has been equaled or surpassed on previous occasions, but for its persistence during the long period of eleven years. The late Professor Fawcett, in his Free Trade and Protection (p. 151), says: “The industrial depression is generally thought to have commenced in the closing months of 1874;” and during every succeeding year it has continued to be felt with more or less severity, and its remarkable persistence has been commented on by politicians and public writers. Usually a period of depression is quickly followed by one of comparative prosperity. Such a reaction has been again and again predicted in this case; but up to the present time there are no satisfactory indications that the evil days are passing away. It is evident, therefore, that we are suffering in an altogether exceptional manner, that the disease of the social organism is due to causes or combinations of causes which have not been in action on former occasions, and that the remedial agencies which have been effective on former occasions of depression have now failed us.

We thus find ourselves confronted with a problem of vital importance to our well-being as a nation. We are called upon to explain why it is that, notwithstanding the exceptional advantages we possess, in an ever-increasing command over the more recondite powers of nature, an ever-increasing use of labour-saving machinery, a body of labourers whose industry and skill are proverbial, and far more complete and perfect communication with the whole world than was possessed by any previous generation—notwithstanding all these favourable conditions, which would seem to render prosperity certain, we yet find trade crippled and labour paralysed, goods of all kinds selling at un-remunerative prices, yet the masses too poor to buy, and universal complaints of diminished profits and restricted markets. So long as these questions are not fully and completely answered, so long as a remedy is not found for the widespread and persistent evil which afflicts the mass of our people, our whole system of social economy, even our civilisation itself, must be accounted to be failures. It will undoubtedly be admitted that a system of society under which willing hands cannot find profitable work, and countless shops and warehouses overflowing with every necessary, comfort, and luxury, mock the longing eyes of insufficiently-clad and half-starved millions, is neither a sound nor a safe one.

We may therefore expect to find that the problem of trade-depression is fundamentally the same as that of the persistence of widespread poverty and pauperism notwithstanding our rapid and continuous growth in wealth; and if this be so, its solution will assuredly furnish us with some important principles to direct the course of future legislation. The main points of a sound political programme may be one of the important results of a successful investigation into the causes which have brought about the present depression of trade.

Read the pdf…