The Economic Effects of Variations of Hours of Labour

  • Lionel Robbins


The number of hours a man works is not a matter which is determined independently of other circumstances. It depends partly on habit, partly on technical or legal necessity, partly on the relative pulls of product, production and leisure, and these in turn are partly dependent on it. To exhibit the form of this dependence under the complex conditions of industrial civilisation is one of the chief problems of the analysis of economic equilibrium, but it is not a problem with which I wish to deal in this paper.2 My object here is of rather a different order. Assuming that a variation of hours takes place, I wish to inquire what other changes we should expect to be associated with it. For the purposes of this analysis, that is to say, the change in the length of the working day is to be regarded as the independent variable. What I discuss is not what causes bring it about, but what consequences follow from it. From a philosophical point of view, no doubt, this procedure is more arbitrary than the analysis of the conditions of equilibrium, but from the point of view of social policy it has much to recommend it. The practical problem which we have to decide at any given moment is the problem whether our present distribution of time between work and leisure is satisfactory; and although the final solution, involving as it does an appeal to subjective standards of worth, is outside the scope of scientific inquiry, yet a precise knowledge of the objective consequences of any variation is of material assistance in arriving at a solution.


Economic Effect Productive Power Geographical Group Patent Medicine Daily Output 
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  1. 2.
    The matter is dealt with in Sir Sydney Chapman’s article on “Hours of labour,” Economic Journal, vol. 19 (September 1909), pp. 353–73.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    See P. Sargant Florence, The Economics of Fatigue and Unrest (London, 1925), for an excellent account of this matter.Google Scholar
  3. 1.
    Cp. Marshall, Principles of Economics, 8th edn (1920), Notes XIV and XV of the Mathematical Appendix and Chapter VI, Book V.Google Scholar
  4. 1.
    If the changes are not relatively small, then, as Dr. Dalton has shown, the Marshallian formula becomes inadequate (see Hugh Dalton, Some Aspects of the Inequality of Incomes in Modern Communities [London, 1920], pp. 192–7). For convenience of application, however, I refrain from introducing this complication.Google Scholar
  5. 1.
    See, e.g., A.C. Pigou, Economics of Welfare, 2nd edn (1924), pp. 622–8.Google Scholar
  6. 1.
    It is obvious, of course, that such an arrangement will be economical only if the last increment of product obtainable is valued more than the leisure that has to be sacrificed to obtain it. Even the despised classical economists knew this. “Happiness is the object to be desired, and we cannot be quite sure that, provided he is equally well fed, a man may not be happier in the enjoyment of the luxury of idleness than in the enjoyment of the luxuries of a neat cottage and good clothes.” Letters of David Ricardo to Thomas Robert Malthus 1810–1823, ed. James Bonar (Oxford, 1887), pp. 138–9.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1997

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  • Lionel Robbins

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