Relation of Time In Production

Henry George
The Science of Political Economy

Book III, The Production of Wealth*

Chapter VIII
The Relation of Time In Production

Showing That All Modes of Production Have Relation to Time

Difference between apprehensions of space and time, the one objective, the other subjective -- Of spirits and of creation -- All production requires time -- The concentration of labor in time. 01

As space is the relation of things in extension, so time is the relation of things in sequence.


But time, the relation of sequence, seems when we think of it, to be, so to speak, wider than space, the relation of extension. That is to say, space is a quality or affection of what we call matter; and while we conceive of immaterial things which having no extension have no relation in space, we cannot conceive of even immaterial things as having no relation in sequence.


Our apprehension of space is through our senses, the direct impressions of which are uncertain and misleading, but which we habitually verify and correct and give some sort of exactness to, through other impressions of our senses. Our first and simplest measure of space is in the impression of relative distance produced through the sight, or in the feeling of exertion required to move ourselves or some other object from point to point, as by paces or stone’s throw or bow-shot; and these give way to more exact measurements, such as by lines, inches, feet, miles, diameters of the earth or of the earth’s orbit. Deprived of the senses, which make us cognizant of matter, it is impossible to see how we could have any impression or idea of space.


Our impression of time, however, is not primarily through our senses. Though we correct and verify and give some exactness to it through them, there is a purely subjective apprehension of time in our own mental impressions or thoughts, which do not come all at once, but precede or succeed one another, having to each other a relation of sequence. It is through this succession of mental impressions that we are in the first place and directly conscious of time. But while our direct consciousness of space must vary widely, our direct impressions of time are more variable still, since they depend upon the rapidity and intensity of mental impressions. We may seem to have lived through years in the intense activity of a vivid dream, and to be utterly unconscious of the passage of time in a sound sleep. And while we can conceive the impression of space to be very different on the part of a sloth and that of a greyhound, it may be that the brief day of an animalcule may seem as long to it as does a century of life to the larger elephant.


But the reason of man enables him to obtain more exact measures of sequence from the uniformities of natural phenomena, such as days or years, moons or seasons, and from the regularity of mechanical movement as by sandglasses or dials, or by clocks or watches.


Time seems indeed to be necessary to and in some degree coincident with all perceptions of space. But space does not seem necessary to time. That is to say, we seem to be able to imagine an immaterial being, or pure intelligence, not limited by or having necessary consciousness of relations of extension, and this is the way in which we usually think of unembodied spirits, such as angels or devils; and of disembodied spirits, such as ghosts. But we cannot really think thus of them with regard to relations of sequence. We can indeed think of them as knowing nothing and regarding nothing of our measures of time -- of a day being to them as a thousand years, or a thousand years as a day, for that these measures are only relative we can see for ourselves. But we can also see that in the realm of spirit there is and must be the same relation of preceding and succeeding, of coming before and coming after, as in the realm of matter; and that this relation of sequence or time is really clearer and closer to that in us which we must think of as our immaterial part than is that of extension or space to our physical parts.


We usually think of creation, the bringing into existence by a power superior to and anterior to that of man, as taking place at once as by the Divine fiat: “God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” But it would seem on analysis, that in this way of thinking we are considering rather the mental action which we conceive of as in itself immaterial -- which our experience so far as it goes, and our reason so far as it can reach, teach us must lie back of all material expression -- than of the material expression itself. All speculations and theories of the origin of the cosmos, all religions which are their popular expression, conceive of the appearance of material phenomena as in order or sequence, and consequently in time. Save in its childlike measurement of time by days, the ancient Hebrew account of the genesis of the material world recognizes this necessary order or sequence as fully as do modern scientists, for whose almost as vague measurements millenniums are too short. And so far as we can see, thought itself is in sequence and requires time, and its continued exertion brings about weariness. It, at any rate, seems to me that if we consider the essential and not merely the crude expression of the Hebrew scripture that in six days God created the heavens and the earth and rested on the seventh, it may embody a deep truth -- the truth that exertion, mental as physical, requires a season of rest.


But, all such speculations aside, it is certain that all production of wealth takes place in sequence and requires time. The tree must be felled before it can be hewn or sawed into lumber; lumber must be seasoned before it can be used in building or wrought into the manifold articles made of wood. Ore must be taken from the vein before it can be smelted into iron, or from that form turned into steel or any of the manifold articles which by subsequent processes are made from iron or steel. Seeds must be planted before they can germinate; there must be a considerable interval of time before the young shoots can show themselves above the ground; then a longer interval before they can grow and ripen and produce after their order; grain must be harvested and ground before it can be converted into meal or flour or changed by labor from that form into other forms which gratify desire, all of which, like fermenting and baking, require time. So, in exchanging, time is required even for the concurrence and expression of human wills which result in the agreement to exchange, and still more time for the actual transference of things which completes the exchange. In short, time is a necessary element or condition in all exertion of labor in production.


Now, from this necessary element or condition of all production, time, there result consequences similar to those which result from the necessary element or condition of all production, space. That is to say, there is a law governing and limiting the concentration of labor in time, as there is a law governing and limiting the concentration of labor in space. Thus there is in all forms of production a point at which the concentration of labor in time gives the largest proportionate result; after which the further concentration of labor in time tends to a diminution of proportionate result, and finally to prevent result.


Thus there is a certain degree of concentration of labor in time (intensity of exertion), by which the individual can in any productive occupation accomplish on the whole the largest result. But if a man work harder than this, endeavoring to concentrate more exertion in a shorter time, it will be to the relative and finally to the absolute loss of productiveness -- a principle which gives its point to the fable of the hare and the tortoise.


And so, if I go to a builder and say to him, “In what time and at what price will you build me such and such a house?” he would, after thinking, name a time, and a price based on it. This specification of time would be essential, and would involve a certain concentration of labor in time as the point of largest return or least cost. This I would soon find if, not quarreling with the price, I ask him largely to lessen the time. If I be a man like Beckford -- the author of Vathek, for whom Fonthill was built by relays of workmen, who lighted up the night with huge fires -- a man to whom cost is nothing and time everything, I might get the builder somewhat to reduce the time in which he would agree, under bond, to build the house; but only by greatly increasing the price, until finally a point would be reached where he would not consent to build the house in less time no matter at what price. He would say: “Although I get bricks already made, and boards already planed, and stairs and doors, and sashes and blinds, and whatever else may be obtained from the mill, and no matter how many men I put on and how much I disregard economy, the building of a house requires time. Cellar cannot be dug and foundations raised, and walls built and floors laid, and roof put on, and partitioning and plastering, and plumbing, and painting and papering be done all at once, but only one after another, and at the cost of time as well as labor. The thing is impossible.”


And so, although the concentration of labor in agriculture may with decreasing efficiency hasten beyond the normal point the maturity of vegetables or fruit or even of animals, yet the point of absolute non-productiveness of further applications of labor is soon reached, and no amount of human exertion applied in any way we have yet discovered could bring wheat from the seed to the ear, or the chick from the egg to the laying hen, in a week.


The importance in political economy of this principle that all production of wealth requires time as well as labor we shall see later on; but the principle that time is a necessary element in all production we must take into account from the very first.

* No introduction or motto supplied for Book III in MS. -- H.G., Jr.