June 22, 2021 - 3:00pm

The one thing everyone knows about the Black Death is that higher death rates among the poor (around 50%, compared to 25% for the gentry), led to rocketing peasant wages.

At the time the Crown’s response was to pass a number of laws, such as the 1351 Statute of Labourers, which made it illegal to demand higher wages than before the plague, and attacked the “malice of servants” who “for the sake of their own comfort and greed completely disregard the said ordinance” and demand “outrageous wages”.

Anyone who tried to charge above pre-plague prices was given three day’s imprisonment in the stocks. As with most market-fixing legislation, it didn’t work because the labour of peasants was just worth too much; if you didn’t pay them a certain amount, they wouldn’t do the job. When the authorities built stocks in Gloucestershire to punish those who took wages higher than the maximum permitted, they had to pay the carpenter who built it 5 and a half pence a day, twice the legal limit.

If only Edward III’s government were able to do what 21st century Westminster governments have got used to doing, importing cheaper workers from abroad to keep wages down. Luckily that wasn’t available, because higher wages tend to lead people to invest in mechanical improvements, and this may even have led to the invention of printing.

The current pandemic appears to be having a similar effect on the job market, albeit to a much smaller degree, as the Black Plague several centuries ago.

As today’s Times reports, wages in hospitality are now rocketing. This has, until now, been reported as “labour shortage” rather than “wage rises”, as if it’s a bad thing. Most news reporting rather echoes the poet William Langland’s complaint of peasants that “Draught-ale was not good enough for them anymore, nor bacon, but they must have fresh meat or fish, fried or baked”.

For the past quarter century most economists have been in agreement that high immigration doesn’t depress the wages for native workers in direct competition; there are some dissenters, notably George Borjas, but generally the consensus has been that, although supply and demand are the central facts of the discipline, in this case it doesn’t apply because complex reasons.

I’m not an economist, and I have Taleb-levels of respect for the profession, but it always struck me as obviously untrue; it’s the sort of clever counter-intuitive idea that sells books and sounds intelligent, like the early expert advice that masks don’t protect from Covid because when did covering your mouth with cloth stop infection? Most of the time, counter-intuitive ideas are wrong and the obvious, boring things your granny believed are right; if you have more workers entering a market, wages will go down for those in competition.

So why are wages rocketing? I’m sure economists have a clever explanation for it, but the exodus of one million migrant workers since the epidemic began seems like the obvious one.

Or perhaps it’s all a bit more complicated than that, or something.

Ed West’s book Tory Boy is published by Constable