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Industrial Rev / Guilded Age Philosphy in History Books

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Cari posted on Wed, Feb 1 2012 4:01 PM

Greetings,

I am a first-time poster here on Mises. In looking over the comments and articles here, it looks like I will fit in!

 

I am currently a non-traditional student and I am taking a history class, 1865-present. I am having a lot of trouble reconciling what the textbook authors write with my libertarian viewpoints. It seems to me that my text is skewed, that is, the author's interpretation of why history happened rather than just a straight account of what happened.

We are going over parts of the Industrial Revolution and Guilded Age right now. This is what I can sum up so far as the author's views:

  1. The Ind Rev spurred the growth of free-market Capitalism in America.
  2. Despite the great wealth and growth of industrialists, the average living person lived in squalor.
  3. Especially during the Guilded Age, workers began to grow very discontented by the great wealth they observed from their industrial employers and got fed up with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer or staying poor.
  4. Workers believed that the American Dream of equality was being denied to them and they made great efforts that included violence to send the message that employers needed to shape up working conditions.
  5. Workers looked to government to change their conditions because they were unable to effect change on their own.
  6. This set the precendence since. Government was very useful in making sure everyone had equal opportunity and still proves useful today.

My problems with this train of thought are numerous. All comments of clarification and help are welcomed!

First, it seems like the authors mix up what "equality" is defined as. Perhaps they are only reflecting the general outlook of people back then, I am open to that. But it seems to me that what workers were demanding by comparing themselves to their employers and not to their next-best-alternatives was equality of outcome and not equailty of opportunity. I never understood why someone being rich meant that I must be poor. Is this how people felt back then and thus inspired the Labor movements?

Second, the idea that government is the answer to better working conditions seems to me to be the logical fallacy of "false alternative." The authors of the text allude that they and the workers during that time felt that government was the only way to improve their conditions. Am I wrong to conclude that free-markets would have led to these changes without government? Were the industrialists so "greedy" and corrupt that they did not care about the "suffering" of the workers?

 

I will start with these two thoughts.

All informative comments are welcome. If you can, please refer me to material that I can research to find out if my assumptions measure up to the facts or if my textbook's interpretation is more correct.

 

Cari Beth

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Cari replied on Fri, Feb 3 2012 6:30 PM

Ugg!

I just spend 15 minutes typing out a post only to find it posted as a blank! LOL, what a start.

I want to thank everyone for thier helpful replies.

I have started some of the readings from FEE (a very good site, been reading it for a few years now). It did not occur to me that many historians were Marxists and their interpretations of history would reflect that. It makes sense. Marxists would find reason to downgrade capitalism in favor of workers even if the workers were better off.

I also liked the idea that Mises and Heyek put forth of that the complaints of workers was a sign that the IR was working and starting to raise living standards instead of the other way around as was pointed out. Isn't it funny that sometimes it is just a matter of looking at an idea or event from a different point of view? It might be that we all have been subjected to a Marxian historical view for a long time. The idea that living standards improved only makes sense...because that is what happened of course.

Now the problem arises as many will say that was because of the people getting the government to step in and control the amount of harm and exploitation that greedy factory owners were causing. What is the best way to explain how a freed-market could have brought about those reforms withouth government's help? So far, I have always argued that once living standards rise, people make substitutes for wages in the form of better working conditions and this would naturally progress in a free-market system without government interference.

I think my previous readings of Steve Horwitz have helped about this subject on other levels as well. He has brought out that the nature of the family has changed in steps along with rises in living conditions. When the IR came into being, both men and women along with their children went there and worked long and hard hours. This is in comparison with working long and hard hours at home in the fields. The move towards the factories resluted in comparable dangerous work, but with better pay. Once livng standards increased, children were sent back home followed by women leaving men as the main breadwinners of the family. Education of children, which once was a luxury due to cost, was now standardized. Improvements in technology led to more leisure time for all and better wages yet.

I had a preview of next week's subjects and it will pertain to specific working conditions in the factories and the subsequent reforms passed by government. I will focus on subject matter pertaining to that so that I may be able to "plant some seeds."

Also, I am looking foward to reading more about Rockefeller and the many (mis)conceptions about Standard Oil. From my basic understanding of Economics, it was almost impossible for J-Rock to have a monopoly unless government somehow was involved. Thus, J-Rock had more of an "efficiency" free-market monopoly than the typical monopoly that most people associate with S.O. in that while had had a dominant market share he gave consumers the best price and best product possible at that point. Something was mentioned that later, J-Rock got into bed with Uncle Sam? Is that true? What of the legislation passed that affected S.O?

I look foward to replies! I will devote more time this weekend to this as well. For now, I have a couple of quizzes to study for.

Cari

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Cari replied on Fri, Feb 3 2012 6:33 PM
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I posted this before, but it might have gotten lost in the sea of text. Here is the link about Standard Oil:

http://wiki.mises.org/wiki/Standard_Oil

Essentially, as far as I can tell, SO was a free-market company that became large because it was good and beneficial to consumers. At the end of the article I do mention the tariffs and patents that helped it, yet those are of course again an argument against government.

 

If next week the meatpacking business is brought up, remember this: http://wiki.mises.org/wiki/Meat_packing

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Cari replied on Fri, Feb 3 2012 7:07 PM

Thank you Wheylous!

I appreciate the heads-up about the Meat Packing plants. You must have gone through a similiar school experience as I am going through now?

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Last year, yes. I mean, it's not the horror many people make it out to be - but that's only because for most people the information goes in one year and out the other.

I've always took the history taught to us with a grain of salt, and my recent explorations into libertarianism have led me to question a lot of history:

- It doesn't make sense for SO to have gotten so big and so evil

- Why would people continually buy rotten meat?

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Cari,

Welcome to the forum!  Be sure to check out the newbie thread, filled with bunches of useful tips...

New member? READ THIS!

 

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NonAntiAnarchist:
We need a thread on how to turn our girlfriends into anarchists. So far I've failed miserably.

Walter "Advice to the Lovelorn" Block spoke a bit on this a while back.

 

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Cari:
4. Workers believed that the American Dream of equality was being denied to them and they made great efforts that included violence to send the message that employers needed to shape up working conditions.

5. Workers looked to government to change their conditions because they were unable to effect change on their own.

The popular belief that government intervention improved working conditions is nonsense and contradicts basic supply and demand economics. Better conditions do not appear out of thin air because we declare them into existence. They are made possible because society becomes richer and is able to afford them. In the past conditions were crappy because society was poor. It was because free markets made us more productive that we could start improving conditions. That was when people started being unhappy with the old conditions. Before that, nobody protested them because they were considered normal. Capitalism didn't create bad conditions, it turned them into a problem by improving conditions.

Capitalists compete for workers, thus workers receive higher compensation as society becomes more productive because higher productivity means labor becomes more scarce in terms of real wealth. As better working conditions become affordable, employers will provide them to compete for scarce labor. If it is cheaper to buy safety equipment than paying workers to work in an unsafe environment, employers will provide it. So better working conditions are nothing more than a result of raised productivity. Supply and demand causes wages and conditions to improve, not laws. This is so blatantly obvious that it's odd that anyone ever thinks otherwise. Indeed, if working conditions were raised by laws, why would anyone ever provide better conditions than the legally mandated minimum?

Btw. in reality such laws were not intended to help workers, but to keep small companies, for whom it was more expensive to implement such requirements due to scale, from being able to compete with big companies. This had the intended effect of cartelizing the market in the hands of few big companies, which meant that they could pay workers less. Same as environmental regulation today.

"They all look upon progressing material improvement as upon a self-acting process." - Ludwig von Mises
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