Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

In Defence of the Industrial Revolution

Jun 20, 1998

The author of a recent piece in a conservative journal on the lndustrial Revolution provides a negative view of the period. But he is certainly right when he concludes his article by saying that “the economy should exist for man, not man for the economy”. However, it seems somewhat ironic that he appears to be defending Marx and Engels on this issue.

The truth is, historians are divided on what is known as the standard of living debate. Some are pessimistic about this period, while others offer more optimistic scenarios.

It would appear that, much of the more recent historical and economic analyses have tended to take the side of the optimists. That is, Engels, Dickens and Co., may have overstated their pessimistic case.

After examining the evidence, L.M. Hacker concludes,

“The nineteenth century, for the first time, introduced on a broad scale the state policies of public health and public education. The nineteenth century, by turning out cheaper goods, made possible the amazing climb of real wages in industrialised economies. The nineteenth century, by permitting the transfer of capital in large amounts, opened up the interiors of backwards countries for development and production”.

R.M. Hartwell concludes his piece in The Economic History Review by saying that although real measurements are hard to come by, “an upward trend in living standards during the industrial revolution [and] real wages of the majority of English workers were rising in the years 1800-1850”.

In a more recent issue of the same journal, Williamson and Lindert, after examining a wealth of new data on the subject, say this:

“While optimists and pessimists can both draw support from the enterprise, the pessimists’ case emerges with the greater need for redirection and repair. The evidence suggests that material gains were even bigger after 1820 than optimists had previously claimed, even if the concept of material well-being is expanded to include health and environmental factors”.

Paul Johnson says that the Industrial Revolution is “often presented as a time of horror for working men. In fact it was the age, above all, in history of matchless opportunities for penniless men with powerful brains and imaginations, and it is astonishing how quickly they came to the fore”.

Part of the problem lies in perspective. T.S. Ashton explains the pessimism in terms of the “romantic revival in literature [which] led to an idyllic view of life of the present [with] the idea that agriculture is the only natural and healthy activity for human beings”.

Or as Havek has pointed out in a more specific case:

“Those who dwell on the horrors that arose from the fact that the products of the sewers often got mixed up with the drinking water, and attribute this, as all other horrors, to the Industrial Revolution, should be reminded of the obvious fact that without the iron pipe, which was one of the products of that revolution, the problem of enabling people to live a healthy life together in towns could never have been solved.”

The debate continues, but the leftist critique of the Industrial Revolution has certainly been long overdue for revision. Some of the authors cited here help make that case.

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