Economics/Class Relations

Did the Early Factory Workers Welcome Their Fate?

The issues raised in this piece from 2012 by Sheldon Richmond are extremely important. Like it or not, libertarians are widely regarded by critics from the Left and Right alike as mere apologists for the nineteenth century model of capitalism. As long as libertarians are regarded as a movement that wants to abolish minimum wages, dismantle the social safety net, and deregulate capitalism while offering no alternatives other than “Let the free market take care of it!” (which sounds an awful lot like “Let them eat cake!” to outsiders), then libertarians will never have more than a minor audience.

By Sheldon Richman

Center for Stateless Society

Kevin Carson has an interesting post in his occasional “Vulgar Libertarianism Watch” series. This time he critiques Thomas Woods’s comments on distributism, the Catholic-related idea, associated with Belloc and Chesterton, that the means of production should be widely dispersed, rather than concentrated in the hands of a few bureaucrats or capitalists. A distributist economy would presumably be filled with single proprietorships and worker co-ops. Carson quotes from Woods’s article “What’s Wrong with ‘Distributism,’ in which he states that for family reasons, “it is by no means obvious that it is always preferable for a man to operate his own business rather than to work for another.” To which Carson responds,

This makes the unwarranted assumption that working for someone else is the only way of reducing risk, as opposed to cooperative ownership, federation, etc. It assumes, as a basic premise, the very thing that distributism objects to: that capital is concentrated in the hands of a few owners who hire wage labor, instead of widely distributed among the general population who pool it through cooperative mechanisms.

He then adds,

The proper contrast is between a laborer making a subsistence living off a small family plot with access to a common, and supplementing his income when necessary with wage labor, versus that … [nineteenth-century] factory worker. To compare the hours and quality of work of a genuine subsistence farmer with the mind-numbing 12- or 14-hour days in a dark satanic mill is a joke.

To Woods’s claim that the people who flocked to the factories after 1750 had no tools with which to start their own businesses and would have starved had they tried to stay in agriculture, Carson responds that land expropriations put those workers in that dire position, which was one of the points of expropriation in the first place.

Carson concludes:

To the extent that the anti-corporate Left sees state intervention as necessary to break the present power of big business, it’s owing to the fact (as Nock said), that vulgar libertarians and state socialists have a common interest in obscuring the nature of the present system. Vulgar libertarian apologists for big business like to pretend that the current winners got that way through superior efficiency in the market. And state socialists like to pretend, likewise, that a bureaucratic apparatus controlled by themselves is the only way to counter the natural outgrowth of big business from the free market.

The post attracted several comments (including a couple by me) regarding the actual condition of pre-industrial peasants and factory workers, and the conditions under which the factories procured their employees. This debate has been going on a long time. Frankly, I find it difficult to sort it all out. Writers on the industrial “revolution” often have ideological agendas that color their descriptions, so it is hard to know whom to credit and whom to doubt. What I look for are statements that go against an author’s own grain. When the Marxist historian Gabriel Kolko (The Triumph of Conservatism) writes that market competition intensified in the late nineteenth century and that it took government intervention to create cartels, that is impressive because Marxists usually think markets naturally become concentrated. Likewise, when the left historian Fernand Braudel (Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18 Century: The Structures of Everyday Life) portrays pre-industrial life as poor, nasty, brutish, and short, again, that is informative, since many anti-industrialists have romanticized pre-industrial life.

It can work the other way too. For example, in Human Action, Ludwig von Mises writes:

But the fact remains that for the surplus population which the enclosure movement had reduced to dire wretchedness and for which there was literally no room left in the frame of the prevailing system of production, work in the factories was salvation. (Emphasis added.)

Writers like Carson would disagree with only the second half of the sentence: they would point out that the factory owners were to some extent accomplices in creating the situation in which the wretched had no choice but to submit to wage labor in the factories.

Similar statements can be found in How the West Grew Rich by Nathan Rosenberg and L.E. Birdzell Jr., two enthusiasts of the industrial “revolution.” E.g.:

In England, the downward pressure on agricultural wages was accentuated by the enclosure movement — that is, the fencing of agricultural land formerly available for the pasturage of animals owned by agricultural workers. The enclosure movement reflected the twin facts that the market price of land was rising as the population increased, while the market price of agricultural labor was declining: landowners [how did they come to “own” the land? –S.R.] had other uses for land more remunerative than its use as a fringe benefit for cottagers. The combination of a rise in agricultural population with a reduction in agricultural employment was a compelling incentive for the urbanization of Western society, but it also compelled many agricultural workers in England and other Western countries to endure long periods of economic and social adjustment. It was a combination that accounted for much social misery in England and other Western countries until well into the nineteenth century. …

In theory, the [parliamentary enclosure] acts compensated the cottagers for the loss of their common rights by giving them some of the enclosed land. But the cottagers were not effectively represented in Parliament, and there is much reason to believe that the compensation was in practice inadequate. [This implies that the cottagers had no choice in the matter; who would freely accept inadequate compensation? –S.R.] In any event, animal husbandry was often essential to the villagers’ margin of prosperity over the barest subsistence, and the commons were essential to animal husbandry. Thus, quite apart from any question of the inadequacy of compensation, the long-term effect of enclosure was an impoverishment of agricultural labor. …

The shift from open-field agriculture, in which each villein cultivated a number of small strips, to small holdings agriculture was … not necessarily of benefit to those who ended as tenants of large landowners, and it was a disaster for the agricultural workers it left wholly landless.

There was, in point of fact, widespread poverty of the most abject kind in England and other countries in eighteenth-century Europe, and it was from the pool of the forgotten poor that the early factories drew many of their workers. [Emphasis added.]

Nonetheless, Rosenberg and Birdzell reject the “conventional belief” that “the economic gains of the period from 1750 to 1880 were achieved at the cost of enormous sacrifices. … In point of fact, there is good reason to think that the alternatives supposedly sacrificed by early factory workers were much less attractive than factory work — which is not to say that factory work was attractive otherwise than by comparison to the alternatives. … But if early factory work was oppressive, the alternatives open to those who voted with their feet for factory work were worse. The early factories were able to attract workers with low wages because the wages were still well above the poverty level. …”

This seems out of kilter. If the cottagers had to leave the land because of acts of Parliament, how can we say simply that they chose “oppressive” factory work because it was the superior alternative? Other alternatives were foreclosed by government intervention, no?

As for the relative sacrifices, is the historian or social scientist really competent to do the weighing? Isn’t this a matter of subjective value for the people concerned? If government intervention forced people off their land and into factories, can we really point to a rising living standard as “just compensation”? Not according to the methodology I subscribe to.

Addendum: I find this quotation in D. McCloskey’s “The Enclosure of Open Fields: Preface to a Study of Its Impact on the Efficiency of English Agriculture in the Eighteenth Century,” Journal of Economic History 32, no. 1 (1972): 15-35:

As much as enclosure may have hurt the poor, however, it is doubtful that the hurt was large enough, relative to the net gain to be achieved by the larger owners of the land, that it influenced their decision to enclose. This is because the poor were very poor: the value of their land and other rights was small. In consequence, an equitable procedure, which compensated them fully for their ancient rights, would have changed the net benefits accruing to those who had the power to set an enclosure in motion very little. At first approximation, then, the issue of equity may be left to one side.

This makes two objectionable assumptions: First, that hurt can be weighed against gain. Suddenly an individualist becomes a collectivist. There is no social hurt and social gain. There is subjective hurt to specific individuals that is produced by the subjective gain seized by other specific individuals. There can be no hurt-gain calculation. You can’t tote things up to determine “net gain.” Really. I thought we were all methodological individualists now.

Second, maybe a cottager would be unwilling to give up his “ancient rights” at any cost, like Mrs. Kelo in New London, Connecticut. One suspects that some libertarians think that you can legitimately deprive someone of his rights as long as you compensate him. But this can’t be. It is a violation of rights. As I’ve written in the eminent-domain context (and isn’t this the same thing?), logically there can be no just compensation in a forced sale. What signals that a level of compensation is just is that it is freely accepted by the property owner. If rejection of an offer is not an option, then we cannot conclude that an ostensible act of compensation is in fact just. What makes a transaction just is not compensation per se but consent. So, no, we cannot leave equity to one side.

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