Libertarians and the Industrial Revolution


Sheldon Richman, currently editor of The Freeman and a former colleague of mine at the Cato Institute in the early 1990s, provides interesting examples of a libertarian non-specialist thinking through some of the standard ideological arguments re: the industrial revolution, good or bad?, at his blog, here and here.

The posts star stalwart Hit and Run commentor Kevin Carson, with Sheldon's discussion and thoughts kicked off by this from Carson at his always-interesting Mutualist Blog celebrating "free market anti-capitalism." Carson is harder on the Industrial Revolution and the forces that might have pushed workers into the factories than many other–what Carson calls "vulgar"–libertarians.

[Updated with permalinks.]

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  1. The permalinks are at the bottom of each post. The time at which the post was posted is the link.

    Did they welcome their fate?


    More on early factory workers

  2. Excellent reading. I’ve been reading Kevin Carson’s blog for a while now, but it looks like I need to make time for Sheldon Richman’s blog as well.

  3. I kinda miss Kevin around here. I haven’t had a rousing discussion about how much better off I’d be as a farmer in a long time.

  4. In addition to mining the historical data, it might be useful to look at how industrialization of workforces are happening NOW in developing nations. Of course, one would have to allow for the fact that the prosperity created by industrialization is a much more a proven fact for 3d world decisionmakers than for those at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

  5. Is this Kevin person gaius marius?

  6. I’m quite struck by the analogy that Richman draws between Kelo-style exercise of eminent domain and the enclosure movement (i.e., the extinction, at the time of the Industrial Revolution, of English peasants’ property rights in the commons). In both cases, the politically well connected were able to take property on the basis of arguments that they could use it more efficiently and could create more aggregate wealth, while compensating the dispossessed so that they were left no worse off than before (a Pareto-optimal transaction, they’d have said, if they knew law-and-economics speak). Of course, it’s quite debatable whether the dispossessed were really made whole for their loss.

    (Readers of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels will recall the book where “progressive” landowners in the vicinity of Captain Aubrey’s estate seek to enclose the commons and try pushing a bill through Parliament to accomplish that goal. Aubrey isn’t a deep political or philosophical thinker, but his Tory prejudices lead him to resist what strikes him as a nasty piece of work, and he relies on his anachronistic position as “lord of the manor” to block what the proponents of the enclosure had thought would be a slam-dunk in Parliament.)

  7. 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.

    I wish I could have written that.

  8. matthew: you make a good point. But remember that not all those in the Third World who abandon subsistence farms for shanty towns are consciously choosing a “factory job.” Other things intrude: the governments of those countries find it easier to provide services to high-density populations near the urban centers-and harder to ignore them, politically.

    Thus, the shanty-town dweller is more likely to be able to place his child in school or get some kind of minimal health care. This is a substantial draw in and of itself. Such services were not provided to the Dickensian urban poor and are a reflection of the global popularity of socialized services. You might argue that they are an externalized cost of doing business: the government provides services that draw people towards the city, providing a reserve army of unemployed that keep wages down for the manufacturer.

    Or another way of looking at it is that any part of the cost of living provided for free by the government, whether it be drinking water or health care or subsidized housing, is a cost of living that doesn’t have to be funded by wages. A person getting cheap housing doesn’t need to pay the market value of a rental. Thus, he doesn’t need to earn as much in wages to survive.

    Bottom line: government subsidies, even those intended to help the poor, distort the labor market. People who might be more productive if they remained on their subsistence farms find themselves working part-time in the city, able to do so only because their cost of living is subsidized by foreign aid or government-sponsored anti-poverty programs. That might be a harsh view, but I think that much of the labor the migrants end up doing is marginal and could not be supported if the employer had to pay the true cost of living. Not all of them are working in “factories.”

  9. In graduate school I took a seminar on the Industrial Revolution; we had the same sort of back and forth conversation. I see that the issue hasn’t moved much since then.

  10. Also I can a spot a problem already in these analyses; the obsessive focus on Britain and the British experience with industrialization. As countless scholars in this field have demonstrated, the French, American, etc. experiences with industrialization were quite different from the British and one should not use the latter as a proxy for the former.

  11. Brian,

    Thanks for the link. I’ll be responding to Sheldon in the next few days.


    Unfortunately, blogging means I’m spread a little thinner, so I have to do a half-assed job at a lot of things at once. But you can probably get the same effect by watching Green Acres reruns.


    I appreciate the comment. I focused on the British/American industrial revolution because of their disproportionate influence on the rest of the world. But the examples you point to of industrialization with broader distribution capital and decentralized production are very important, because they indicate that there is nothing in industrialization as such that requires the social pathologies of early 19th century Britain.

  12. Is this Kevin person gaius marius?

    I can just about assure you, mediageek, that they are different folks.

  13. I tried to post a comment, but apparently failed. Anyway, thanks for the link, Brian. I’ll be responding to Sheldon in the next day or two.

    I strongly recommend reading Free Association, Matt–along with my own blog, of course.

    Jason: Blogging eats up a lot of time, unfortunately, so I’m stretched thinner. But you can get pretty much the same benefit from watching old reruns of Green Acres.

    Hakluyt: Although I focus on the British and US industrial revolutions, I agree that the alternative models you point to are important. For one thing, they demonstrate that industrialization is possible with distributive ownership of capital and decentralized production.

  14. Damn this comments system!

    And mediageek owes Rick Barton a beer. I’m at a loss to figure out what would cause that kind of confusion. I don’t think the world started going to hell with William of Occam, or Marsilius, or Hegel, or whatever. Not that there’s anything wrong with that….

  15. Kevin Carson,

    I appreciate your explanation. I believe that we can agree that there is not simply “one” path to industrialization.

    Have you done much reading on British efforts to export their model (consciously or unconsciously) to their colonies in the 19th century? As to British efforts in Britain, if you haven’t heard of it before, you might want to look into the “St. Monday” phenomenon.

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