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Redeeming the Industrial Revolution

November 17, 2011

Tags Free MarketsWorld HistoryInterventionism

[Wendy McElroy will be teaching Capitalism and the Advance of Women, an online Mises Academy course, starting January 26.]

A destructive myth has wrapped itself around laissez-faire capitalism. It is the erroneous notion that the free market harms the "vulnerable" within society; specifically, it is said to harm women and children by cruelly exploiting their labor. The opposite is true. Laissez-faire capitalism offers the one element that the vulnerable need most to survive and to advance: choice. The most liberating choice individuals can have is the ability to support themselves and not be dependent upon anyone else for the food going into their mouths.

Using this myth as an entering assumption, historians have been extremely harsh in analyzing one of the most liberating phenomena in Western history: the Industrial Revolution. From the 18th through the 19th century, the world surged forward in technology, industry, transportation, trade, and life-changing innovations like cheap cotton clothing. Within two centuries, the worldwide per capita income is estimated to have increased tenfold and the population sixfold. The Nobel Prize–winning economist Robert Emerson Lucas Jr. stated, "For the first time in history, the living standards of the masses of ordinary people have begun to undergo sustained growth…. Nothing remotely like this economic behavior has happened before." The dramatic advance in prosperity and knowledge was achieved without social engineering or centralized control. It came from allowing human creativity and self-interest to run free at a glorious gallop.

Abuses certainly occurred. Some can be laid at the door of governmental attempts to harness the energy and profits of the period. Other abuses occurred simply because every society includes inhumane or amoral people who act badly, especially for profit; this is not a criticism of the Industrial Revolution but of human nature. Moreover, economic advances far outstripped changes in culturally Victorian attitudes; in the 18th century, women and children were viewed as second-class citizens and, sometimes, as chattel. It was the engine of economic revolution that dragged the culture and law into similarly dramatic changes. When women left the countryside to seek employment and education, they became a social force that could not be denied. Thus, women's rights advanced remarkably during the late 19th century and could not have done so without the Industrial Revolution.

Unfortunately, the salutary connection between laissez-faire capitalism and women's rights has been lost. During the latter part of the 20st century, mainstream feminists crusaded to reverse the engine that contributed so heavily to women's equal status; instead of championing freedom in the market place, they embedded privilege for women into the law in the name of equality. The free market and laissez-faire were demonized as tools of oppression that required remedy through affirmative action, sexual-harassment laws, antidiscrimination lawsuits, quota systems, and a myriad of other workplace regulations.

During that process, the Industrial Revolution has been portrayed as the Great Satan in regard to the welfare of women and children. The portrayal relies upon the misrepresentation of fact and upon ideology.

Misreprenting Facts Regarding Children

Hideous images immediately come to mind when children and the Industrial Revolution are mentioned in the same sentence: a five-year-old being lowered by a rope into a coal mine, skeletal children working at unsafe textile mills, Dickens's Oliver proffering a wooden bowl as he asks for another scoop of gruel. These images are used to condemn the free market and the Industrial Revolution; sometimes they are used to praise the humanitarian politicians who passed child-labor laws to curb the cruelty. This analysis draws powerfully upon the understandable horror that decent people feel at the exploitation of any children. But it is seriously flawed.

One of its flaws: it misses a key distinction. Early-19th-century Britain had two forms of child labor: free children; and, parish or "pauper" children, who came under government auspices. Historians J.L. and Barbara Hammond, whose work on the British Industrial Revolution and child labor is considered definitive, recognized this distinction. The free-market economist Lawrence W. Reed, in his essay "Child Labor and the British Industrial Revolution," went one step further in stressing the importance of the distinction. He wrote, "Free-labor children lived with their parents or guardians and worked during the day at wages agreeable to those adults. But parents often refused to send their children into unusually harsh or dangerous work situations." Reed notes, "Private factory owners could not forcibly subjugate 'free labour' children; they could not compel them to work in conditions their parents found unacceptable."

By contrast, parish children were under the direct authority of government officials. Parish workhouses had existed for centuries, but sympathy for the downtrodden was also lessened by the fact that taxes for poor relief in 1832 were over five times higher than they had been in 1760. (Gertrude Himmelfarb's book The Idea of Poverty chronicles this shift in attitude toward the poor from compassion to condemnation.) In 1832, partly at the behest of labor-hungry manufacturers, the Royal Poor Law Commission began an inquiry into the "the practical operation of the laws for the relief of the poor." Its report divided the poor into two basic categories: lazy paupers who received governmental aid; and the industrious working poor who were self-supporting. The result was the Poor Law of 1834, which statesman Benjamin Disraeli called an announcement that "poverty is a crime."

The Poor Law replaced outdoor relief (subsidies and handouts) with "poor houses" in which pauper children were virtually imprisoned. There, the conditions were made purposely harsh to discourage people from applying. Nearly every parish in Britain had a "stockpile" of abandoned workhouse children who were virtually bought and sold to factories; they experienced the deepest horrors of child labor.

Consider the wretched position of "scavenger" in textile factories. Typically, scavengers were young children — about six years old — who salvaged loose cotton from under the machinery. Because the machinery was running, the job was dangerous and terrible injuries were commonplace. "Fortunately" for businessmen willing to use the state to their advantage, government had no qualms about sending parish children to work under running machines. Most of the parish children had no alternative to such work other than starvation or a life of crime.

It is no coincidence that the first industrial novel published in Britain was Michael Armstrong: Factory Boy by Frances Trollope. Michael was apprenticed to an agency for pauper children. Nor is it coincidence that Oliver Twist was not abused by his parents or a private shopkeeper, but by brutal workhouse officials in comparison to whom Fagin was humanitarian. Remember that, at the age of twelve, with his family in debtor's prison, Dickens himself was a pauper child who slaved at a factory. Reed observes, the "first Act in Britain that applied to factory children was passed to protect these very parish apprentices, not 'free labor' children." The Act was explicit in doing so.

Thus, in advocating the regulation of child labor, social reformers asked government to remedy abuses for which government itself was largely responsible. Once more, government was a disease masquerading as its own cure.

Misleading Ideology Regarding Women

The flawed presentation of facts regarding child labor and the Industrial Revolution is paralleled by the flawed ideology by which the status of women is analyzed. Arguably, women were the primary economic beneficiaries of the Industrial Revolution. This was largely due to their low economic status in pre-Revolutionary times; they simply had more to gain than men.

When women had the opportunity to leave rural life for factory wages and domestic work, they poured into the cities in unprecedented numbers. To modern ears, the working and living conditions were terrible with many women turning to prostitution on the side in order to keep a roof over their heads. As terrible as the conditions might have been, however, a fundamental fact must not be ignored. The women themselves believed that flight into the city was in their self-interest, otherwise they would have never made the journey or they would have returned home to farm life in disillusionment. To say factory work "harmed" 18th- or 19th-century women is to ignore the demonstrated preference that they themselves expressed. It ignores the voice of their choices; clearly, the women believed it was an improvement.

A substantial portion of gender-feminist history is an attempt to ignore voices of the actual women making choices. A common method of doing so is to reinterpret the reality that surrounded the choices and, then, impose that reinterpretation so that the "choices" no longer appear to be free but seem coerced.1

A key work in understanding the historical analysis of the Industrial Revolution rendered by gender feminism is Friedrich Engels's immensely influential The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884). Engels argued that the oppression of women sprang from the nuclear family but he was contemptuous of the notion that the family per se had subordinated women throughout history. Instead he placed the blame firmly on the shoulders of capitalism, which he believed had destroyed the prestige that women once enjoyed within the family.

Engels wrote,

That woman was the slave of man at the commencement of society is one of the most absurd notions.… Women were not only free, but they held a highly respected position in the early stages of civilization and were the great power among the clans.

Thus, pre-Industrial Revolutionary times were romanticized as a period in which women were empowered. Engels claimed that industrialization caused a separation between home and productive work through which the inequity that was the nuclear family evolved. Thus, women's labor became an important but a subordinate aspect of freeing men's labor to feed the capitalist machine. Presumably, the undeniable advances for women ushered in by the Industrial Revolution — including extended life span and political rights — were purchased at too high a cost.

Engels's analysis presented a problem to gender feminists, however. He assumed that men as a sex had no stake in exerting power over women because he analyzed human beings in terms of class affiliation — that is, their relationship to the means of production. Gender feminists wanted a framework of sex as well as class oppression. To explain why women (as distinct from men) have interests that conflict with capitalism, gender feminists reached beyond Engels in their analysis. They evolved a theory of patriarchy — of male capitalism — in which women were oppressed by male culture through the mechanism of laissez-faire capitalism. This stands in stark contrast to the earlier analysis of free-market opportunities being the social remedy for women who are culturally oppressed by male prejudice or privilege.

In more explicit terms, what does this remedy look like? An employer wants to maximize the profit on every dollar he or she spends. This creates a strong incentive to be blind to everything but the merit of an employee, to be blind to race, sex, religion or other characteristics other than productivity. A skilled woman who works for $1 less than a similarly skilled man will usually get the job. If she doesn't, then the unbiased competitor down the street will hire her and the biased one will lose a competitive edge. When this dynamic occurs on a massive scale, women workers are gradually able to demand increasingly higher wages and whittle down that $1 differential. The "leveling" factor does not happen immediately, it does not happen perfectly. But over time, out of pure self-interest, employers become blind to race and sex because it is in their self-interest. They do so in the name of profit, and everyone benefits.

Feminists who object to this leveling process are not advocating equality per se; they are advocating an equality that exists only for the "right" reasons and only upon the "proper" terms. Their objections to the Industrial Revolution are not empirical but ideological. Just as they do not like the voices of 18th- and 19th-century women who flocked to the factories, so too do they dismiss what the free market is saying about equality.


Whether the "slander" is due to a misrepresentation of fact or the imposition of ideology, the Industrial Revolution should bring a libel suit against history. Or, rather, against the majority of historians. Without dismissing the injustices that inevitably arise during any period, the Industrial Revolution established the freedom to which people have become so accustomed that they can treat freedom with contempt. Perhaps the saving grace of the Industrial Revolution's reputation will be the undeniable prosperity it created. Today, prosperity seems more respected than freedom even though the two are inextricably linked.

Wendy McElroy will be teaching Capitalism and the Advance of Women, an online Mises Academy course, starting January 26.


  • 1. This differs from claiming that 18th- and 19th-century women had severely limited choices and were merely choosing the best option among a bad lot; the claim is that factory work was a step backward, a coerced choice, a poorer one than rural labor.

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