Mises Wire

Capitalism Makes Us More Humane

Listen to Ryan McMaken’s commentary on the Radio Rothbard podcast.

In the midst of high winds and flooding as a result of Hurricane Florence, we hear of a truck driver who saved 53 dogs and 11 cats from flood waters. And then there is the case of a woman who saved 18 dogs from a flooded house and its fenced in pen.

This, mind you, was occurring in the midst of a natural disaster. On an ordinary day, animal shelters in the United States are widespread and animal adoption is common. But even as floods rage, residents of North Carolina are taking time to rescue someone else’s pets.

In contrast, just a few months ago, we heard about how dogs were being eaten by famished Venezuelans. In that unfortunate country, there are also reports of zoo animals being stolen for their meat. The zoo animals that aren’t eaten are reportedly starving.

Even worse, the conditions in Venezuela have become a daily reality. They’re not even the temporary result of a natural disaster.

I don’t mention these animal-related anecdotes because I think they are equal in importance to the human tragedies involved in each case. After all, the most important fact in a statement about starving people eating dogs is that people are starving. And as of Monday morning, the death count in the wake of Hurricane Florence was 23 human beings — a far greater tragedy than the deaths of ten times as many dogs.

I mention these cases because they illustrate how creatures without legal rights fare better in market-oriented societies. Even a hurricane-ravaged community in moderately-capitalist North America treats its dogs better than the residents of socialist Venezuela.

Why Animals Fare Better Under Capitalism

At the core of this difference between conditions for domestic animals in the US and Venezuela is this: market-oriented (i.e., capitalist) societies can afford to treat their animals better: they can afford to build animal shelters, to package food expressly made for pets, and to put stray animals down humanely.

As Catherine Grier writes in her book Pets in America: A History, the spread of the idea that pets are companions that merit “kindness” only began to gain widespread currency in the nineteenth century. It was in 1838, for example, that Lydia Sigourney published a book of parenting advice called Letters to Mothers which established a “moral code of infancy” in which children ought to be taught to not “strike the dog” or roughly handle a kitten.

These were not the writings of a mere eccentric. According to Grier, Siguorney’s writings were a look into “what respectable folk — the new American middle classes ... were thinking and worrying about at the time.”

And what led to middle-class families putting more emphasis on kindness toward animals? Grier focuses on ideological and cultural factors. She concludes that a general rise in a “domestic ethic of kindness ... evolved from ideas that defined middle-class or ‘Victorian,’ culture in America: gentility, liberal evangelical Protestant religion, and domesticity.”

Grier is only partly right. There is no denying that these factors are important. But without the enormous gains in worker productivity, wealth-building, and economic progress that occurred with the rise of industrial capitalism in the nineteenth century, there would have been no “new middle class” of Victorians who worried themselves with such things. Those social currents were closely tied to the new wealth that had been made possible by the new economic currents in North America and Western Europe.

It’s Not Just Pets

And fortunately, these new economic realities led to improvement for human beings as well — including those who also have often lacked full legal rights. With the rise of industrialized capitalism, women and children began for the first time to gain access to education, to leisure time, and to freedoms that had previously been unknown to those who were not politically favored or physically strong.

For example, in her re-assessment of the Industrial Revolution, Wendy McElroy writes:

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.

Noting that urban factory jobs offered an escape from the rural lives that offered few choices, women voluntarily fled to cities where choices were more abundant, and where even prosperity could even be had for a single women without dependency on men or family. McElroy continues:

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.

But it wasn’t just the workers who gained from these changes. Consumers reaped the rewards as well. In her essay “The Liberation of Women,” Bettina Bien Greaves notes how leisure time for women was largely a creation of market-based mass production:

The tremendous advances, which have made it possible for women to achieve recognition as persons — legally, politically, economically, and professionally — are undoubtedly due in large part to capitalistic contributions. Savers, inventors, and producers, operating in a relatively free market economy risking their own private property in the hope of profit, supplied the goods and services which have freed women from the daily drudgery and heavy manual labor expected of them for centuries...

The social consequences of these advancements in worker productivity and wealth accumulation — even by the late nineteenth century — had profound effects. The new surplus in both savings and leisure provided women with the opportunity to obtain an education, either formally or informally. It is not a coincidence that a middle-class women like Maria Montessori, for example, managed to receive a formal education in medicine in the 1880s and 1890s.

Nor was education something pursued for its own sake. Literacy was of increasing importance since, as household finances became more varied and complex, “it was the wife who generally determined how the family’s money was spent. ... Women ruled at home partly because running the urban household was a complicated, demanding, and valuable task.”1

As households moved away from subsistence living, and as daily life became less of a struggle for mere survival, things changed emotionally as well. Married couples “also developed stronger emotional ties to each other ... affection and eroticism became more central to the couple after marriage ... [and] many French marriage manuals of the late 1800s stressed that women had legitimate sexual needs.”2

Children Benefited, Too

Thanks to improvements in wealth — the advantages of which included improvements in sanitation — child mortality began to decline, and parents began to view their children differently. As one history textbook affirms, “[a]lthough it may seem hard to believe today, the typical mother of preindustrial Western society was frequently indifferent toward her baby.” These changes began with the well-to-do, but spread to the working and middle classes as the nineteenth century wore on. For middle-class households in the late nineteenth century, the “loving care lavished on infants was matched by the greater concern for older children and adolescents.3

The mothers — who were now themselves educated — could also provide their children with an education, as this was yet another critical component of the new domestic life. In the new industrial era, a new baby did not necessarily mean an increase in the grave hardships faced by a family. It might be possible for parents to actually spend time and money “pampering” a child in a way never before imagined.

Moreover, older children no longer had to be viewed as having value primarily as workers. Parents have long sought to remove their children from the labor force when economically feasible. In his research on child labor, for example, Benjamin Powell observes how the decline of child labor is closely tied to rises in incomes enjoyed in market economies. Historically, it’s not the passage of child labor laws that eliminates child labor. It’s increasing wealth. As parents are able to make ends meet using the incomes of just the parents, children withdraw from the workforce. Powell concludes “child labor virtually disappears in all countries when incomes reach a little over $10,000. The laws were largely redundant.”

Markets and Industrialization Don’t De-Humanize Us — They Allow Us to be More Human

It’s not difficult to see how, in the mid-nineteenth century, families were already beginning to read books telling them to adopt a “domestic ethic of kindness” in which even kittens and dogs were thought to be deserving of the benefits of the new domestic life. The same economic trends that make it possible — in market economies — to spend time and energy savings dogs from floods have also enabled us to benefit countless human beings as well.

Yet in spite of all of this, we still continue to hear about how capitalism and industrialization de-humanize us, or distract us from the important things in life. Or that they somehow “commodify” our lives. In reality, the historical record shows that it was industrialization and capitalism that propagated the conditions under which we can afford to treat each other more humanely.

Unfortunately, where the capitalist economic order breaks down — or had never been established in the first place — we see these trends in reverse. We see increased human trafficking and prostitution. We see dangerous child labor. We see starving people eating zoo animals.

All of this should be seen as a warning against growing complacent about the benefits of a market economy.

  • 1McKay, John P., Bennett D. Hill, and John Buckler. 1984. A history of world societies. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p. 804
  • 2Ibid. p. 804. This isn’t to say, however, that such concerns did not exist earlier in Europe. They simply became more public, and more commercial after industrialization. For example, in Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe (University of Chicago Press 1990 (pp367-359), historian James Brundage writes:
     ”Like their predecessors, canonists of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries maintained that husbands and wives had equal rights ot marital sex. They acknowledged, however, that women were less likely to insist on their sexual rights. The parity of sexual rights in marriage was the foundation for discussions of conjugal debt that pushed the right to claim the debt to extremes undreamed of by earlier generations of canonists. Thge right of a married person to have  intercourse on demand took precedence over most other duties....[A] married serf whose wife demanded that he make love to her at the same time that his manorial lord required his services in the field ought to obey his lord, unless there was imminent danger that his wife might commit fornication. If the wife insisted, however, he was obliged to comply with her demand — the wife’s rights took precedence ove rthe lord’s....The obligation of the marital debt was so serious tha tin the view of the Anglo-Norman glossator it constituted a telling argument against polygyny, for, he declared, no man could hope to satisfy more than one woman.”
  • 3Ibid. pp. 804-805.
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