Packs, not herds: Compared to what? On the Industrial Revolution

In his inaugural blog post, Mida’s English editor Avi Woolf takes on one of the great myths of history – the “intolerable conditions” of Industrial Revolution workers.

It happens all the time. Some curmudgeon or ideologue will scream that things are awful, absolutely horrible. The news media is especially guilty of this, often placing emphasis on worst-case scenarios to score political points. Everyone watching will then agree – this is horrible, unthinkable. Somebody – meaning government – must “do something about this.” Because whatever “this” is must be intolerable.

As Thomas Sowell would reply: Compared to what? Is whatever we are discussing truly worse than before or elsewhere? Or are we missing a critical piece of the puzzle?

Take the Industrial Revolution. Most people know of this period as one not of great wealth but of cruel and horrific exploitation: workers toiling under lethal conditions, children being endangered – and all for very little money. Usually, the response of the capitalist is to point out to the great wealth this revolution brought: how it made a wide variety of goods more freely available for the general public, provided jobs and likely prevented the revolution, famine and death which engulfed European countries that weren’t sufficiently industrialized in 1848.

But this counter would only inflame passions. Surely, the progressive will charge, if the only way to better the condition of humanity is on the backs of exploited and mistreated workers, then it isn’t worth the price? The capitalist and progressive will then argue back and forth about the relative merit of both values and which is more important than the other.

But the truth is that this is a false choice borne of historical ignorance. In a relatively unknown book edited by F.A. Hayek entitled Capitalism and the Historians, historian of the period T.S. Ashton demonstrated that far and away, factories improved the lives of those self-same workers and children which provided so much good for humanity. The “harsh conditions” were actually better than those which workers or children faced in backbreaking labor on farms or in unsanitary workshops. The pay was better too: when factories tried to cut hours for humanitarian or other reasons, workers quit and went to places where they could earn more.

The same is true today. Take sweatshops established in the third world by large multinational companies. To this day, these places are notorious for bad conditions and low pay. But when Prof. Ben Powell asked “compared to what?” it turned out that bad as they are, pay and conditions in sweatshops are still better than other options available to sweatshop workers. There’s no other way to explain why they voluntarily flock to such “exploitative” places.

Comparison in general – and comparison to history in particular – is an important corrective to our often hysterical political discussions. It gives us a sense of proportion and a stark reminder that while things can always be better – they can also be a lot worse. Whether it’s arguments against kosher slaughter, the Industrial Revolution or any other seeming intolerable problem, you must always ask:

Compared to what?

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