A common, negative understanding of the social/political/economic history of the industrial revolution and laissez faire capitalism is one of exploitation of the environment and society leaving the planet itself in danger and individuals deracinated and neurotic. According to this view people exchanged idyllic country living with a slave existence in filthy, overcrowded and dangerous cities. The relevant images are always of billowing smoke stacks and child labor. A corollary to this understanding is that progressive government finally fought to curb the excesses of monopoly capitalism, and has been continuing to fight against this threat to this day. We might call this the left or Marxian understanding.
But there are also conservative critiques of the social/political/economic history of the industrial revolution and laissez faire capitalism. About 100 years ago G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc in his book The Servile State, presented a similarly negative view of capitalism while proposing the distributist economic system of small holders of capital. I recommend the Youtube channel of Mary Kochan who has explained the potential blessings of a distributist economy in a series of podcasts.
From a free market, libertarian perspective there is a contrary, positive history to be told. Friedrich Hayek edited and contributed to the book of essays, Capitalism and the Historians. The Mises Institute website gives this description:
“Even today, social scientists and historians continue to treat the Industrial Revolution as if it were the beginning of the end of civilization. What the essays in this book do is show the opposite. It was in many ways the beginning of a new civilization that permitted a high standard of living for the mass of the population, and resulted in longer and healthier lives. It was not characterized by coercion and social devastation but rather increased freedom and individual choice.”
Also from the Mises Institute is Murray Rothbard’s The Progressive Era (audio).
“Rothbard’s power-elite historical analysis shows how big business, big unions, and big government conspired to cartelize industries in order to further their own interests. Programs and agencies started in the Progressive Era have a destructive legacy that has carried on for a century.”
Rothbard explains that of course the captains of industry, the capitalists, were conspiring to control the market to increase their own power and wealth. This is a conspiracy theory that all anti-conspiracy theorists agree with. But his key observation is that they did not succeed alone, but only after they allied with the government.”
Patrick Newman provided further description of the book The Progressive Era.
“The second half of the nineteenth century was certainly the era of big business in the United States, but no industry was as important—politically and economically—as railroads. Rothbard shows us how the government got involved in the railroad industry early on, first arguing for subsidies, which led to a backlash of “anti-monopoly” sentiment that would define much of the Gilded and Progressive ages. The railroad companies attempted to cartelize, and the government used this as justification for ever-increasing regulations, as well as the establishment of the Interstate Commerce Commission. These interventions established precedents that would come to affect every major industry. After telling the story of the railroads, Rothbard turns to the other major industries that defined the era: oil, steel, mechanized agriculture, and sugar. Each of these industries would attempt monopoly, and although the market stymied the ambitions of the industry leaders, the federal government was able justify its increasing involvement in the economy.”
It is telling to me in regard to the complexity of what the market really is (i.e., not simply searching for monetary profit) that these books are available at no cost at the radical free market Mises Institute website.
This is not an esoteric debate because we are in the midst of what Karl Schwab calls the 4th industrial revolution. Recently I noted that we are entering a post-human civilization. Not to repeat myself, I am chagrined to quote myself.
“I feel like I am participating in a kind of giant Milgram experiment where the population of the world (at least the developed world) is being socialized into unthinking, fear inspired obedience. Terrorism, financial collapse, epidemics and biosecurity, and cultural revolution are all top down events aimed at creating a docile, obedient population. It is clear that to the powers that be, all human relationships, simple pleasures, social and psychological needs are expendable. All individual humans are expendable. It is telling that the elite has politically dropped the working class in favor of extreme environmentalism and immigration. Human labor (at least in the developed world) is no longer seen as being essential. As James Corbett has documented, the achieved goal is population control.”
Who are “the powers that be”? Currently we can identify Zuckerberg, Bezos, Gates, Dorsey, Pichai, and Soros; but those from previous generations are still around, most prominent are the Rockerfellers and even the British royal family (maybe Harry and Meghan are pawns). We should not forget that along with big tech there is big oil, big pharma, big banks, and the military-industrial complex. And there are the foreign government operators like Jinping. We are faced with an Orwellian oligarchy that has an Orwellian ideology and the technology in place that can make 1984 operational.
I believe hierarchy is a natural and necessary development of a functioning economy and society. But it seems to me most people believe in “equality” and that the dangers I have described are the results of capitalism itself. I am ready to defend a true free market and capitalism in every sense but on the surface it seems there can be some truth to this charge today. So I pose this question:
Is it inherent in the nature of free market capitalism for the most wealthy individuals and/or corporations to capture government power?
I believe the answer is critical in our efforts to maintain a free society and in determining ways to oppose this power? Mass disobedience is critically needed so people must be convinced that freedom is the basis of our civilization and the free market is one of the pillars that maintain it.
My challenge to the LRC community is to refute this charge against capitalism addressing the historical context, the current dilemma, and future directions.
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