The Industrial Revolution: Marx was wrong

It may seem rather obvious to state that Karl Marx was wrong.  It may not seem so obvious to critique the standard mantra regarding the horrid squalor of the Industrial Revolution Era.  The wretched images etched in our minds by Charles Dickens in tales such as A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickleby remain much too vivid for us to casually forget.  This grim mental picture of the Industrial Revolution was depicted by an English artist named Philip James de Loutherbourg in a painting entitled, “Coalbrookdale by Night.”  It paints a bleak picture of life in a crowded English town, with factories ablaze and black smoke spewing into the night sky.  The landscape is strewn with scrap metal and other such leftovers of industrial production in order to add to the brutality and ugliness of the painting.

Loutherboug’s painting perfectly captures the standard (read: “Marxist”) perspective of the Industrial Revolution.

It is important to know that few individuals propagated this dreadful picture of the Industrial Revolution more than Karl Marx, who decried the rise of the machine and bemoaned the plight of the Working Man.  For Marx, the Industrial Revolution was not a time of societal betterment, but rather the last great battlefield upon which the revolutionary proletariat (i.e. the workers) would overthrow the overbearing bourgeoisie (i.e. the capitalists) to establish a great Communist utopia.  Naturally, it made sense for Marx to demonize the Industrial Revolution in order to spur his beloved proletariat into revolution against the capitalist overlords.

And demonize it, he did.  In his work, Das Kapital, Marx pontificated that “the directing motive, the end and aim of capitalist production, is to extract the greatest possible amount of surplus value, and consequently to exploit labor-power to the greatest possible extent.” (Book 1, Volume 1, Chapter 13).  Moreover, Marx riled up his readers by reminding them that much of the capital in the United States today “was yesterday, in England, the capitalised blood of children” (Book 1, Volume 1, Chapter 31).  As such, the capital machinery and mass production developed during the Industrial Revolution was, to Marx, a tool of the capitalist bourgeoisie to destroy the workers, regardless of age, class, or sex.  Continuing with his elaborate and inflammatory rhetoric, Marx therefore exclaimed that, “Capital is dead labor, that vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks” (Book 1, Volume 1, Chapter 10, Sec. 1).

In simple terms: Marx did not look kindly on the Industrial Revolution, so he painted a picture of it that we today accept without question.  It was a time of suffering, squalor, and wretchedness.  Children were forced into abusive labor, laborers either fell captive to the capitalists and their machines or else were thrown into the streets without employment.  Factory smokestacks spewed black plumes of pollutant into the sky while industrial waste turned rivers into running bands of slime.  This is what we today associate with the term, “Industrial Revolution,” and it is exactly what Marx would want us to think.

However, as with everything else, Marx was wrong about the Industrial Revolution.  The only difference between Marx’s analysis of the Industrial Revolution and his declaration of the coming Communist revolution is that more people seem to blindly accept the former while they reject the latter.  Yet, what such people don’t realize is that it is impossible to draw a meaningful dichotomy between these two concepts!  The brutal fact of the matter is that Marx’s analysis of the Industrial Revolution informed his belief in Communism even as his belief in Communism colored his perspective of the Industrial Revolution.  Therefore, because of the close alliance between Marx’s view of the Industrial Revolution and his articulation of Communist revolution, either Marx was right about the Industrial Revolution and Communism, or he was wrong about both.  Operating under the safe assumption that he was wrong about Communism (See the failed Communist states of the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Pol-Pot’s Cambodia, etc.), it’s therefore equally safe to assume that Marx was wrong about his analysis of the conditions during the Industrial Revolution.  Yet, because Marx’s view of the Industrial Revolution remains as the popular perspective of our history books, more sufficient refutation of it is necessary.

There are three simple things to remember whenever we hear the all-too-common tale about the deplorable time period of the Industrial Revolution.

First, worldwide population growth exploded during the Industrial Revolution.  Never before did the world see such a rapid increase in life expectancy and population than during the Industrial Revolution.  Consider the following chart, depicting estimated worldwide population from the 1st century, A.D. until the year 2000.

It’s not until the 19th century (the era of the Industrial Revolution) that worldwide population experiences a shocking exponential growth pattern.  (Chart reproduced under Public Domain)

Note the time period during which a pattern of rapid exponential growth begins: roughly the mid-18th century, or in other words, during the Industrial Revolution!  Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the world was not a pretty place to live.  Living conditions promoted unhealthy lifestyles and deadly diseases.  Medical practices were barbaric.  Peasants and serfs relied on feudal lords to protect and provide for them.  Often times, their feudal masters failed in such efforts.  Famines and natural disasters ravished everyone.  Depending on the time period and nation in which you lived, you had to worry about Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Huns, Mongols, Vikings, and Muslims showing up in your village to loot, rape, and murder.  Families would have 10, 15, or even 20 children in the hopes that 3 or 4 would survive to adulthood.  Hence, world population remained relatively stable until the Industrial Revolution, which made living conditions relatively so much better than they had previously been that people now lived into their 60s, 70s, and even 80s.  Before, it was a great miracle to reach 40.  As Thomas Woods pointed out in his article, “A Myth Shattered: Mises, Hayek, and the Industrial Revolution:”

“What the Industrial Revolution made possible, then, was for these people, who had nothing else to offer to the market, to be able to sell their labor to capitalists in exchange for wages. That is why they were able to survive at all. The Industrial Revolution therefore permitted a population explosion that could not have been sustained under the stagnating conditions of the pre-industrial age.”  (Emphasis added)

The second thing to remember about why Marx was wrong regarding the industrial revolution is that Marx compared the conditions of the Industrial Revolution either with his Communist utopia or a romanticized notion of the Medieval period.  The more realistic economists (such as Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek) compared the conditions of the Industrial Revolution to the actual conditions of the Medieval period, finding stark improvement on all fronts.  We can continue this line of logic to say that current standards of living are far better than those during the Industrial Revolution, but that doesn’t mean that the Industrial Revolution was the utter hell-hole of history.  As Ludwig von Mises wrote in Human Action, “The truth is that economic conditions were highly unsatisfactory on the eve of the Industrial Revolution.  The traditional social system was not elastic enough to provide for the needs of a rapidly increasing population.”  He continued to admit, that although labor conditions were much worse during the Industrial Revolution than during the early 20th century, the fact remained that Industrial era factories provided the means for millions of people to survive when they would otherwise have died of starvation.  In short, economically speaking, living conditions were relatively higher in the Industrial Revolution than during any point in history prior to the Industrial Revolution:

“The factory owners did not have the power to compel anybody to take a factory job. They could only hire people who were ready to work for the wages offered to them. Low as these wage rates were, they were nonetheless much more than these paupers could earn in any other field open to them. It is a distortion of facts to say that the factories carried off the housewives from the nurseries and the kitchens and the children from their play. These women had nothing to cook with and to feed their children. These children were destitute and starving. Their only refuge was the factory. It saved them, in the strict sense of the term, from death by starvation.”

The third thing to remember is that the Industrial Revolution was significant in helping millions of people overcome poverty by obliterating the entrapment of old social classes. Marx believed that the Industrial Revolution pitted two new classes–the bourgeoisie and the proletariat–against each other because it enabled the capitalists to gain in power and wealth while it enslaved the workers to their capitalist masters.  However, on the contrary, Hayek and Mises believed quite righly that the Industrial Revolution brought social classes much closer than ever before due to the growing power of the common worker, especially when compared to the pitiful state of the feudal serfs and peasants.  Moreover, if poverty was such an issue during the Industrial Revolution, Hayek argued that it was because overall wealth was increasing so rapidly that areas in which poverty remained (as a hangover from pre-Industrial economic conditions) became so conspicuous.  Specifically, he said (as quoted in Woods’ article) that:

“The very increase of wealth and well-being which had been achieved raised standards and aspirations. What for ages had seemed a natural and inevitable situation, or even as an improvement upon the past, came to be regarded as incongruous with the opportunities which the new age appeared to offer.  Economic suffering both became more conspicuous and seemed less justified, because general wealth was increasing faster than ever before.”

Additionally, Mises talked about the liberating effect of the Industrial Revolution on the poor and destitute, saying, “The laissez-faire ideology and its offshoot, the ‘Industrial Revolution,’ blasted the ideological and institutional barriers to progress and welfare. They demolished the social order in which a constantly increasing number of people were doomed to abject need and destitution.”  Thus, the Industrial Revolution was a time of looking forward, of allowing entrepreneurs to harness the powers of free market capitalism and turning that power into an engine of prosperity that would raise standards of living for all.  Over the years, this engine has grown even more efficient and productive, making Western societies so wealthy that today’s middle class is richer than the Medieval kings and Popes.  But it all began over 150 years ago when businessmen and entrepreneurs decided to forge ahead with new machines and technology in order to gain greater profits while simultaneously providing better services to the masses at lower and lower costs.

Admittedly, the Industrial Revolution was not paradise.  There were horrible tragedies and unspeakable sufferings that did affect many people, including widows, orphans, and the elderly.  There probably were many real-life stories that could parallel some of Dickens’ most shocking tales.  However, lest we get caught up in the emotional rhetoric of the standard Marxist interpretation of the Industrial Revolution, we must remember to analyze it within a realistic framework and a big-picture perspective.  In doing so, we realize that shortcomings did exist during the Industrial Revolution, but on the whole, the Industrial Revolution was a time for technological advancement and economic growth such as the world had not yet seen until that point.  Therefore, it is to the entrepreneurs of the Industrial Revolution that we are indebted for our prosperity…and not the wild rantings of a crazy German named Karl Marx.

“The outstanding fact about the Industrial Revolution is that it opened an age of mass production for the needs of the masses. The wage earners are no longer people toiling merely for other people’s well-being. They themselves are the main consumers of the products the factories turn out. Big business depends upon mass consumption. There is, in present-day America, not a single branch of big business that would not cater to the needs of the masses. The very principle of capitalist entrepreneurship is to provide for the common man. In his capacity as consumer the common man is the sovereign whose buying or abstention from buying decides the fate of entrepreneurial activities. There is in the market economy no other means of acquiring and preserving wealth than by supplying the masses in the best and cheapest way with all the goods they ask for.” – Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, Chapter 21.

About Jason Hughey View all posts by Jason Hughey

15 responses to “The Industrial Revolution: Marx was wrong

  • P. F. Pugh

    Jason, you have said nothing here that Marx himself would not agree with. Marx would agree that Capitalism is better than mercantilism or feudalism. Further, he would agree that standards of living were rising, on the whole.

    However, he would also say that it came at the cost of what Lukacs would call “reification” or “thing-ification.” That is, the capitalist system turns work into a commodity. In a capitalist system, according to Marxism, people get reduced to numbers, ciphers, and their work, which is their life, gets reduced to numbers. For Marx, then, capitalism is, for lack of a better term, economic prostitution. The worker is forced to sell his labor to live and so instead of doing meaningful work, he holds a “job” where he sells his labor, which is then translated into profit for the managing and owning classes. For Marx, if you don’t enjoy your work, if it’s not meaningful to you, then you are not flourishing as a human being and should not be in that kind of work.

    For later critical theorists, this also translates to consumption, whereby workers are lulled into forgetting their oppression through being consumers. Thus, the fact that you have identified this as a good thing proves that you have been brainwashed by the oppressive system. The “prosperity” of which you speak is a cruel and twisted parody of real human flourishing in a society where there would be no money, no commodification of time and labor.

    Not saying I agree with it, just saying that if you’re going to critique it, you have to do so on its own terms. The fact that you are critiquing it on the basis of “prosperity” (however that is to be defined) is evidence that you haven’t understood Marx’s critique.

    Oh, and modern “state socialism,” by the way, was originally a conservative response to the labor movement in hopes that they could undermine Marxist movements—it worked.

  • Jason Hughey

    Philip, I extolled capitalism as the economic system that liberated and empowered the common worker during the period of the Industrial Revolution, the benefits of which we now reap today. If I said nothing that Marx did not agree with, are you saying that he would have praised capitalism for liberating the worker? Judging from the quotations which I cited from Marx, I would think he would have a rather vehement disagreement.

    But that’s somewhat beside the point. The point is that the Industrial Revolution not only raised living standards to levels far above any previous era of history, but it also raised the worker out of the slums of serfdom. Neither during the Industrial Revolution nor today was (or is) anyone legally forced to work against their will. Workers and immigrants moved around, finding the jobs that would sustain them and raise their standard of living. Certainly, they may have been driven by necessity, but nobody enslaved them. This is a key difference that Marx can’t understand, and this only further invalidates his perspective. Did the workers love doing their work all the time in the Industrial Revolution? Or do they even always enjoy it now? No, and Marx can whine about that all he wants. But their only alternative is starvation, so perhaps Marx would’ve preferred that (sure enough, see how Communism worked in the The People’s Republic of China or the USSR).

    In short, Marx’s critique sounds like a petulant child who doesn’t want to do the dishes because he doesn’t enjoy such “labor,” and therefore concludes that it doesn’t contribute to his own flourishing.

    Lastly, I enjoy the use of the Freudian tactic of coming up with an absurd, unprovable notion of psychological oppression and then applying it to those who disagree, or who “just don’t seem to understand things.” If only I wasn’t so blinded by the oppressive system of capitalist prosperity, perhaps I would realize I was wrong, or so say the Marxists. Throwing aside such amateur accusations and analyzing the issues from a purely economic and historical perspective that values human life, it’s quite clear to see that Marx’s critique of the Industrial Revolution was nothing more than a propaganda tool to further incite the workers to overthrow the capitalists in order to bring about a Communist ideal that doesn’t even work in theory. In reality, it killed hundreds of millions.

    But then again, I’m just a slave to the capitalism machine…

  • P. F. Pugh

    Jason, the problem is:

    1) You’re using capitalist standards (prosperity, “standard of living”, etc) to measure the success of capitalism.

    2) Most Marxists see Leninism (practiced in the Communist world) as a perversion of Marx. State-directed planned economies are not the goal—the goal is a state where there is no state at all and everyone pools resources for the common good.

    Honestly, the capitalism of the nineteenth century could be exploitative. The words of Scrooge applied very much to some of those who followed after Smith, “If they’re going to die, they’d better do it! And decrease the surplus population!” Indeed, after Darwin published “Origin of Species” folks like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller began to fund evolutionary study because “survival of the fittest” was an ideology that they could use to justify their own practices.

    This doesn’t even touch the problems abroad: capitalism in places like India, China, and Africa led to huge wealth for people in Europe, and exploitation for those in the colonies. The “free trade” that Bastiat lauded often killed industrial development in places like Spain, which remained largely unindustrialized and economically depressed until after the Spanish Civil War.

    You also have to understand, Jason, that for Marx, Lukacs, et al, work=life. Therefore a just system will reward people for it (however little it is) so that they don’t have to sell it. This is why Leninism is seen as worse (if possible) than capitalism: unless you are advocating the abolition of clocks, shopping malls, and money, you aren’t advocating Marxism.

    What we call prosperity, or “high standards of living” today, Marx would call delusion. If he were alive today, he would say that consumption is the opiate of the masses. The reality is economics—which is a cruel system dedicated to the reduction of human beings to numbers. Any time you measure success with statistics, say Marxists, you are dehumanizing people and their labor. Economics as a field (and the economics department here at Covenant agrees) tends to be an incredibly secular and Godless field because success is always measured pragmatically in terms of numbers. For an economist, a good company is not one that produces a useful quality product that benefits everyone in the exchange, but a company that makes the maximum possible profit. Economics as a field is today dominated by the spectre of Ayn Rand—Randian thought is the hidden presupposition behind both Neo-Keynsian and Austrian economics today.

    Jason, you know that I’m no Marxist, but unless there’s some part of you that sees the point and half-wishes that Marx and his followers were right, you really can’t understand it. As Christians, we have to advocate for the rights of the downtrodden, for the poor, the widows, and the orphans. At the very least, we need to take this to heart in our consumption choices: were the workers who made this given a fair wage? Is this a good company for me to be supporting?

    May I recommend that you look up the history of the relationship between US companies and Latin America? I agree wholeheartedly that what came afterward was much worse, but I wonder if it would have happened, had owners and managers been more concerned with justice and less with profit. I agree that capitalism at its best produces entrepreneurship, creativity, and prosperity. But you and I both know that men’s hearts are totally depraved, and thus capitalism of less scrupulous varieties will produce a reaction that leads to suffering both for the workers and the capitalists. There never has been and never will be a Marxist utopia, but neither can there ever be a capitalist one.

    “Too much capitalism doesn’t mean too many capitalists, but too few.” ~G.K. Chesterton

  • Stephen H.

    1) What standard should be used to measure the successes or failures of an economic system? Standard of living / national prosperity is applied across the board to all economic systems, Roman, Greek, Communist, Capitalist etc. It provides a rather objective measuring stick to compare systems and their results.

    2) Regarding Ayn Rand, have you ever read any of her works? She’s about as anti-Keynsian as they come. Speaking from my readings of Atlas Shrugged, Anthem, and The New Left, Rand strongly argues for limited government and freedom of the individual. She views (see Atlas Shrugged) government intervention in the market as a bad thing that corrupts the market and destroys competition.

    3) I will leave the history points for Jason to respond to due to time constraints. Philip, what constitutes a “fair wage” and “a good company for me to be supporting”?. What is fair and good to one person is dishonest and of ill repute to another. Fair and good merely represent subjective measurements of something. When watching a football game, I could say it’s a fair and good game because my team is winning. A fan of the other team might say it’s not fair because they think the referees are purposefully not making calls and it’s not good because their team is getting clobbered. Fair and good for one are not fair and good for another.

    How does appealing to my duty as a Christian imply I must support or pine for the implementation of some neo-Marxist policies? Secondly, why must advocation for the groups you mentioned include advocating destroying other people’s property (going for Marx’s worker revolution to seize the factories and create utopia)? Doesn’t that seem contradictory? We’re all for this group over here — we’re going to take it from that group over there, ignoring the fact that this might in turn make the group we are taking from as or much worse off than the group we are “giving” it to.

    To finish this point, I would like to turn your attention to the nations of Zimbabwe and Zaire (now the DRC). Both used to be flourishing economic powerhouses in the African region (particularly Zaire) until the government(s) instituted programs to seize farms from the competent farm owners who employed lots of local labor and turn them over to the workers in the name of “equality” and other idealistic aims. They believed that by seizing the farms from the predominantly white farmers and handing them to the workers they would “equalize” things. All they managed to do was make everyone miserable. Farm production fell off dramatically, people lost lifetime investments and property, and both of those nations now experience harsh economic conditions, famines, and other previously unknown maladies. My point in this being that when a neo-Marxist policy (which this very clearly is) goes into effect, the economy suppers disproportionately. Seizing the capital goods and means of production from one group and handing it to another kills the economy. History is full of examples of this–and this is what Marx advocated.

  • P. F. Pugh

    Stephen, let me repeat this: if you’re not advocating for the abolition of money and clocks, you are not advocating Marxism. You might be advocating a form of Leninism, but not Marxism. Again, Marxism advocates the complete destruction of the state too.

    Rand’s legacy is not her libertarianism (as frightening as that is), but her objectification of economics. The prosperity of the individual or individual company is what matters. I think she would be completely fine with companies using the government as a stepladder to boost themselves up and make a profit. And she doesn’t care how many people get trampled in the process. I once suggested that the “man with no name” from Sergio Leone’s series of westerns was a Randian hero until it was pointed out that he has too much compassion.

    Again, I don’t advocate Marxism or revolution—I’m not so naive as to think that it would work even if it were just. What I do advocate, though, is compassion and awareness on the part of Christians of the suffering that goes on in the world and the ways that capitalism often contributes to it. Again, look at the history of US companies in Latin America, or even the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.

  • Jason Hughey

    1) As Stephen pointed out, prosperity is an objective standard applied to all economic systems. Moreover, you have not shown why it’s a bad standard; you’ve only griped about how much you don’t like it. Just because the standard is not to your liking, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad standard. Lastly, probably one of the best things about capitalism is that it does not ONLY meet the prosperity standard, but it also best meets such standards as those which value human life, freedom, Christian work ethic.

    2) You are a true champion of making sweeping, unproven assertions (Evolutionist theory –> Rockefeller and Carnegie; Free trade, Spain, India, etc.). Hence, I’ll only respond to your points that are actually related to my original article.

    The mindset that “work=life” is anti-biblical. Life is so much more than work from a biblical perspective, including family, religious activities, service, friendships, etc. That should immediately give you a major warning sign when considering Marxist theorists. I also find great contention with the idea that people will be automatically rewarded for their “work,” even though under a Marxist system there will be NOTHING to compensate them for it! If you’re going to abolish all those things Marx wants to abolish, how will people get rewarded for their labor? It won’t happen. It’s easy to see how the Austrian economists proved that Marxist economics were fundamentally impossible–even in theory.

    It’s very easy to see a strong intellectual opponent (economic prosperity produced by capitalism) and then to scream: “DELUSION!” It doesn’t respond to the arguments that more people are alive and experiencing better material well-being because of free markets. It doesn’t respond to the argument that more people would die and live in much harsher conditions if we tried to operate under any other economic system.

    At this point, I really have a bone to pick with another of your completely unwarranted assertions:

    “For an economist, a good company is not one that produces a useful quality product that benefits everyone in the exchange, but a company that makes the maximum possible profit.”

    This is NOT true, particularly because you are making a false dichotomy between two concepts that are necessarily tied together. In a free market system, a company makes the maximum possible profit by producing a useful quality product that benefits everyone involved in the exchange. I spent my summer interning with the Foundation for Economic Education, allowing me to listen to many different speakers who defended free markets. In fact, if anything, the Austrian economists argue that free markets benefit the consumer the most because businesses have to bend themselves to meet the needs of the consumer. It’s called consumer sovereignty.

    As far as understanding Marx, you’re basically telling me that I have to sort of want him to be right in order to understand him. What if I don’t want him to be right? Can I not understand him? Apparently not, but then again, I guess I can’t understand anybody that I don’t want to be right. Unfortunately for you, that is an absurd argument. As far as advocating for the rights of the poor and the downtrodden, that is why I believe in free markets. Free markets give societies the resources to take care of the poor and downtrodden. A society without wealth cannot help the poor and the downtrodden. But perhaps, in Marx’s dream world, we could take care of the poor and downtrodden without money or food.

    Your last sentence (before the Chesterton quotation) is telling. Never have I claimed that capitalism produces utopia. Never do any free market advocates say that it will produce utopia. That’s probably why it never gains popularity among the masses as an intellectual idea. It’s realistic (and biblical) in the sense that it realizes that humans can never create a perfect system. Only God can do such a thing. But that doesn’t mean that we should demonize capitalism for the times when it doesn’t create utopia. to do so, I contend, would be to adopt an anti-biblical presupposition that believes that man can create a utopia.

    If you feel inclined to respond again, please make sure that you explain the causation behind the arguments that you make. Furthermore, please try to provide realistic solutions to any problems you find with capitalism, not just about how you want capitalism to be perfect.

  • P. F. Pugh

    Jason, you know as well as I do that I support capitalism the same way I support Democracy: the worst economic system except for all the others (and even then, pure capitalism, like pure democracy, has never really existed anyway).

    “As Stephen pointed out, prosperity is an objective standard applied to all economic systems.”

    So says the 21st-century American Classical Liberal.

    “The mindset that “work=life” is anti-biblical.”

    I didn’t say that work=life according to Marx, I was using it in the predicative sense. Life does not equal work, but work of a meaningful sort is, I feel, essential to human flourishing. The cultural mandate is still in effect.

    “It’s easy to see how the Austrian economists proved that Marxist economics were fundamentally impossible–even in theory.”

    It’s very easy to disprove another theory if you define all the terms and standards yourself.

    “In a free market system, a company makes the maximum possible profit by producing a useful quality product that benefits everyone involved in the exchange.”

    Funny how this worked out for Standard Oil.

    “What if I don’t want him to be right?”

    I only said that there has to be a part of you that sees his critique and is capable of actually thinking like Marx. It’s like what I do with economic libertarianism.

    “Free markets give societies the resources to take care of the poor and downtrodden.”

    So why does it never work this way?

    Jason, if you’re going to be a Christian defender of capitalism, fine, but don’t pretend that as a system it rewards virtue. Again, I’d suggest you look carefully at the complaints of Marxists and decolonialists and examine whether your presuppositions about what constitutes the end of economics are Biblical. Any economic system is good only insofar as it promotes human flourishing—tell me honestly that you think that products like “Playboy” or places like Disneyworld (or suburbia, for that matter) are socially good and contribute to human flourishing.

    Capitalism, you see, depends on the (libertarian) assumption that people ought to be able to pursue their perceived good. You and I both know how wrong this is: remember that “In Israel there was no king and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

    I’m not pretending to have answers to problems—I’m a philosopher, my job is to ask questions. But if the end of economics is to promote human flourishing, then from a Biblical perspective, I think we have to be at least somewhat critical of capitalism.

    Have you ever noticed that the “prosperity” of society is often inversely proportional to its virtue?

  • Stephen H.

    Because I like bullet pointing things so.

    1) Prosperity — What measuring stick should we use to compare economic systems if you believe prosperity and quality of life possess significant inadequacies? With all due respect, if someone keeps saying “no” and does not provide an alternative whose merits we can discuss I’m left thinking that person just finds the standard inconvenient for their purposes. Please, what standard should we use to measure the effectiveness of various economic systems and proposals and compare them to one another.

    “So says the 21st-century American Classical Liberal.”
    And just for the record, the 20th, the 19th, and even the 18th century classical liberals would tend to agree(I am classifying Adam Smith here).

    2) Rand — Have you read Atlas Shrugged? Rand explicitly portrays the individual who uses government access for profit as a bad guy in the novel. Instead of competing on the free market he tries to use government to obtain advancement. She does not care for people who try to use the force of government to get ahead.

    3) Poverty — Philip, the system is working. “Poor” people today (poverty is a relative term) live far superior lives to poor people 100 years ago. If, by things aren’t getting better and the system isn’t working, you mean we still have “poor” people I would like to point out that Jesus said the poor would be with us always.

  • P. F. Pugh

    1) I would say, from a Christian perspective, we should use human flourishing as the measuring stick. Is the cultural mandate of stewardship being carried out in a godly fashion? Does our economic system reward virtues like altruism (the bane of Rand)and care for those less fortunate than oneself? Does it punish vices like avarice? Are we building healthy communities? Are we creating good culture?

    So says the Burkian classical conservative.

    2) Funny how inconsistent she is, given her own dependence on others.

    3) Are you speaking globally or just in America?

    • Stephen H.

      1) What exactly constitutes “human flourishing”? Is it time to pursue leisure activities? Freedom to pursue any interest, hobby, or activity? Creation of art works? Improvement of life for all denizens? As Jason pointed out, capitalism already meets the standard. Secondly, what constitutes “a godly fashion”, “rewarding of altruism” (should we give them money?), “punishing vice”, “building healthy communities”, and “creating good culture”. When I read this, I see a list of rather subjective standards.

      What do you believe Altruism is, in an economic sense, and how should we reward it? What would you have an altruistic economic entity look like?

      What is economic vice? Making a profit? How should we punish them and why?

      What is a “healthy” community? Is it where we ban old Bugs Bunny cartoons and feed children a steady diet of Pilgrim’s Progress and the Brother’s Grim Fairy tales?

      What is “good culture”? Is it a culture that rejects all forms of art except that which it deems “uplifting”. It removes all knowledge except that which it deems edifying and that which reinforces the “good” culture.

      My point in all this being, your standard is subjective and open to a wide range of different interpretations by different people. This leaves us back where we started: how can I compare the economies of the past against the economies of today? Prosperity and quality of life are objective and easy to ascertain when compared with subjectively valuing and weighting the different criteria you set forth.

      By Burkian, do I assume correctly you referenced Edmund Burke?

      2) Rand — Philip, you’re attempting to source indict without providing any reason why she should be disregarded. I have yet to meet a human who does not have some dependency on others.

      3) I will limit myself to speaking about the United States as I possess the most familiarity with that subject.

  • Jason Hughey

    1) “Funny how this worked out for Standard Oil.”

    Funny how it did. Funny how it also works for Microsoft and Apple too. Funny how you continue making unwarranted pot-shots without even a hint at explanation of causation or knowledge of historical research. ;)

    And if you think those are biased sources, consider the story of John S. McGee, an economist who, in 1958, set out to prove that Rockefeller engaged in predatory price cutting. After doing intensive research, he could only conclude that Rockefeller never even dreamed of doing such a thing. This was a guy who wanted to prove that Rockefeller was the villain that you would make him out to be! Thankfully, he was intellectually honest enough to realize that it would be a lie to continue propagating such myths.

    2) “So why does it never work this way?”

    This is quite a slip-up. “Never” work this way? I suppose you’re intimately familiar with all capitalist systems, all capitalist industry tycoons, all capitalist business practices, all poverty levels in capitalist nations, etc, etc, etc. How else could you make such a claim? Or perhaps you’re simply revealing your irrational bias against free markets by assuming they can never do what you want them to do. I think this second explanation makes much more sense than the first.

    3) “Any economic system is good only insofar as it promotes human flourishing—tell me honestly that you think that products like “Playboy” or places like Disneyworld (or suburbia, for that matter) are socially good and contribute to human flourishing.”

    I have never said that capitalism doesn’t allow for bad or immoral things. In fact, Mises himself says that capitalism increases some bad with the good in a free society. It’s inevitable. However, am I forced to stare at Playboy magazines? Do Mickey Mouse mascots run all over the country rounding up families and shipping them off to this concentration camp known as “Disney World?” Am I forced to live in suburbia? The answer to all of these is no. Because of capitalism, I have the freedom to choose the products and services that are noble and virtuous while I may shun those that are bad/immoral.

    Let me reiterate: A capitalist society is not a utopian society. Men are depraved and evil, thus evil things will happen in any society, capitalist or not. However, the capitalist tradition (which came out of the Reformation), provides us with a more prosperous society that, as Christians, gives us more economic, political, and cultural freedom to make an impact. If your gripe is that society is immoral, don’t blame capitalism. Blame Christians who haven’t stepped up to use their freedom to make a profound cultural impact.

    4) “Capitalism, you see, depends on the (libertarian) assumption that people ought to be able to pursue their perceived good. You and I both know how wrong this is: remember that “In Israel there was no king and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.””

    No, I don’t know how wrong this is. I like law. Therefore, I study to be a lawyer. Stephen likes computers, so he studies to be a computer scientist. You like philosophy, you study to be a philosopher.

    Oh wait…that’s teh evilz because we’re all doing what’s right in our own eyes! How could we do such a thing?

    5) “Have you ever noticed that the “prosperity” of society is often inversely proportional to its virtue?”

    That’s very interesting. Could you provide me a link so that I can measure the statistical levels of virtue across nations ranging from very prosperous to very poor? If you could find percentages, that would be really swell. Point is: you can’t use a term like “proportional,” unless there’s a numerical quantity involved. There’s a lot of good people in prosperous societies and there’s a lot of good people in poor ones. Likewise, there’s a lot of bad people in prosperous societies and there’s a lot of bad people in poor ones.

    6) “I would say, from a Christian perspective, we should use human flourishing as the measuring stick. Is the cultural mandate of stewardship being carried out in a godly fashion? Does our economic system reward virtues like altruism (the bane of Rand)and care for those less fortunate than oneself? Does it punish vices like avarice? Are we building healthy communities? Are we creating good culture?”

    I have one question: if the answer to any of the above questions is “no,” what would you do about it?

    Secondly, capitalism best meets the standard of human flourishing. Today, more people are alive because of capitalism (See the chart in the post above; a very important thing from a biblical perspective, no?). Tell me any other economic system that can provide for not only the necessities of human life, but also the frills that make life expectancy much longer. Once you can tell me that, then you will have shown me that capitalism is unsatisfactory in meeting the standard of human flourishing. Until you can show me that system, with a backed up explanation of its functional causation, your complaints about capitalism are, at best, semantic, and at worst, unintelligent.

  • P. F. Pugh

    “Prosperity and quality of life are objective and easy to ascertain when compared with subjectively valuing and weighting the different criteria you set forth.”

    So says the west. However, Middle-Eastern and Far-Eastern cultures might disagree. “Quality of life” is also subjective. For example, quality of life for me, would involve having a community that could support me should I be unemployed through no fault of my own. Or what about having local businesses? That’s a quality of life thing. In short, quality of life involves all kinds of factors beyond how many toys you have, and is far more subjective than you would like to maintain.

    “I will limit myself to speaking about the United States as I possess the most familiarity with that subject.”

    You can’t do that any more since most of our industry has been outsourced.

    Jason, I have two words for you: Social Democracy. This is the accepted model of government in most western countries today and it is doing very well, thank you. People in social-democratic countries like Italy and France have almost our level of prosperity and far less stress and therefore they often live longer. Overall quality of life is therefore (to my mind) higher.

  • Stephen H.

    1) Might and do are separated by a rather large gap. Firstly, what evidence can you give to support your assertion. Secondly, I can still look at their way of doing economics by the same scale and compare the two systems.

    2) Yes, I can limit myself to saying that. The presence of industry in the US or the lack thereof does not limit my ability to say life has greatly improved in the United States for everyone and the quality of life has improved between 1900 and 2010 by leaps and bounds. However, if you wish to extend the argument globally, life around the world is gradually getting better.

    3) Social Democracy is not doing ‘very well’. It is running up huge debts, has an entitled citizenry incapable of surviving without the presence of government, and a rather large indifferent if not outright atheistic population when it comes to the subject of religion. What major innovations have France and Italy pioneered in the last 40-50 years? They are stuck on statism and are stagnant when it comes to innovation. My point in this being, they are riding everyone else’s coat tails for improvements to their societies.

  • paulmunson

    Jason, who is ‘we’ here, who are you speaking on behalf of?

    ‘I extolled capitalism as the economic system that liberated and empowered the common worker during the period of the Industrial Revolution, the benefits of which we now reap today.’

  • Jason Hughey

    Paul, it’s been awhile since I looked at this post, but judging from the context of the comment, I was talking about Philip and myself.

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