Front Page Titles (by Subject) Remarks About the Popular Interpretation of the Industrial Revolution - Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, vol. 2 (LF ed.)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Remarks About the Popular Interpretation of the “Industrial Revolution” - Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, vol. 2 (LF ed.) 
Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, in 4 vols., ed. Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007). Vol. 2.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Remarks About the Popular Interpretation of the “Industrial Revolution”
It is generally asserted that the history of modern industrialism and especially the history of the British “Industrial Revolution” provide an empirical verification of the “realistic” or “institutional” doctrine and utterly explode the “abstract” dogmatism of the economists.14
The economists flatly deny that labor unions and government prolabor legislation can and did lastingly benefit the whole class of wage earners and raise their standard of living. But the facts, say the anti-economists, have refuted these fallacies. The statesmen and legislators who enacted the factory acts displayed a better insight into reality than the economists. While laissez-faire philosophy, without pity and compassion, taught that the sufferings of the toiling masses are unavoidable, the common sense of laymen succeeded in quelling the worst excesses of profit-seeking business. The improvement in the conditions of the workers is entirely an achievement of governments and labor unions.
Such are the ideas permeating most of the historical studies dealing with the evolution of modern industrialism. The authors begin by sketching an idyllic image of conditions as they prevailed on the eve of the “Industrial Revolution.” At that time, they tell us, things were, by and large, satisfactory. The peasants were happy. So also were the industrial workers under the domestic system. They worked in their own cottages and enjoyed a certain economic independence since they owned a garden plot and their tools. But then “the Industrial Revolution fell like a war or a plague” on these people.15 The factory system reduced the free worker to virtual slavery; it lowered his standard of living to the level of bare subsistence; in cramming women and children into the mills it destroyed family life and sapped the very foundations of society, morality, and public health. A small minority of ruthless exploiters had cleverly succeeded in imposing their yoke upon the immense majority.
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. Neither farming nor the guilds had any use for the additional hands. Business was imbued with the inherited spirit of privilege and exclusive monopoly; its institutional foundations were licenses and the grant of a patent of monopoly; its philosophy was restriction and the prohibition of competition both domestic and foreign. The number of people for whom there was no room left in the rigid system of paternalism and government tutelage of business grew rapidly. They were virtually outcasts. The apathetic majority of these wretched people lived from the crumbs that fell from the tables of the established castes. In the harvest season they earned a trifle by occasional help on farms; for the rest they depended upon private charity and communal poor relief. Thousands of the most vigorous youths of these strata were pressed into the service of the Royal Army and Navy; many of them were killed or maimed in action; many more perished ingloriously from the hardships of the barbarous discipline, from tropical diseases, or from syphilis.16 Other thousands, the boldest and most ruthless of their class, infested the country as vagabonds, beggars, tramps, robbers, and prostitutes. The authorities did not know of any means to cope with these individuals other than the poorhouse and the workhouse. The support the government gave to the popular resentment against the introduction of new inventions and labor-saving devices made things quite hopeless.
The factory system developed in a continuous struggle against innumerable obstacles. It had to fight popular prejudice, old established customs, legally binding rules and regulations, the animosity of the authorities, the vested interests of privileged groups, the envy of the guilds. The capital equipment of the individual firms was insufficient, the provision of credit extremely difficult and costly. Technological and commercial experience was lacking. Most factory owners failed; comparatively few succeeded. Profits were sometimes considerable, but so were losses. It took many decades until the common practice of reinvesting the greater part of profits earned accumulated adequate capital for the conduct of affairs on a broader scale.
That the factories could thrive in spite of all these hindrances was due to two reasons. First there were the teachings of the new social philosophy expounded by the economists. They demolished the prestige of Mercantilism, paternalism, and restrictionism. They exploded the superstitious belief that labor-saving devices and processes cause unemployment and reduce all people to poverty and decay. The laissez-faire economists were the pioneers of the unprecedented technological achievements of the last two hundred years.
Then there was another factor that weakened the opposition to innovations. The factories freed the authorities and the ruling landed aristocracy from an embarrassing problem that had grown too large for them. They provided sustenance for the masses of paupers. They emptied the poorhouses, the work-houses, and the prisons. They converted starving beggars into self-supporting breadwinners.
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.
It is deplorable that such conditions existed. But if one wants to blame those responsible, one must not blame the factory owners who—driven by selfishness, of course, and not by “altruism”—did all they could to eradicate the evils. What had caused these evils was the economic order of the precapitalistic era, the order of the “good old days.”
In the first decades of the Industrial Revolution the standard of living of the factory workers was shockingly bad when compared with the contemporary conditions of the upper classes and with the present conditions of the industrial masses. Hours of work were long, the sanitary conditions in the workshops deplorable. The individual’s capacity to work was used up rapidly. But the fact remains that for the surplus population which the enclosure movement had reduced to dire wretchedness and for which there was literally no room left in the frame of the prevailing system of production, work in the factories was salvation. These people thronged into the plants for no reason other than the urge to improve their standard of living.
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. The processing trades of earlier ages had almost exclusively catered to the wants of the well-to-do. Their expansion was limited by the amount of luxuries the wealthier strata of the population could afford. Those not engaged in the production of primary commodities could earn a living only as far as the upper classes were disposed to utilize their skill and services. But now a different principle came into operation. The factory system inaugurated a new mode of marketing as well as of production. Its characteristic feature was that the manufactures were not designed for the consumption of a few well-to-do only, but for the consumption of those who had hitherto played but a negligible role as consumers. Cheap things for the many, was the objective of the factory system. The classical factory of the early days of the Industrial Revolution was the cotton mill. Now, the cotton goods it turned out were not something the rich were asking for. These wealthy people clung to silk, linen, and cambric. Whenever the factory with its methods of mass production by means of power-driven machines invaded a new branch of production, it started with the production of cheap goods for the broad masses. The factories turned to the production of more refined and therefore more expensive goods only at a later stage, when the unprecedented improvement in the masses’ standard of living which they caused made it profitable to apply the methods of mass production also to these better articles. Thus, for instance, the factory-made shoe was for many years bought only by the “proletarians” while the wealthier consumers continued to patronize the custom shoemakers. The much talked about sweatshops did not produce clothes for the rich, but for people in modest circumstances. The fashionable ladies and gentlemen preferred and still do prefer custom-made frocks and suits.
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.
Blinded by their prejudices, many historians and writers have entirely failed to recognize this fundamental fact. As they see it, wage earners toil for the benefit of other people. They never raise the question who these “other” people are.
Mr. and Mrs. Hammond tell us that the workers were happier in 1760 than they were in 1830.17 This is an arbitrary value judgment. There is no means of comparing and measuring the happiness of different people and of the same people at different times. We may agree for the sake of argument that an individual who was born in 1740 was happier in 1760 than in 1830. But let us not forget that in 1770 (according to the estimate of Arthur Young) England had 8.5 million inhabitants, while in 1831 (according to the census) the figure was 16 million.18 This conspicuous increase was mainly conditioned by the Industrial Revolution. With regard to these additional Englishmen the assertion of the eminent historians can only be approved by those who endorse the melancholy verses of Sophocles: “Not to be born is, beyond all question, the best; but when a man has once seen the light of day, this is next best, that speedily he should return to that place whence he came.”
The early industrialists were for the most part men who had their origin in the same social strata from which their workers came. They lived very modestly, spent only a fraction of their earnings for their households and put the rest back into the business. But as the entrepreneurs grew richer, the sons of successful businessmen began to intrude into the circles of the ruling class. The highborn gentlemen envied the wealth of the parvenus and resented their sympathies with the reform movement. They hit back by investigating the material and moral conditions of the factory hands and enacting factory legislation.
The history of capitalism in Great Britain as well as in all other capitalist countries is a record of an unceasing tendency toward the improvement in the wage earners’ standard of living. This evolution coincided with the development of prolabor legislation and the spread of labor unionism on the one hand and with the increase in the marginal productivity of labor on the other hand. The economists assert that the improvement in the workers’ material conditions is due to the increase in the per capita quota of capital invested and the technological achievements which the employment of this additional capital brought about. As far as labor legislation and union pressure did not exceed the limits of what the workers would have got without them, as a necessary consequence of the acceleration of capital accumulation as compared with population, they were superfluous. As far as they exceeded these limits, they were harmful to the interests of the masses. They delayed the accumulation of capital thus slowing down the tendency toward a rise in the marginal productivity of labor and in wage rates. They conferred privileges on some groups of wage earners at the expense of other groups. They created mass unemployment and decreased the amount of products available for the workers in their capacity as consumers.
The apologists of government interference with business and of labor unionism ascribe all the improvements in the conditions of the workers to the actions of governments and unions. Except for them, they contend, the workers’ standard of living would be no higher today than it was in the early years of the factory system.
It is obvious that this controversy cannot be settled by appeal to historical experience. With regard to the establishment of the facts there is no disagreement between the two groups. Their antagonism concerns the interpretation of events, and this interpretation must be guided by the theory chosen. The epistemological and logical considerations which determine the correctness or incorrectness of a theory are logically and temporally antecedent to the elucidation of the historical problem involved. The historical facts as such neither prove nor disprove any theory. They need to be interpreted in the light of theoretical insight.
Most of the authors who wrote the history of the conditions of labor under capitalism were ignorant of economics and boasted of this ignorance. However, this contempt for sound economic reasoning did not mean that they approached the topic of their studies without prepossession and without bias in favor of any theory. They were guided by the popular fallacies concerning governmental omnipotence and the alleged blessings of labor unionism. It is beyond question that the Webbs as well as Lujo Brentano and a host of minor authors were at the very start of their studies imbued with a fanatical dislike of the market economy and an enthusiastic endorsement of the doctrines of socialism and interventionism. They were certainly honest and sincere in their convictions and tried to do their best. Their candor and probity may exonerate them as individuals; it does not exonerate them as historians. However pure the intentions of a historian may be, there is no excuse for his recourse to fallacious doctrines. The first duty of a historian is to examine with the utmost care all the doctrines to which he resorts in dealing with the subject matter of his work. If he neglects to do this and naïvely espouses the garbled and confused ideas of popular opinion, he is not a historian but an apologist and propagandist.
The antagonism between the two opposite points of view is not merely a historical problem. It refers no less to the most burning problems of the present day. It is the matter of controversy in what is called in present-day America the problem of industrial relations.
Let us stress one aspect of the matter only. Vast areas—Eastern Asia, the East Indies, Southern and Southeastern Europe, Latin America—are only superficially affected by modern capitalism. Conditions in these countries by and large do not differ from those of England on the eve of the “Industrial Revolution.” There are millions of people for whom there is no secure place left in the traditional economic setting. The fate of these wretched masses can be improved only by industrialization. What they need most is entrepreneurs and capitalists. As their own foolish policies have deprived these nations of the further enjoyment of the assistance imported foreign capital hitherto gave them, they must embark upon domestic capital accumulation. They must go through all the stages through which the evolution of Western industrialism had to pass. They must start with comparatively low wage rates and long hours of work. But, deluded by the doctrines prevailing in present-day Western Europe and North America, their statesmen think that they can proceed in a different way. They encourage labor-union pressure and alleged prolabor legislation. Their interventionist radicalism nips in the bud all attempts to create domestic industries. Their stubborn dogmatism spells the doom of the Indian and Chinese coolies, the Mexican peons, and millions of other peoples, desperately struggling on the verge of starvation.
Wage Rates as Affected by the Vicissitudes of the Market
Labor is a factor of production. The price which the seller of labor can obtain on the market depends on the data of the market.
The quantity and the quality of labor which an individual is fitted to deliver is determined by his innate and acquired characteristics. The innate abilities cannot be altered by any purposeful conduct. They are the individual’s heritage with which his ancestors have endowed him on the day of his birth. He can bestow care upon these gifts and cultivate his talents, he can keep them from prematurely withering away; but he can never cross the boundaries which nature has drawn to his forces and abilities. He can display more or less skill in his endeavors to sell his capacity to work at the highest price which is obtainable on the market under prevailing conditions; but he cannot change his nature in order to adjust it better to the state of the market data. It is good luck for him if market conditions are such that a kind of labor which he is able to perform is lavishly remunerated; it is chance, not personal merit if his innate talents are highly appreciated by his fellow men. Miss Greta Garbo, if she had lived a hundred years earlier, would probably have earned much less than she did in this age of moving pictures. As far as her innate talents are concerned, she is in a position similar to that of a farmer whose farm can be sold at a high price because the expansion of a neighboring city converted it into urban soil.
Within the rigid limits drawn by his innate abilities, a man’s capacity to work can be perfected by training for the accomplishment of definite tasks. The individual—or his parents—incurs expenses for a training the fruit of which consists in the acquisition of the ability to perform certain kinds of work. Such schooling and training intensify a man’s one-sidedness; they make him a specialist. Every special training enhances the specific character of a man’s capacity to work. The toil and trouble, the disutility of the efforts to which an individual must submit in order to acquire these special abilities, the loss of potential earnings during the training period, and the money expenditure required are laid out in the expectation that the later increment in earnings will compensate for them. These expenses are an investment and as such speculative. It depends on the future state of the market whether or not they will pay. In training himself the worker becomes a speculator and entrepreneur. The future state of the market will determine whether profit or loss results from his investment.
Thus the wage earner has vested interests in a twofold sense, as a man with definite innate qualities and as a man who has acquired definite special skills.
The wage earner sells his labor on the market at the price which the market allows for it today. In the imaginary construction of the evenly rotating economy the sum of the prices which the entrepreneur must expend for all the complementary factors of production together must equal—due consideration being made for time preference—the price of the product. In the changing economy changes in the market structure may bring about differences between these two magnitudes. The ensuing profits and losses do not affect the wage earner. Their incidence falls upon the employer alone. The uncertainty of the future affects the employee only as far as the following items are concerned:
The Labor Market
Wages are the prices paid for the factor of production, human labor. As is the case with all the other prices of complementary factors of production their height is ultimately determined by the prices of the products as they are expected at the instant the labor is sold and bought. It does not matter whether he who performs the labor sells his services to an employer who combines them with the material factors of production and with the services of other people or whether he himself embarks upon his own account and peril upon these acts of combination. The final price of labor of the same quality is at any rate the same in the whole market system. Wage rates are always equal to the price of the full produce of labor. The popular slogan “the worker’s right to the full produce of labor” was an absurd formulation of the claim that the consumers’ goods should be distributed exclusively among the workers and nothing should be left to the entrepreneurs and the owners of the material factors of production. From no point of view whatever can artifacts be considered as the products of mere labor. They are the yield of a purposive combination of labor and of material factors of production.
In the changing economy there prevails a tendency for market wage rates to adjust themselves precisely to the state of the final wage rates. This adjustment is a time-absorbing process. The length of the period of adjustment depends on the time required for the training for new jobs and for the removal of workers to new places of residence. It depends furthermore on subjective factors, as for instance the workers’ familiarity with the conditions and prospects of the labor market. The adjustment is a speculative venture as far as the training for new jobs and the change of residence involve costs which are expended only if one believes that the future state of the labor market will make them appear profitable.
With regard to all these things there is nothing that is peculiar to labor, wages, and the labor market. What gives a particular feature to the labor market is that the worker is not merely the purveyor of the factor of production labor, but also a human being and that it is impossible to sever the man from his performance. Reference to this fact has been mostly used for extravagant utterances and for a vain critique of the economic teachings concerning wage rates. However, these absurdities must not prevent economics from paying adequate attention to this primordial fact.
For the worker it is a matter of consequence what kind of labor he performs among the various kinds he is able to perform, where he performs it, and under what particular conditions and circumstances. An unaffected observer may consider empty or even ridiculous prejudices the ideas and feelings that actuate a worker to prefer certain jobs, certain places of work, and certain conditions of labor to others. However, such academic judgments of unaffected censors are of no avail. For an economic treatment of the problems involved there is nothing especially remarkable in the fact that the worker looks upon his toil and trouble not only from the point of view of the disutility of labor and its mediate gratification, but also takes into account whether the special conditions and circumstances of its performance interfere with his enjoyment of life and to what extent. The fact that a worker is ready to forego the chance to increase his money earnings by migrating to a place he considers less desirable and prefers to remain in his native place or country is not more remarkable than the fact that a wealthy gentleman of no occupation prefers the more expensive life in the capital to the cheaper life in a small town. The worker and the consumer are the same person; it is merely economic reasoning that integrates the social functions and splits up this unity into two schemes. Men cannot sever their decisions concerning the utilization of their working power from those concerning the enjoyment of their earnings.
Descent, language, education, religion, mentality, family bonds, and social environment tie the worker in such a way that he does not choose the place and the branch of his work merely with regard to the height of wage rates.
We may call that height of wage rates for definite types of labor which would prevail on the market if the workers did not discriminate between various places and, wage rates being equal, did not prefer one working place to another, standard wage rates (S). If, however, the wage earners, out of the above-mentioned considerations, value differently work in different places, the height of market wage rates (M) can permanently deviate from the standard rates. We may call the maximum difference between the market rate and the standard rate which does not yet result in the migration of workers from the places of lower market wage rates to those of higher market wage rates the attachment component (A). The attachment component of a definite geographical place or area is either positive or negative.
We must furthermore take into account that the various places and areas differ with regard to provision with consumers’ goods as far as transportation costs (in the broadest sense of the term) are concerned. These costs are lower in some areas, higher in other areas. Then there are differences with regard to the physical input required for the attainment of the same amount of physical satisfaction. In some places a man must expend more in order to attain the same degree of want-satisfaction which, apart from the circumstances determining the amount of the attachment component, he could attain elsewhere more cheaply. On the other hand, a man can in some places avoid certain expenses without any impairment of his want-satisfaction while renunciation of these expenses would curtail his satisfaction in other places. We may call the expenses which a worker must incur in certain places in order to attain in this sense the same degree of want-satisfaction, or which he can spare without curtailing his want-satisfaction, the cost component (C). The cost component of a definite geographical place or area is either positive or negative.
If we assume that there are no institutional barriers preventing or penalizing the transfer of capital goods, workers, and commodities from one place or area to another and that the workers are indifferent with regard to their dwelling and working places, there prevails a tendency toward a distribution of population over the earth’s surface in accordance with the physical productivity of the primary natural factors of production and the immobilization of inconvertible factors of production as effected in the past. There is, if we disregard the cost component, a tendency toward an equalization of wage rates for the same type of work all over the earth.
It would be permissible to call an area comparatively overpopulated if in it market wage rates plus the (positive or negative) cost component are lower than the standard rates, and comparatively underpopulated if in it market wage rates plus the (positive or negative) cost component are higher than the standard rates. But it is not expedient to resort to such a definition of the terms involved. It does not help us in explaining the real conditions of the formation of wage rates and the conduct of wage earners. It is more expedient to choose another definition. We may call an area comparatively overpopulated if in it market wage rates are lower than the standard rates plus both the (positive or negative) attachment component and the (positive or negative) cost component, that is where M < (S + A + C). Accordingly an area is to be called comparatively underpopulated in which M > (S + A + C). In the absence of institutional migration barriers workers move from the comparatively overpopulated areas to the comparatively underpopulated until everywhere M = S + A + C.
The same is true, mutatis mutandis, for the migration of individuals working on their own account and selling their labor in disposing of its products or in rendering personal services.
The concepts of the attachment component and the cost component apply in the same way to shifting from one branch of business or occupation to another.
It is hardly necessary to observe that the migrations which these theorems describe come to pass only in so far as there are no institutional barriers to the mobility of capital, labor, and commodities. In this age aiming at the disintegration of the international division of labor and at each sovereign nation’s economic self-sufficiency, the tendencies they describe are fully operative only within each nation’s boundaries.
[14. ]The attribution of the phrase the Industrial Revolution to the reigns of the two last Hanoverian Georges was the outcome of deliberate attempts to melodramatize economic history in order to fit it into the Procrustean Marxian schemes. The transition from medieval methods of production to those of the free enterprise system was a long process that started centuries before 1760 and, even in England, was not finished in 1830. Yet, it is true that England’s industrial development was considerably accelerated in the second half of the eighteenth century. It is therefore permissible to use the term “Industrial Revolution” in the examination of the emotional connotations with which Fabianism, Marxism, the Historical School, and Institutionalism have loaded it.
[15. ]J. L. Hammond and Barbara Hammond, The Skilled Labourer 1760 –1832 (2d ed. London, 1920), p. 4.
[16. ]In the Seven Years’ War 1,512 British seamen were killed in battle while 133,708 died of disease or were missing. Cf. W. L. Dorn, Competition for Empire 1740 –1763 (New York, 1940), p. 114.
[17. ]J. L. Hammond and Barbara Hammond, loc. cit.
[18. ]F. C. Dietz, An Economic History of England (New York, 1942), pp. 279 and 392.