Liberty’s Triumph, the Industrial Revolution
Updated: Oct 28, 2020
The Industrial Revolution is the key event in world history. It might never have happened if Britain had not established conditions of liberty. We and the whole world with us could still be stuck in agrarian poverty.
The Industrial Revolution is the key event in world history. It might never have happened if Britain had not established conditions of liberty. We and the whole world with us could still be stuck in agrarian poverty. It came about in Britain after it became a largely libertarian society from 1688.
The Industrial Revolution continues to lift living standards around the world. To discredit liberty, socialists try to smear the Industrial Revolution by focusing on its early origins when living standards still very low. But these low living standards however simply reflected the pre-industrialisation squalor of agrarian societies.
Most people have make incorrect assumptions about what life was like in pre-industrial societies. They see the past 5,000 years or so of agrarian or pre-industrial state societies as a period of steady state-guided progress. They should understand that for most people life in such societies was just unrelentingly, abjectly poor and stagnant from beginning to end (see May 27th ‘Misery & Stagnation in the Agrarian State’).
Once this is understood, the Industrial Revolution and the last century of increasing state dominance in western Democratic Socialist regimes can both be placed in proper context.
Let’s start with the Industrial Revolution. The popular stereotype of the Industrial Revolution has been foisted on us by state-sponsored education and media. It has been deliberately vilified by socialists. If people understood how much progress was achieved when Britain had practically no state, support for socialism would fade away. Socialist ideologues have been greatly helped by popular ignorance of economic and historical reality. This is itself the result of bias in the state mandated educational curriculum.
Most people would probably agree that the Industrial Revolution was a very bad thing. Millions migrated from their charming rural villages to squalid badly built industrial cities. There, it is said, they barely survived in a state of indescribable poverty and in dreadful living conditions. Oppressive, exploitative mill and mine owners sent children up chimneys and worked everyone to death for low wages. That is the grim picture we are meant to swallow.
And the reality? From the time of the Glorious Revolution in 1688, Britain had a minimalist state with an independent judicial system. There was practically no central government presence outside of London except for the armed forces and customs officers. Local government and justice were largely independent and supervised by property owners in each county.
In this low tax and low regulation environment, commerce flourished. Britain had, in Adam Smith’s words, ‘Easy taxes and a tolerable administration of justice’. These conditions are all that are really needed to bring about rapid progress, but were only rarely and briefly achieved in a few pre-industrial societies.
Humble, often barely literate, artisans and business owners solved a multitude of technological problems. There was little if any reliance on contemporary academic science which mostly struggled after the fact to work out why the mechanics’ technology worked (See Terence Kealey’s ‘Economic Laws of Scientific Research’). Capital and useful knowledge accumulated steadily.
In particular a number of problems connected with using coal rather than wood as fuel were solved. Coal was abundant, cheap and energy dense. Key innovations such as Newcomen’s early steam engine pumped out tin and coal mines making more resources accessible. It might have a very low thermal efficiency. Didn’t matter. It got the job done. The price mechanism continued to guide and incentivise effort into the most rewarding areas of activity.
One after the other, areas of industrialisation emerged as islands of change and liberty in a sea of agrarian coercion and inertia. Agrarian areas were predominantly populated by cultivators paying rents to landlords and tithes to the church. Most people were dependent, and many struggled at or below the subsistence level. In industrialised areas, however, for the first time, arrangements of voluntary cooperation predominated. Independence not dependence was the norm.
We can get an understanding of this from the recollections of working people of the time which form the basis of Emma Griffin’s book about the Industrial Revolution, ‘Liberty’s Dawn’. In an agrarian society there is no jobs market to speak of. Very few people can live as employees. There were servants, tenant farmers, and occasional day labourers.
If you annoyed your landlord or the master of the house you were down and out with nowhere to go and little hope of another position. A cringing servility and a resentful insecurity would be the norm for most people stuck in permanent social inferiority. The same would later be normal in Totalitarian Socialist societies where there were also no alternative employers.
In contrast, in industrialised areas there were jobs. Outside of credit cycle slumps caused by fraudulent state sponsored banking arrangements, there were always other nearly as good jobs available. That is the normal situation in a mostly free society. Only state intervention, in particular in banking and via state sponsored trades unions, created mass unemployment and insecurity. As Griffin shows, the availability of alternative employment meant liberty for working people. They could, often for quite petty reasons, say no to the master. They could invite him to shove his job where the sun don’t shine, and still prosper elsewhere.
The industrialised areas expanded. They were linked to each other and to ports and markets by canals and then railways built entirely by independent companies. Wages grew and prices fell. Britain grew at around 2% per year for a century. That is probably near the maximum growth rate for innovation rather than copy-cat growth in the long term. It managed this despite decades of sometimes desperate warfare and a lack of similarly dynamic countries to trade with. Only in the 1830s did similar industrialisation kick off on the Continent. But after that more and more countries industrialised to create vast international markets.
When did this beneficent revolution end? It didn’t. The momentum of continuous innovation and rising mass affluence, based on increasingly sophisticated use of energy-dense hydrocarbon fuels, has spread around the world. The areas of prosperity liberty, where voluntary cooperation between people creates liberating employment markets, have expanded nearly everywhere. More governments around the world have managed to create secure enough property rights, and certain enough taxes, to allow progress to occur. In just the last couple of decades billions of people have been lifted out of the abject absolute poverty of the fading agrarian world.
OK. So, if the Industrial Revolution has been so great, what about all the horror stories we see in text books and on TV? The first thing to say is that we have had many generations of anti-liberty propaganda starting with Marxism’s appearance in the mid-nineteenth century. Britain was the first big society to be largely based on voluntary cooperation rather than coercion. It was therefore the first one to get rapidly richer. Perversely Marx decided that a free society based on voluntary co-operation was ‘oppressive’.
The truth was the contrary. Large scale co-operation between labour and capital had finally produced a society where servile dependency on agrarian landowners was becoming a thing of the past. But Marx proposed looting savers, investors and business men to revive the crushing tyranny of the old agrarian states in a new Totalitarian Socialist form.
Marxist proposed Central Planning was predictably – and the Austrian School did predict it – a total failure in everything it touched. It is giving yet another demonstration of the damage it can do with the latest corona virus lock-down fiasco. It prematurely ended or otherwise ruined 100s of millions of lives in its totalitarian form i the 20th century. Nevertheless, states subsidise millions of people, including many in the media and academia, who have a vested interest in more and more state intervention – or think they do.
It is therefore absolutely not acceptable to Democratic Socialists to tell the truth about history. The truth is that Britain, a largely libertarian society (i.e. one with no state-intervention to speak of), alone created the modern possibility of mass affluence and freedom throughout the world.
Let us leave aside the propaganda effect of a century or more of Marxist indoctrination in education and the MSM - now repackaged as cultural Marxist ‘political correctness’. People in the Industrial revolution did in fact live in crumby conditions compared to us. But that is the wrong comparison. Obviously, when you think about it, the success of the Industrial Revolution over a quarter of a millennium has inevitably made us much better off than people were two centuries ago.
The correct comparison is with the stagnant squalor of life in agrarian societies, especially the hopeless lot of landless men and their families. For more see my post on May 27th ‘Misery and Stagnation in the Agrarian State’. Men emigrated to early industrial towns for the same reason their ancestors joined medieval armies – desperate conditions on the land for landless labourers. And there were breadwinner jobs, usually plenty of them, in the new towns. Hours were incredibly long but so were they for rural labourers. Meanwhile the pay was far higher. And you could tell your employer to sod off if you were so minded, which you never could do with safety with a rural squire.
If you look at the oh so dreadful industrial towns from an archaeological point of view, you actually find solid remains of brick-built houses with tiled roofs, drainage and separated outdoor privies – unlike the cess-pit in the cellar arrangements in even well to do houses from earlier centuries. In contrast, the remains of the ephemeral shacks and hovels of the rural poor, when one can find them at all, are not impressive. All in all, being consistently fed and reliably sheltered in an industrial town was a much healthier deal.
One of the terrible things about the pre-industrial world was high mortality, especially for children. Half might die before they reached the age of five. The near certainty of losing children to disease, especially for poor people, was countered by nearly continuous childbearing for most women. Childbirth itself was a major killer. The sheer drudgery, sacrifice and pain, involved in bringing so many children into the world to see them die early is just another unimaginable (for us) aspect of life in backward pre-industrial societies.
This dreadful deal had kept Britain’s population fluctuating between very roughly 3 and 6 million people for, probably, a few thousand years. Epidemic disease and famine, particularly during the little ice age between the 14th and 19th century, had been frequent visitors.
In contrast, in the new industrial towns, steady employment and nutrition meant the children of the poor did not die off. Their parents were not living well by our standards. But they were consistently living above subsistence, unlike their predecessors on the land.
The first consequence of the Industrial Revolution was that the children of the poor mainly reached adulthood. Indeed, the towns of 18th century Britain may have been the first ever towns to have had more births than deaths. However, women continued to bear many children for several generations. The population doubled in the 18th Century and quadrupled in the 19th Century. This naturally held wages back relatively.
What we see in the towns of the early Industrial Revolution is the northern population of formerly landless men shifting to the cities to live in somewhat better than agrarian misery. (The rural population of southern Britain remained steeped in the agrarian poverty depicted by Thomas Hardy for much of the nineteenth century.) Their difficult lives are not an indictment of the Industrial Revolution’s early promise. They are a bizarre reflection of the largely invisible squalor of the pre-industrial past.
Within a century the Industrial Revolution’s success was so obvious that contemporary and modern detractors had great difficulty countering its appeal. Their solution? Cut the earliest, hardest phases of the Industrial Revolution off from its successful continuation into the present day. And then smear it by wholly disregarding the historical context, as represented by the dismal agrarian alternatives workers faced.
Nevertheless, it has been the most hopeful development for humanity. The resulting steady progress towards affluence has continued, despite hundreds of millions of deaths in interstate wars and at the hands of the Totalitarian Socialist regimes which were so fashionable in the 20th Century. It has also happened despite the dishonestly promoted march of Democratic Socialism in the core countries of the West. Other societies have taken over the leadership role. Countries like Britain did continue to grow into the late twentieth century. But now we are enfeebled de-industrialising laggards propped up by debt - not the proud pioneers we once were.
Taxation, over-regulation and damaging state intervention has proliferated in the West at the same time that non-western societies successfully liberalised – the greatest example being the astounding, rapid rescue of China’s vast population after thirty years of Communist murder and misery. Here in the West the business sector engine of growth has been first impaired and then halted. The politicians try to conceal this. They mislead people about their impoverishment, for example by falsifying inflation measures. It used to work. But not so much now.
The political elites have no viable way out. So long as populations cling to the endlessly indoctrinated Democratic Socialist fallacies, they cannot be led back to liberty. Without liberty, often very partial liberty I grant you, there can be no prosperity.
To recap, the alternative and correct libertarian take on history would be:
1) Agrarian or pre-industrial states based on extraction of mainly agricultural tribute expand across the world from around 3000BC to the present. Agrarian monarchies based on coercion and (unpredictable) state theft prevent significant commercial sectors from developing. Population grows as slowly as technology. Living standards remain at subsistence level throughout. Up to half the population lives short squalid lives ‘below subsistence’ at constant risk from disease and famine. Most of the rest have it little better.
2) The Industrial Revolution, a single unique event, is born in Britain as a result of the dramatic expansion of voluntary co-operation in society in conditions of liberty after the 1688 Glorious Revolution. First Britain’s, then the world’s, population is raised to mass affluence (so much so that modern people have no concept of how grim the past was or what poverty actually meant) and growing freedom. The Industrial Revolution continues to this day to eradicate poverty and misery in many of the remaining agrarian states.
3) From the mid nineteenth century Marxism inaugurates a determined and continuing attempt to recreate the agrarian despotic state in a new form as the centrally planned Dictatorship of the Proletariat and its Fascist imitators. After that approach failed spectacularly, leadership passed to the more presentable centrally planned Keynesian Democratic Socialist state. It has finally succeeded in halting progress in the West and threatens to undo the good work done in the last three centuries.
All around us are the signs that state institutions are becoming corrupt, incompetent and unaccountable. People see through the superficial illusion of representative democracy to the parasitic reality beneath. These predator institutions don’t work. They are also becoming unaffordable. Governments are still draining the lifeblood out of their tottering economies. But whatever they do, Western states won’t be able to raise the revenues needed to fund their vote buying promises.
We are in the early stages of a general systems failure in the West. It threatens not just living standards but many, many lives. The choice now is between a return to liberty and prosperity after the fall of Democratic Socialism, or an increasingly authoritarian descent towards impoverishment and loss of freedom.