Seven times as many people lived in Great Britain in 1900 than when the Industrial Revolution began around 1750. In any other previous era or country in world history, such an explosive growth in the number of mouths to feed would have yielded mass starvation.
Yet the average Brit in 1900 lived far better than the average of just five or six generations before. Over that period, infant mortality plummeted, and life spans lengthened by more than they had in the previous two thousand years. It was a triumph of entrepreneurship and markets liberated from centuries of life-crushing statism.
Vast numbers of high school and college students get a very different impression from their texts and teachers, however. They learn that this “capitalist” period ushered in new depths of misery and exploitation for the working classes, and that children, in particular, were among the most hapless victims.
It’s as if British parents, and those by the hundreds of thousands who chose to emigrate to Britain from the continent, suddenly and mysteriously loved their children less than the parents of pre-capitalist days.
In the minds of many students, the existence and conditions of 19th-century child labor seriously undermine any positive case for capitalism, if they don’t negate it altogether.
In reality, child labor was ubiquitous and routinely harsh in the centuries before the Industrial Revolution. If children of all but royalty were lucky to live to the age of five (shockingly high numbers didn’t), they went to work. And they did so out of necessity.
In the absence of the capital, the tools and the investments that materialized later under capitalism, parents couldn’t afford idle children at home. The kids went to work so the family could survive.
Ultimately, it was capitalism and its ever-higher productivity that made it possible for parents to earn enough to feed the family and keep the children at home.
Certainly, there were hellish examples of cruelty in some places where children worked. Those places were often government-run poor houses for orphans, or early factories where government agencies assigned “parish-apprentice” orphans to work under no supervision.
To blame capitalists and capitalism for what was frequently a government-created problem is outrageously unfair. Ultimately, it was capitalism and its ever-higher productivity that made it possible for parents to earn enough to feed the family and keep the children at home.
By L. W. Reed, first published at FEE.