Bryan Caplan  

The Economic Illiteracy of High School History

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In 11th grade, I took Advanced Placement U.S. History.  I enjoyed it at the time.  Once I started studying economics, however, I was outraged by the economic illiteracy of my history textbooks.  Mainstream historians barely mentioned the unprecedented miracle of sustained economic growth.  Instead, they focused on distribution: How poor workers used labor unions and regulation to pry their fair share from the heartless capitalists who employed them.  These historians never mentioned the negative side effects of unionization and labor market regulation - or even the view that such negative side effects existed.  My historical miseducation eventually inspired my lecture on "Why the Standard History of Labor Is Wrong."

Every now and then, though, I question the accuracy of my memory.  Could my history textbooks really have been so awful?  The other night, overcome by nostalgia, I decided to check.  Ray Billington's American History Before 1877 was one of our two main texts.  I flipped straight to the section on early industrialization and learned the following:
The Plight of the Worker.  The rise of the factory system placed such a gulf between employers and employees that the former no longer took a personal concern in the welfare of the latter.  As competition among manufacturers was keen and the labor supply steadily increasing through foreign immigration, they were able to inflict intolerable working conditions on laborers.  Hours of labor were from thirteen to fifteen a day, six days a week, while wages were so low after the Panic of 1837 that a family could exist only if all worked.  Hence child labor was common.  Factories were usually unsanitary, poorly lighted, and with no protection provided from dangerous machinery.  Security was unknown; workers were fired whenever sickness or age impaired their efficiency.  As neither society nor the government was concerned with these conditions, the workers were forced to organize to protect themselves.
The good news: My memory turns out to be quite accurate.  The bad news: Billington's economic illiteracy is more severe than I thought.  The more economics you know, the worse he seems.  Misconceptions this awful have to be addressed sentence-by-sentence - and sarcasm cannot be avoided.

The rise of the factory system placed such a gulf between employers and employees that the former no longer took a personal concern in the welfare of the latter.

First problem: The main determinant of wages and working conditions is workers' marginal productivity, not "personal concern."  Are we really supposed to believe that implicit employer charity was a large fraction of employee compensation during the pre-modern era? 

Second problem: Personal concern clearly plays some role in modern businesses (see here and here for starters).  Today's firms exhibit a much larger "gulf" between employers and employees than could possibly have existed in the first half of the 19th century.  Are we really supposed to believe that personal concern was important in the pre-modern period, disappeared in the 19th century, then returned in the 20th? 

Third problem: Keynesian economists emphasize that wage fairness norms lead to labor surpluses, also known as "unemployment."  So the overall effect of greater personal concern on workers' well-being is unclear.  Mediocre jobs you can actually get are far better than great jobs you can't get.

As competition among manufacturers was keen and the labor supply steadily increasing through foreign immigration, they were able to inflict intolerable working conditions on laborers.

"Keen competition" should make it harder, not easier, for employers to pay workers less than their marginal productivity.  And if conditions were so "intolerable," why did immigrants keep pouring in?  Why did agricultural workers keep moving to the factories? 

Hours of labor were from thirteen to fifteen a day, six days a week, while wages were so low after the Panic of 1837 that a family could exist only if all worked. 

The second sentence is absolutely absurd.  Did every family in 1837 that failed to employ every family member (babies included?) starve to death?  Victims of the Irish potato famine - which began a full eight years later - might immigrate to such hellish conditions, but no one else would. 

Billington's sloppy language also makes his claim that the typical workyear exceeded 4000 hours per year very hard to believe.  One of GMU's economic historians tells me that 3000 hours per year is a much more reasonable figure. 

Hence child labor was common.

Compared to growing up on a 19th-century farm? 

Factories were usually unsanitary, poorly lighted, and with no protection provided from dangerous machinery. 

No protection at all?  So smiths didn't wear gloves?  Construction workers didn't wear boots? 

Security was unknown; workers were fired whenever sickness or age impaired their efficiency. 

Automatic firing for sickness?  Wouldn't this lead to high turnover costs, especially considering the unsanitary conditions? 

Automatic firing for age?  So 19th-century firms had no deadwood at all?  Wow.

As neither society nor the government was concerned with these conditions, the workers were forced to organize to protect themselves.


Aren't workers part of "society"?  If conditions were really as bad as Billington says, how could workers find the spare time to organize?  And if workers were "forced to organized," how come most workers didn't organize?  While we're on the subject, what about the idea that successful unionization has a negative employment effect for workers - especially workers who aren't in the union?

Even more aggravatingly, Billington barely mentions the consumers of early factory production.  The rise of mass production implies the rise of mass consumption.  "Plight of the workers" indeed.

So what should history textbooks say about these matters?  This: Working conditions during the early Industrial Revolution were bad by modern standards, but a major improvement by the standards of the time.  Factory work looked good to people raised on backbreaking farm labor - and it looked great to the many immigrants who flocked to the rising centers of industry from all over the world.  This alliance of entrepreneurs, inventors, and workers peacefully kickstarted the modern world that we enjoy today. 

And what of the "workers' movement"?  A halfway decent textbook would emphasize that it wasn't quantitatively important.  Few workers belonged, and they didn't get much for their efforts.  Indeed, "workers' movement" is a misnomer; labor unions didn't speak for most workers, and were often dominated by leftist intellectuals.  A fully decent textbook would discuss the many possible negative side effects of labor market regulation and unionization - so students realize that the critics of economic populism were neither knaves nor fools. 

The Big Picture: Industrialization was the greatest event in human history.  Critics then and now were foolishly looking a gift horse in the mouth.  Until every student knows these truths by heart, history teachers have not done their job.


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COMMENTS (49 to date)
Chris Andrew writes:

Is it possible for every student to know them by heart when your research shows that students remember so little of what they learn?

Gary writes:

It doesn't really make sense for someone who's not trained in economics to write a textbook that's largely about economic history.

It's like a physicist writing a textbook on biology because all biological systems are subject to the laws of physics. It doesn't mean he understands how they function.

Matt H writes:

Bryan,

Have you ever read the book the cruel years?

http://www.amazon.com/The-Cruel-Years-American-Twentieth/dp/0807054534

I think you might get a kick out of it. Its a collection of personal stories about working in the 19 century. The introduction is written by Howard Zinn, and is expectedly nutty, but the stories make things out to be much better than I expected. With the exception of 2 which are truly horrible. I have a feeling Zinn and I were reading 2 different books.

Its a quick read.

Milton Recht writes:

Factory work was indoors and an advantage over working outdoors on a farm under the hot summer sun, rain, wind, or winter cold weather.

Callum McPherson writes:

It wasn't all rosy though. Life expectancy in British cities dropped precipitously. During parts of the Industrial Revolution the average life expectancy in Manchester was 27. If I'd had the choice between toiling on a farm or toiling down a mine, I wouldn't hesitate to choose the farm. You also ignore the fact that people weren't flocking to the cities purely out of choice, many had been evicted from their land and were seeking whatever work they could turn their hand to. Thus their new factory lives were not necessarily better than what they had before.

Adam writes:

19th century farms were stupefying places to live--work, procreate & sleep. Farm life was poorly remunerated and simply boring. No news, no talk, no light at night, no coffee houses, not enough sugar, same bad neighbor year after year. Once a year or so, you might get some income, but there was only a crop to sell when everybody else had a crop to sell too--thus, low prices and little income. Cities were crowded and sanitation poor, but things happened in cities and there was always wage work to be had--money wages you could count on. Too, there was lots to think about and enjoy--news, new people, coffee, sugar, pubs, bars and all that attractive stuff that leads to trouble. What made all that urban life possible?--trade, innovation and growth.

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David Levenstam writes:

ack in 1976-1977 when I had AP US History, we used Thomas A. Bailey's American Pageant. Bailey was a second-generation Progressive historian from Stanford who wrote the standard "People versus the Interests" version of American history, containing a fair amount of exploitation, but exploitation repeatedly defeated, according to Progressive theory, through democracy. So when the Jeffersonians defeated the Federalists the People used democracy to defeat the Interests (the Progressives capitalized Important Words, giving them a rather silly sound today :-D), and so on through the Democrats versus the Whigs and the Populists and Progressives against the Robber Barons and Senate plutocrats (defeating the gold standard, imposing an income tax, creating the Federal Reserve, etc.), and of course the New Deal against the Old Order. So American workers were exploited, until they voted away the exploitation, and were in Bailey's view better off than the masses of exploited European workers. Bailey like the old Progressives was pretty pro-American, even going so far as to make fun of revolutionary workers' movements in America, letting us know that the International Workers of the World, or IWW, were known as "Wobblies" and "I Won't Works."

I'm not familiar with Billington but he dates from exactly the same period as Bailey. Coming out of the University of Wisconsin, a hotbed of Progressivism (some say the original hotbed of Progressivism) it seems unlikely that he would have b been anything but a Progressive. It's possible you had a later version of the book, were a "co-author" had taken over (as happened with later versions of American Pageant) who stood further to the left.

It's worth noting though that behind the "People versus the Interests" Progressive thesis lies the assumption that without democracy capitalists exploit workers, and maybe the assumption stands out more strongly now that we're economists discussing the Industrial Revolution (it's still okay to capitalize THAT :-D) instead of focusing mainly on American politics.

Pajser writes:
" Are we really supposed to believe that implicit employer charity was a large fraction of employee compensation during the pre-modern era? "
If there is no market pressure, degree of exploitation is determined by greed / empathy ratio of individual employer. On free market, those who exploit their workers more win the race.
David Levenstam writes:

Ack indeed! Obviously I meant "back." :-)

I just recalled that back in my Ph.D. program in history I came across a 4th-generation Progressive historian (or neo-Progressive school historian), I believe from Australian, who argued that labor regulation ultimately benefitted primarily labor union bosses and left common workers worse off than a free market would have. I thought his name was something like Tomlinson, but it's been 20 years and I couldn't find anything doing a Google search. I'm pretty sure those course materials are buried in a box somewhere. I recall all my classmates (who were various shades of liberal and leftist) being all put out about it. :-D

Glen S. McGhee writes:

Not so fast.

I just happened upon this from A.F.C. Wallace on the industrialization circa 1830s of Rochdale, PA (1972/1978):

"The manufactures evidently were experiencing a moral dilemma: They were committed, at least as responsible citizens ... to the moral and mental improvement of the people, and especially the children [so was Robert Owens!] who were connected with their mills.

"But successful management of a factory in a competitive market economy in their opinion required them to tolerate, or even create, noxious working conditions for their employees: denial of educational opportunity, exposure to profane and obscene language, promiscuous association of the sexes and of different age groups in intimate working arrangements.

"The solution was to urge reform, not in the mill but in the institutions of the community, and particularly in the educational system [child labor laws, eventually] ... The manufacturers relied on the community to resolve the problem [Sunday schools, and public schools] to instruct both children and adults in Christianity." (334, see also 69, 75, and 55)

So the cultural implication is what is missed -- and the Industrial Revolution borrowed from the Reformation in this regard.

Dan S writes:

This reminds me of when I went back and looked over my old AP US History text. We used Garraty's The American Nation. I thought he did a good job on the whole, but his treatment of the Great Depression was poor. It almost treated the Depression as a black box and analyzed all the little human interest and political stories that went on and ignored the economics. What little economics there was was the standard income inequality -> stock market crash -> :( -> New Deal and Keynes -> Yaaay!!

Rob Bradley writes:

I went through some high schools textbooks and classnotes and founded this website: http://freekinkaid.org/

I review some courses here: http://freekinkaid.org/u-s-history

I invite others to review and publicize their children's textbooks--and share with the school's Trustees in the name of 'intellectual diversity'.

Daublin writes:

The most devastating of your arguments, as others have said, is the comparison to farm life. If factory work is so bad, then how did it peel people away en masse from working no farms?

Immigration is a second, but I think it lacks some punch among the general public. The general public seems to think of immigration as something that just happens, much like bacteria. There's no *reason* for it. People just show up in the country at random.

Derek writes:

Excellent post. This could also be more evidence of signaling theory.

Philo writes:

Don't hold your breath until the time when school history teachers "do their job"!

Chris H writes:

Callum McPherson writes:

You also ignore the fact that people weren't flocking to the cities purely out of choice, many had been evicted from their land and were seeking whatever work they could turn their hand to. Thus their new factory lives were not necessarily better than what they had before.

This might partially work in Europe but can't explain American industrialization at all. Almost no one was getting kicked off their land in the US and even if they were, incredibly cheap land was plentifully available. Indeed, even immigrants could find this cheap, readily available land if they so wanted and given the size of the plots they could get would live far better agricultural lives than were available in Europe (and many immigrants did choose this route, but not most). Even more, travel to the US was almost entirely unrestricted and for early-industrializing Britain, a fairly easy process already having the same language and similar culture. And yet it's farmers who left for the US more than factory workers (as demonstrated by the fact that immigration tended to come from relatively poorly industrialized areas of Europe rather than more industrialized, so early 19th century saw Germans and Irish come, later Eastern and Southern Europeans).

All this implies to me that things like enclosure were a secondary effect at best and the primary draw to the cities was that factory work was more appealing than farm work (even acknowledging the initial drop in life expectancy).

gbalella writes:
Industrialization was the greatest event in human history. Critics then and now were foolishly looking a gift horse in the mouth.
So easy to say when you were born into the post labor world with so much more privilege, civility and opportunity than those who lived through the industrial revolution. It's important that students understand the good that came from the industrial revolution and it's important they understand and read first hand descriptions of what working conditions were like and that they understand the significant of the labor movement.
And what of the "workers' movement"? A halfway decent textbook would emphasize that it wasn't quantitatively important.
If they taught THIS it would be a serious re-write of history. The great expansion of the middle class you and I were fortunate to be born into happened contemporaneously with the labor movement and there are no developed nations with out significant labor representation.
Glen S. McGhee writes:

re: Daublin and Chris.

The Yankee Diaspora, that swept into the Midwest to escape the satanic mills of New England, and the poverty of Upstate New York, did so for a reason lost in the past -- to escape the task-master, to retain autonomy and the chance to starve by ones' own hand. Yet, the effect of this mass migration was profound.

Yes, Industrialization was significant, but the social and cultural effects are just as profound, if less easily recognized. Bryan's is the low hanging fruit, I am afraid.

Andrew_FL writes:

I also took AP US in High School. I had a pretty good teacher all things considered-my history teachers were the least politically left wing in my entire education as far as I could tell, but this one in particular. So I don't feel too mislead. At any rate, the history of labor is not the only misrepresentation of economic history (or history in general) in textbooks. The history of banking in the US is also heavily misrepresented. In fact the economic misrepresentations were so legion I can scarcely recall them all.

By the way, I am much younger I believe than most of you. This must have been around 2007-8 or so. Interestingly, I had the same textbook-different addition obviously-as David Levenstam. It's a testament to my warped extremist world view that I came to sympathize nearly always with the "Interests." ;)

I would also note that I always felt that the complaints on the working conditions of factory workers were recycled from the slaveholders who argued that the conditions of their slaves compared favorably to that of Northern workers. Obviously it wasn't true.

Thomas Lee writes:

The problem with this post is that the author provides very little actual data to argue against the history book's assertions. Instead, he just asks rhetorical questions. The original quote indeed reeks of ideological bias, but instead of researching contradicting facts, Dr. Carden merely nibbles around the edges. I'd like to know what really happened then. Are data available?

Tom Lee writes:

Sorry, had the author wrong in my earlier comment, should be Bryan Caplan, not Art Carden.

Bryan Caplan writes:

John Alcorn of Trinity College asked me to post the following for him:

Bryan,

Roderick Floud and Bernard Harris adduce evidence that there was a rough patch on the road of the industrial revolution in its homeland, Britain:
http://www.nber.org/papers/h0087

Floud and Harris find that "average heights fell during the second quarter of the nineteenth century."

Average heights increased before and after that generation. Height is taken as an indicator of health and well-being.

I do not know if such a pattern occurred also in the United States.

John

gbalella writes:

One doesn't need history to see that broadly speaking Ray Billington's description and narrative are quite accurate. All one needs to do is travel the modern world look at the work places and conditions in the developed world where unions have influence and then travel to the leather factories in Bangladesh or any number of places around the developed world where labor is arbitraged and you will see that the unregulated capitalism doesn't make a middle class and doesn't promote a civil work place.

http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2012/dec/13/bangladesh-toxic-tanneries-intolerable-human-price

Chris H writes:

@gbalella

An excellent example of correlation-causation fallacy at work! It's also true that every modern developed country also had large numbers of alcohol drinkers before developing. Does that mean alcohol usage caused better working conditions and wages? Of course not!

Bryan's point is that unions were never large enough (in the US anyways) to have this kind of holistic change to the job market. Membership peaked at about a third of wage and salary workers in the 30s, well after the US was a developed country with an enviable standard of living.

Unions tend to be emphasized I think mainly because of the vaguely Marxian trends in history that focus in on areas of apparent class conflict. A lot of professional historians of course take much more nuanced views of unions (discussing things like the racism in many unions and their problems with immigrants) but these aren't the things we teach high school students.

@Glen S. McGhee

I think actually the Yankee diaspora helps make the point that the movement to the cities was primarily voluntary and not forced though. Yes, a lot of people left the cities for the rural areas of the Midwest and West but even more came in to replace them. The net flow of migration was towards the major industrial cities for the 19th century not away from them. This means that while some found city life unappealing and left, a lot more found it better than the alternative of going West. Just using New York as an example (you can do this with pretty much any major Northeastern industrial city), from 1790 to 1930 the city grew rapidly with only two decades of less than 20% growth (the 1860s where the Civil War likely disrupted growth and the 1910s WW1 disrupted European immigration). The Yankee diaspora is important in showing that rural life still had some appeal, but also in showing that city life on net apparently had more.

Thomas Knapp writes:

"Factory work looked good to people raised on backbreaking farm labor"

Yes, it looked good. So good that the only way to get English farm laborers to move to factories was to steal ("Enclose") their farmland.

Don Boudreaux writes:

To Thomas Knapp:

The history of enclosure in Britain is far more complex - and much less dastardly - than you seem to assume. D. N. McCloskey has done the premier work on this matter. Here's a nice 1994 e-mail from McCloskey that gives a flavor of the findings from that research:

http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl?trx=vx&list=h-rural&month=9403&week=&msg=5FSrmOE5S3l%2B8znA7u3wgA&user=&pw=

Warren writes:

Bryan,

You should go to page 110 of Travels of a T-Shirt for a first hand experience of life on a farm before industrialization. A 9-year-old girl (a child laborer) spent her time "driving bullocks to a field and fetching them in again; cleaning out their houses and bedding them up; washing potatoes and boiling them for pigs, milking in the field leading horses or bullock to plough... I got up at five or six, except on market mornings twice a week, and then at three"

There's another example on that page as well but on how factory life was better.

Chris H writes:

@Thomas Knapp

Enclosure can't possibly explain the movement to factories and cities. This website (which you will note is not exactly friendly to enclosure) cites a figure of about 160,000 farmers dislocated by enclosure in England from 1700-1812. The population of England during this century long period increased from about 5,000,000 people to 8,000,000 (and this likely understates the natural increase of the country given emigration to the New World). That means that an entire century of dislocations from enclosure dislocated a little more than 3% of 1700 England's populations and almost assuredly (I'm not doing the math right now) under 1% of the population of the country over that entire period. That small a movement cannot even begin to explain the urbanization and industrialization of England especially given the outlet the colonies could provide (and by the 18th century those colonies were fairly nice as opposed to the death traps they effectively were through most of the 17th century).

Indeed, the city of London alone from 1700 to 1801 expanded by over by over 400,000 people (600,000 if you go to 1811), and this was before modern sanitation eased the pressures of disease on cities meaning most of the increasing had to come from immigration. And London was not the only city expanding greatly at the time (examples include Birmingham and Bristol, those two being cities I could find pre-1801 figures for easily). The enclosure-as-cause for 18th century English urbanization idea is just not supported by the numbers.

Floccina writes:

Factory conditions might have been worse but farming was risky, imagine the heart break of a poor farmer who plants his crops in a bad drought and pestilence year working 7 days a week 16 hours a day and gets nothing to show for it and watching his family starve.

LD Bottorff writes:

I am not suprised that a unioized school system would be sympathetic to the union's view of history.

Robert Nielsen writes:

Ok, there's a lot I want to say but don't want to turn this into a rant, so I'll keep it short. The biggest point is that you don't use any historical sources whatsoever. You don't disagree with the historians (who presumably have done research), you simply say that economic theory says it couldn't happen, therefore it didn't happen.

"The main determinant of wages and working conditions is workers' marginal productivity"

I think we both know that there is an enormous gap between productivity and wages. After all, if people got paid their marginal productivity, how would the employer make a profit? Or pay for the fixed costs of the business? What if the workers work as a group rather than individually? How can anyone know their marginal productivity? I think you get the point.

"Automatic firing for sickness? Wouldn't this lead to high turnover costs, especially considering the unsanitary conditions?"

This is a good example of where you're going wrong. You mistake what should happen with what did happen. You view it as bad business to fire unproductive workers, so you assume that it never happened without referencing any historical sources. Also, if workers are paid their marginal productivity as you claimed earlier then, sick workers would get zero.

"Automatic firing for age? So 19th-century firms had no deadwood at all? Wow."

Didn't you just claim workers pay is due to their productivity? So unproductive workers would be replaced by more productive ones?

I could go on and on, but hopefully you get my point.

Andrew_FL writes:

@Bryan Caplan-With regard to height, you'd probably have to control for race and ethnicity to make sure you were dealing with non-genetic factors on height. But yeah, obviously as we have gotten better nourished and longer lived, we have better been able to grow to our potential heights. I wonder about the demographic situation in Britain at that time and if there might be something explaining the brief deviation from that trend during that period there.

Floccina writes:

Reminds me of this:
Redneck Farm Kid In The Marine Corps

It also reminds me of a recent NPR Planet Money episode where the host talks about a girl in China working in a factory saying how bad it is but then says but it is much better than raising ducks like her mom did. She said ducks are filthy and her mother never had a day off, she at least has Sunday and has money to buy makeup.

notsneaky writes:

After all, if people got paid their marginal productivity, how would the employer make a profit

You're mistaking average for marginal productivity.

What if the workers work as a group rather than individually? How can anyone know their marginal productivity?

Doesn't matter, unless you're saying that removing a single worker from the group results in zero product. But that's unlikely.

nl7 writes:

So if the factory system separated employers from employees, thus making it easier to dehumanize them, then how is it that feudalism, the manorial system, serfdom, and slavery all managed to persist? In many cases, noble and peasant were born near each other and attended the same church all their lives, and slaves were often raised in relatively close contact with masters.

If anything, the factory system was one symptom of wider mobility and interchangeability. With jobs and workers both more interchangeable, it was easier for workers to displace and easier for previous employers to replace them and easier for future employers to hire them. A less intimate system gives more weight to individual choice and movement.

Sure, maybe a more modern system is less bonded and familial, but just as closeness can sometimes be used to protect and nurture, it can also be used to smother and control. Closed societies tend to have strong family structures, and 'strong' family necessarily means narrower choices for individuals within those families.

Robert Nielsen writes:

@notsneaky

My point is that its not possible to estimate a workers marginal productivity, therefore it is not possible to pay them it.

The main point is about projecting economic theory onto history and blaming history when they don't match.

UnlearningEcon writes:

As I made clear on twitter, I don't find this sort of 'economic imperialism' particularly enlightening, and history in particular is an area where its practitioners learned to shun these sorts of rose-tinted, whiggish perspectives a long time ago. My friend, who is well-versed in this period, has left a comprehensive comment about US labour history, although it appears to have been held up in moderation. He says it wasn't abusive so I hope it gets published.

Anyway, as a couple of people have already pointed out, you are rarely actually disputing facts; you are just projecting a particular type of economic theory onto history. For example, you argue that wages simply reflect productivity, or that firing sick workers would have had high turnover costs and so wouldn't have happened. Maybe, according to your theory (or ideology), but ultimately it is a question of whether or not these things actually happened, and you've not presented facts otherwise. (Maybe Billington exaggerates the total working hours, I'm not sure. But 13-15 hour days were certainly an observed occurrence, even if they weren't the norm).

You also make good use of reductios such as "No protection at all? So smiths didn't wear gloves? Construction workers didn't wear boots?" and "Did every family in 1837 that failed to employ every family member (babies included?) starve to death?". Of course these extreme statements would probably be inaccurate, but Billington's general points are about a lack of safety and a strive for subsistence that resulted in long hours. Again, you have not presented any reason to make the reader believe he is wrong.

Weirdly, even your economics is suspect. You're using the most absurdly unrealistic, perfectly competitive model to analyse the period, with no mention of monopoly, information asymmetry or what have you. And as for your section on competition - forgotten your Lewis? Billington implies that there was an 'unlimited' supply of labour, and what he is saying is that price competition forced down wages while labourers were readily available at the other end.

There's a post here, largely on how wages didn't (and continue not to) reflect productivity:

http://curiousleftist.wordpress.com/2013/11/20/projecting-economic-theory-onto-history/

I must say: it is incredibly revealing watching supposed proponents of liberty play down horrific state abuse, provided it was required to set up their beloved capitalism. I observed something similar on your recent Christopher Columbus thread, Bryan, although the fact that you were not indicted there makes me believe there is hope for you yet.

By the way, as for the UK: yes, industrialisation here was brutal from top to bottom.

@Chris H (and Don Bourdreaux, I guess)

Three points:

(1) I asked the author of that blog post, and the '160,000' figure refers to farms, not farmers. The number of people would obviously have been a multiple of that.

(2) The process of industrialisation in England stretched far longer than the quoted period. The monarchy explicitly began to develop industry in the 14th/15th centuries. Hell, even the 1381 peasants' revolt can be partially linked to foreclosure.

(3) Foreclosure wasn't the only way peasants were dispossessed of their 'means of production'. There were also game laws, such as the black acts, which disallowed hunting, forestry and fishing. Again, this forced them into factories.

More info here:

http://www.thelandmagazine.org.uk/articles/short-history-enclosure-britain

MingoV writes:
I was outraged by the economic illiteracy of my history textbooks.
I was outraged by the historical fictions of my history textbook. Far too much of my high school American history textbook read like jingoistic propaganda geared towards 12-year-old northerners. (The pre-Civil War and Civil War sections were atrociously incorrect.) Economic illiteracy was the least of the textbook's problems.
Chris H writes:

@Unlearning Econ,

1) the authors of that website need to be WAY more careful about their terminology in that case because they clearly say "farmers" not "farms." Obviously multiplying that number by 8 (equivalent to the size of the average British nuclear family at it's peak toward the end of the period under discussion, 6 kids plus parents, see page 24) which gets us 1.2 million. A much larger group, but still only a fraction of the English population over the course of the period, but large enough to be a significant factor. However, I'm still unconvinced for reasons I'll get to later.

2) Citing events three centuries prior to the great increase in urbanization and industrialization to explain those events seems more than a bit questionable.

3) Why into the factories when cheap land was available in the colonies (as previously noted places which were rather attractive by the 18th century)? And even when many did leave there they still often wound up in the cities and factories. The experience of the US with easy to acquire land for the entire period of it's industrialization (and farms far larger than those available in Europe) makes this explanation very questionable.

Beyond that, not all historians even buy the enclosure-and-other-laws-caused-mass-urbanization thesis. W. A. Armstrong argues that the improvement of living conditions in the cities during the 19th century was a much more important factor (I was only able to find his paper on the topic through my university so it's likely gated for you, but if you're curious it's W. A. Armstrong, "The Influence of Demographic Factors on the Position of the Agricultural Labourer in England and Wales, c 1750–1914" The Agricultural History Review, Vol. 29, No. 2 (1981), pp. 71-82).

The "farm work sucks, even crappy factory jobs are better" story does a far better job of explaining why so many countries which such diverse land policies as England, the US, China, Japan, France, and numerous others all attracted tons of people to cities.

JKB writes:

This reminded me of this book review I read last June. The author found some "blogs" of the industrial workers. Apparently, many worker became literate and developed a habit of documenting their life. These 'autobiographies' reveal many were happy for the mill job and loath to return to the farm.

Liberty's Dawn: A People's History of the Industrial Revolution by Emma Griffin

CJ writes:
The most devastating of your arguments, as others have said, is the comparison to farm life. If factory work is so bad, then how did it peel people away en masse from working no farms?
In the context of modern developing countries, people moving from rural poverty to urban environments generally report significant declines in quality of life measures across the board, from health to happiness. The overwhelming reason people claim for choosing to relocate is the belief that doing so will provide greater economic opportunity for their children and family. Access to urban labor markets and institutions will often accomplish this within a generation or two, but the impacts of migration on the first transplants are generally quite negative.
Max_Connerie writes:

The "farm work sucks, even crappy factory jobs are better" story betrays exactly one of the main problems with neoclassical-type economic explanations. You assume that somehow individuals were "free" to "choose" between agricultural and factory work. Doubtless you'd build some sort of mechanistic model in which people were at liberty to make an unhindered decision between one job and the the other according to their well-defined utility functions.

Yet all the evidence -- yes, gathered by historians -- points to these type of decisions being made in a social and political context, which means that to talk of "liberated" individuals exercising "free" "choices" is nonsense, as is the neoclassical type of machine-like utility.

As CJ writes, the contemporary development literature finds that workers experience a decline in quality of life. Many are compelled to choose Foxconn over Xinjiang because their families need them to. Life building iPhones isn't that great, which is why so many kill themselves.

On top of this the Chinese state purposefully manages the labour force, regulating how many workers can move to where the factory jobs are and how many must stay at home. A similarly political process happened in 19th century Britain, which industrialised first. There wasn't some sort of spontaneous expression of free will among workers seeking better lives; their movement was compelled by circumstances, and it was brutal.

In Bhutan I spoke to a factory manager with political connections who told me that the government is actively trying to get people out of the countryside to work in the factories because there weren't enough manufacturing workers. Carrots and sticks are used: more aid for the industrial zone and the capital, less in the remote areas. Again, it is an overt political and social process.

The point isn't necessarily that factories and cities are worse than farms and the countryside or vice versa; it's that rural-urban movements take place amid a context, often a political one, which is consciously constructed. Peoples' movements are partly compelled by circumstances rather than being an atomized, "free" "choice". It is very difficult, if not impossible and meaningless, to try to put ourselves in the shoes of a farm employee or a 19th-century worker.

If Caplan knew much history he'd realise that in fact the movement to better factory conditions in Britain toward the mid to late 19th century was partly a result of pressure from social movements such as Chartism. There is a strong correlation between pressure 'from below' and workers' rights. The latter didn't just spring from a vacuum. Acts like the Employers and Workmen Act 1875 were the result of long pressure from the labour movement.

Moreover, as Unlearningecon says, Caplan uses the typical economist's technique of arguing without feeling the need to quote much empirical evidence. It's all "X must have happened because Y". Modern economic theory is so clever that it doesn't even need to quote the evidence.

If being literate in economics means ignoring society and politics and using an unrealistic version of human decision-making, then i'd rather that history teaching stays economically illiterate. In fact, i'd go so far as to say that economics needs to become more historically literate.

Scott Scheule writes:

There's a lot chaff in this thread, but there are also many fantastic questions and counters to Bryan's post. I do hope he takes the time to respond.

mike davis writes:

Appalling history books such as this one may explain why so many Americans have ambivalent views of urbanization and industrialization in less developed countries. Sure, we like iPads and cheap socks but we feel bad about the "oppressed". Of course, that's silly but if you paid attention in high school, you might not understand the real tradeoffs.

So, Bryan, that observation raises a challenge: Is high school level education in history intended to (a) provide students with useful human capital,(b) provide students an opportunity to signal, or (c) indoctrinate students into the world view of whoever controls the curriculum?

I might be a little late to the party, but I have examples of personal testimony of women during the industrial revolution that contradicts the official story. Women were liberated:

http://christopherfisher.wordpress.com/2013/03/11/women-during-the-industrial-revolution/

Michael Strong writes:

The ultimate problem is that economic historians have not yet convinced a critical mass of mainstream academic historians. While the story is a bit complicated, for decades now the broad outlines of Bryan's analysis have been validated through detailed research by economic historians.

The AP exams and textbooks are developed by committees consisting of both high school history teachers and university history professors. AP history thus reflects the state-of-the-art among those history professors on those committees. The fact that AP history is largely incompetent history from the perspective of economic history simply reflects the fact that mainstream historians have not adequately integrated economic history into their work.

I've often suggested that the various "economic education" organizations would have far more impact on the attitudes of high school and college students if they focused on AP history than they do by providing week-long summer seminars. Most capable students take an AP history course, and often it is AP American history. At present they continue to be indoctrinated in a "progressive" morality tale that is largely false with respect to economic history. But that false narrative is regarded almost universally as authoritative because it has the authority of the College Board and scoring well on history based on that narrative will help gain admissions to elite universities.

notsneaky writes:

My point is that its not possible to estimate a workers marginal productivity, therefore it is not possible to pay them it.

Well, Robert, that actually wasn't your point, and even this new point is wrong. Marginal productivity is estimated all the time and has been for at least 50 years.

notsneaky writes:

In the context of modern developing countries, people moving from rural poverty to urban environments generally report significant declines in quality of life measures across the board, from health to happiness.

I buy the effects on health - cities are nasty places to live - but that's probably just reflecting convex preferences. If you like health and wages, and have good health but low wages on the farm, then at least for some chunk of the population, trading off a bit of that good health for a bit more wages is worth it.

With happiness - if it really is true, which I'm skeptical of - it's probably a re-framing effect. Back on the farm you were poor but so was everyone else and you never knew what could be. Then you see the bright lights and realize how poor you really have been. Is this bad? I'm not sure there's a clear way to make welfare comparisons in such cases.

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