Living Standards and the Industrial Revolution

Viewing 9 posts - 1 through 9 (of 9 total)
  • Author
  • #16676

    Hi everyone,
    I’m 17 years old and need to prepare a counter attack against my history teacher. Today she portrayed the Industrial Revolution from a typical marxist perspective.
    I’ve already watched your lectures on this topic and read the articles. What I need are more facts to persuade my teacher, I believe.
    Did the number of working hours really increase?
    Did the number of diseases increase or decreased during that time?
    Did the number of work accidents increase or decrease? What about deaths?
    Did real wages increase or decrease?
    Did real prices fall?
    Did child labor increase?
    Did the number of people who starved from hunger increase or decrease?

    If I had good charts and statistics on the issues above I might be able to convince some friends and more importantly my teacher! Perhaps you as a historian know where to look for this stuff and/or can post some links.
    Thank You so much!!

    Jason Jewell

    I commend your desire to set the record straight on this topic!

    When you ask about all these things and whether they increased or decreased, my immediate response is, “Compared to what?” Before the Industrial Revolution, there was no child labor in factories because . . . there were no factories! However, there was lots and lots of child labor on farms, probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 100%! The same can be said concerning working hours. Farmers often worked from sunrise to sunset before (and after) the Industrial Revolution. But no government statistician was walking around in 1750 collecting data on how long farmers worked every day, so you’re not going to be able to just show your teacher a number.

    I suspect that if your teacher employs any documents to support the case that the Industrial Revolution was bad, it will be the investigations sponsored by the British Parliament in the first half of the 19th century. These are often cherry picked to put urban life in the worst possible light and not viewed in the context of life in general in that period.

    The key thing to remember is that it is illegitimate to compare life in the early Industrial Revolution to life today, note that people were poor then compared to us today, and then conclude that the Industrial Revolution was bad for most people. People were poor compared to us 200 years ago because there was very little capital then compared to today, not because they were working in factories. Child labor and 16-hour work days only ended when capital accumulation made the ending of them possible.

    I did link to some sources in the lecture notes that build on these points, and I encourage to read them carefully and employ the same reasoning used there in your conversations with you teacher and classmates.


    I’ve written a little bit on this, on pp. 169-174 of my book The Church and the Market. There’s a pretty good discussion of the literature here:

    Your teacher may not realize it, but the standard-of-living debate has essentially been won by the so-called optimists. Even outright Marxists, like E.P. Thompson, finally began to concede that no one any longer argued that everything got worse during the Industrial Revolution.

    Historian Ralph Raico is also very good on this:


    Thanks for the replies. I’ll do a little bit of research on this topic and keep you up to date.

    However I’ve got another question. I’ve heard a couple of times the argument of proponents of the industrial revolution that people voluntarily decided to move from the fields into the factories. Apparently they favored factory work to that on the fields. Thus this proves that the workers benefited from the industrial revolution.

    But I’ve also heard the argument that because of the extreme population growth (caused by the agricultural revolution) there wasn’t enough work to be done in the agricultural sector. Hence, the only work to be found was in the industrial sector. I remember having read that without the industrial revolution a lot of these people would have starved, as was the case in India (where there wasn’t an industrial revolution). Could you elaborate on that? Thanks!

    Jason Jewell

    Population growth by itself does not reduce the need for agricultural work; in fact, it increases it because there are more mouths to feed. As agriculture became more efficient, though (through innovation). a smaller percentage of the population was needed to produce enough food for everyone. The surplus of labor in agriculture would thus have led to falling wages in that sector. It’s not really a question of whether there was “enough work,” but of how the work would have compared to what else was available in the cities, etc. No doubt some of the farmhands who moved to the cities but who liked farming could have stayed in the country had they been willing to work for free.

    Certainly some people were hurt by industrialization, in the same way that some people in modern industries are hurt when a technological innovation makes the work they do redundant and they lose their jobs. But as Dr. Woods noted above, the debate on whether industrialization was good for society as a whole (in material terms) is just about over.


    I understand, thanks so much!
    I’ve been doing some research on this subject and would like to write here what I’m going to tell my teacher:

    “During the Agricultural Revolution efficiency increased because of new farming techniques. Due to higher productivity, output increased which caused the population to grow and labor to be freed up. The additional work force could in turn be put into manufacturing. The combination of an increase in population, new available labor and the accumulation of capital led the stage for the Industrial Revolution.

    Capitalism is primarily about mass production for mass consumption. In order to make a profit a company needs to sell cheaper products than their competitors. Thus a company tries to reduce production costs, increase productivity and lower the prices of its products. As a consequence, demand for their goods increase and their profits increase. A company wants to sell their products to the masses (workers, bourgeoisie…). This is what happened during the 19th century. Competition and increased productivity (due to capital accumulation) put downward pressure on prices. As a result prices decreased during the 19th century. Simultaneously wages increased because the output per worker increased!

    It’s important to know that no entrepreneur could compel people to work in their factories. Workers were offered wages and voluntarily agreed to sell their labor for a particular salary. If they had thought they could have lived a better life working on the fields or doing other things they could have chosen to do so. Lots of workers chose work in the factories because the wages they could obtain in the industrial sector were higher than in the agricultural sector.

    Child labor did not begin in the Industrial Revolution but had been present for most of human history. Child labor only ended when parents could afford to pay for their children’s education. A government cannot just create wealth or bring prosperity by passing laws. If the governments had burdened the businesses with regulations and taxes, these workers wouldn’t have been hired in the first place. If the governments had prevented children from working they would have starved or turned to prostitution. If life were so easy, Third World countries only had to pass laws improving the working conditions, ending child labor, introducing a minimum wage and so on… There’s only one solution to poverty, free market capitalism!

    Let’s compare the countries that have undergone an Industrial Revolution to those who haven’t! The countries that implemented free market reforms and had an Industrial Revolution are today among the most prosperous and freest on the globe (U.S.A, Western Europe, Japan…). Furthermore the Industrial Revolution marked the end of famines in Europe (in peace time).
    However, those countries that did not embrace the free market are among the poorest on the globe.

    Although some new products like cars etc. weren’t immediately affordable to everyone in the 19th century they got cheaper over time. This is the nature of the free market. Products become cheaper and their quality improves. That’s the reason, even poorer people in the western world have better access to health care, food and other products than the kings in pre-industrial Europe.”

    I welcome your criticism and/or other ideas.


    Sons, you write: “I’ve heard a couple of times the argument of proponents of the industrial revolution that people voluntarily decided to move from the fields into the factories. Apparently they favored factory work to that on the fields. Thus this proves that the workers benefited from the industrial revolution.

    “But I’ve also heard the argument that because of the extreme population growth (caused by the agricultural revolution) there wasn’t enough work to be done in the agricultural sector.”

    These are two ways of saying the same thing. If incomes were falling in the agricultural sector, that’s the reason people did voluntarily move into industry. In terms of their material well-being it was the best option available to them. Since there was no magical way to make agriculture more profitable, and since industry is, as Mises said, what literally saved them from starvation, we should be thrilled that this option existed for them.


    Possibly SoL might be referring to Mises’s remarks in “Economic Policy” on p. 2:

    “However, as the rural population expanded, there developed a surplus of people on the land. For this surplus of population without inherited land or estate, there was not enough to do, nor was it possible for them to work in the processing industries; the kings of the cities denied them access. The numbers of these “outcasts” continued to grow, and still no one knew what to do with them.”

    He then goes on to say that some of these outcasts created small workshops and that these were the origins modern of capitalism.

    What I can’t understand is why the population continued to increase if these “outcasts” had nowhere to go and nothing to do, given the rigid social structure and the pre-industrial nature of society.


    Thanks for all the answers. There’s just the thing about the population growth etc. I’ve got to get my mind across. So:
    The innovations during the Agricultural Revolution increased productivity, This led to higher output and more people could be fed which caused the population to grow.
    In turn more labor was available in the agricultural sector and fewer workers were needed to produce food for everyone. Usually higher productivity leads to higher wages but the additional labor now available in the agricultural sector put downward pressure on wages. On Wikipedia it says:
    “New agricultural implements were invented at an increasing pace all through the 1800s allowing agricultural populations in Britain to actually decrease.” (1)

    While society as a whole benefited dramatically from these innovations, some farmers whose work became obsolete did not. This phenomenon is called Creative Destruction.

    The accumulation of capital and the labor freed up during the agricultural revolution led to the Industrial Revolution and the construction of factories. No one forced the people to move to the cities. Instead, they were offered a new option. They could have pursued work on the fields or some other place but a lot of them chose to work in the industry where salaries were higher.

    Is this correct?


Viewing 9 posts - 1 through 9 (of 9 total)
  • You must be logged in to reply to this topic.