John Birmingham over at Cheeseburger Gothic posted this video yesterday which has generated some discussion among his readers concerning the state of wealth distribution in the United States of America circa 2013.
Wealth distribution. Oh, that is a dangerous term right there. The Reader who seeks to keep their mind clear and their loyalties set to a given political ideology might recognize that this term has a brother which might lead one into some dangerous territory.
Why, now you are talking socialism or something worse, communism. Don’t you know how many people died as a result of socialism and communism, Murphy?
Well, yes. As a matter of fact, I do. I’ve got a history degree or two on my wall which informs my understanding. Thing is, the concepts of Marxism or perhaps a more equitable distribution of resources did not sprout from the diseased miasma of human history. No, as with most historical events, there must have been a precursor, something which came before, a story before the story.
What could it be?
Industrialization brought about a great many good things. Improved production lead to a lowering of the cost of products which placed these items within the reach of more consumers. There was the rapid advance of technology which spread out into other aspects of our existence, notably improved medical science, sanitation, working conditions and the like. You could say that Industrialization brought about the very society we live in today.
However, it is a double edged sword. For every benefit Industrialization brings to the table, it takes something away. Workers were soon pulled to cities where the jobs were and because we once existed in a free market society, the owners of the factories were able to pay a market rate for labor, which is as little as humanly possible. In order to make any money and keep your job, you had to work as many hours as humanly possible, preferably 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week. It is important to get Sundays off so you could be told about your reward in the afterlife but otherwise, your job was to work.
It should also be pointed out that technological advancement did not immediately translate to better living conditions. Medical science might point to how to improve sanitation and overall living conditions but that sort of thing costs money. Our knowledge might point to how to make a factory safer so workers do not get maimed or killed but that sort of thing costs money too. In fact, workers in general cost money so if you can find a way to get rid of them and replace them with a machine, so much the better.
This lead to a period of American History known as the Gilded Age, it runs roughly from 1865 to 1900, depending upon which historian you talk to and what they want to focus on. Again, the positive is the establishment of an American Industrial Juggernaut that would lay the foundations for a relatively prosperous (setting the Great Depression aside) 20th Century.
There were a fair number of rich folks during the Gilded Age. Andrew Carnegie is my favorite one to talk about in my history classes. The classic tale of a poor immigrant from Scotland who worked hard, lived the American Dream, built an empire up from nothing and then gave away his money to numerous causes. He was a pacifist too. What is not to like about him?
Well, there is the fact that he gave Henry Clay Frick a free hand to use Pinkerton Detectives and later the National Guard to crush the Homestead Steel Mill strike. Workers who, I might add, did not have a history of engaging in strikes as a general rule. There is also the fact that he was a pacifist right up until he got a U.S. Navy contract to provide steel for the new warships being built.
Nice guy. Established Carnegie Steel and pretty ruthlessly destroyed his competition at any given opportunity. He wasn’t alone. There was John D. Rockefeller, who also destroyed his competition as well, pinched every penny, etc, etc.
Competition. That is what America is supposed to be about, right? Thing is, this Captains of Industry didn’t particularly care for competition. Competition makes it difficult to maintain your profit margin. Better to have a monopoly over your given field of business and thus control supply and demand. John D. Rockefeller was pretty adamant about the fact that he didn’t have any use for competition at all, which is why he bought out his competitors in the Oil Industry to create Standard Oil. By the end of the 19th Century, he controlled 90% of the domestic oil market.
Wealth concentrated pretty tightly among a few and to be fair, there have always been haves and have nots. There always will be. But the disparity of wealth was sufficient to spur people into action. It lead to labor unions and social activists who pushed for a more progressive society, not a socialist one though some of them were socialists. Something more equitable.
Because if you were a worker during the Gilded Age, your life was pretty miserable. It didn’t matter how hard you worked, you weren’t going to get ahead.
Oh, there is one other thing I forgot to mention. The Captains of Industry preferred something called laissez faire, which basically means, “Let it be.” It was and is still believed by many that the role of Government is to stay out of business, period. Government can actually do more harm than good according to folks who subscribe to the concept of laissez faire. Government rules, regulations and the like can increase operating costs, labor costs and generally reduce profits.
Think that sounds good? Okay.
Do you want to work in a factory without a hard hat? Today there are rules which require those hardhats and the company, ideally, should buy them for you. Back then, if you got your brainpan crushed by defective equipment, it is on you.
What if you get injured on the job? The company didn’t have to worry about it and neither did the government.
I could go on but you know, for every bad government rule one might come up with, I can come up with a positive one.
It should also be pointed out that the Captains of Industry were perfectly prepared to accept subsidies from the government to build projects like the Transcontinental Railroad. They liked protective tariffs that made it difficult for other industrial powers to compete in the United States during the 19th Century.
If you are a true believer in laissez faire economics, then maybe you might think that there shouldn’t be government subsidies for projects like the Transcontinental Railraod or protective tariffs.
Of course, we don’t live in a society like that today. It would be dangerous to draw historical analogies. I mean, most of our workforce still works one job with an eight hour day that provides some benefits, right?
Oh . . . you mean you don’t work at one job only? With benefits? Do you work, maybe two jobs? With no benefits? Do you work more than 40 hours a week at multiple jobs in order to get enough money to live on? Is it hard to get a job? Can you be fired from your job without even receiving a reason for your termination? If you live in a Right to Work State like Missouri then you can be fired on a whim.
And there isn’t a high concentration of wealth among a relative few, right?
Do you work hard, do the right thing, follow all of the rules and still can not get ahead?
Hmm, maybe something is wrong.
Or maybe you are happy with the way things are.
Steven Francis Murphy
Author of The Limb Knitter and Tearing Down Tuesday
Kansas City, Missouri