Guest columnist Ed Farr: American Labor Theory has Roots in London

American Labor Theory has Roots in London.

by Ed Farr

Public schools are indoctrination centers for the teacher’s unions. As any civics teacher will tell you, modern labor theory draws on 19th century London for its inspiration.  Tales by Charles Dickens and others continue to horrify teachers and inform students.

London of the industrial revolution was a battle ground where economic freedom, or “laissez-faire economics” was discredited. It became clear that government had to step in and regulate all aspects of labor, our teachers tell us.   Laissez-faire encouraged greedy manufacturers to funnel people off their farms and into tenements where they survived hand-to-mouth, suffering disease and occupational hazards only to die young and be easily replaced.

This view reflects the literature of the times. As we know, however, the view of novelists is often skewed.  Dickens was a writer-celebrity, not an economist.  He was good at dramatizing the problems of the downtrodden but useless at solving them. The best he and others like him could do is shout “there oughtta be a law!”

The Idiot’s Handbook of Dangerous Beliefs says that he who can proclaim the problem automatically knows the best solution.  It is not true.  Passing laws against social revolutions never works. It is true that horrible slums developed as people abandoned their hopeless lives in the countryside.  Pleasant communities of nice little cottages also grew up near the factories though.  It wasn’t all bad.  Furthermore, it is not “blaming the victim” to point out that many contributed to their condition by drinking their wages and neglecting their children.

Life was rough wherever you went.  Consider frontier life in North America, mining in Bohemia or sailing on a Shanghai clipper. The thing that did the most for humanity wasn’t social legislation.  It was the exploding availability of useful stuff.

Think of underwear.  It was one of the big innovations of the industrial revolution.  Before that people wore crusty linen or nothing between skin and wool.  Easy-to-clean cotton improved the lives and health of everyone, even the mill workers. So did soap, kerosene, steam, the telegraph and a million things that economic freedom delivered

No one dares speak against child labor laws.  Never-the-less, one fact is observable today as it was in old London. When times are severe sometimes children are left with three choices—work, turn to crime or starve.  Laissez-faire economics may not be able to rescue everyone but it will do less harm that the do-gooder who takes the first of those options away.

England was not really a Laissez-faire state.  Birth control was not only illegal. It was forbidden to print information about it.  There was no freedom of assembly.  Labor unions were illegal.  People were hanged for theft, jailed for debt and forbidden divorce by the state.  The “corn laws” made food expensive or unattainable.  A true laissiz-faire economy would have given people more tools to improve their lives.

The stuff we hear about 19th century London has been produced by the political left for so long we’ve come to believe it.  Conservatives should be prepared to stand up to that old lie.