All Commentary
Monday, March 1, 1971

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1971/3

The main point of John W. Osborne’s The Silent Revolution: The Industrial Revolution in Eng­land as a Source of Social Change (Scribner’s, $7.95) is that if there hadn’t been capitalism, there wouldn’t be any funds for modern welfare. In many ways Professor Osborne’s useful little book sup­plements and amplifies the papers read at the Mont Pelerin Society meeting held at Beauvallon in France in 1951, and subsequently published in a volume edited by Professor F. A. Hayek, Capitalism and the Historians. With the same attention to detail that was supplied by T. S. Ashton and W. H. Hutt, two of Hayek’s contributors, Professor Osborne makes a convincing case that the lot of man in England was considerably improved by the industrial revo­lution. Unfortunately, the Osborne book doesn’t go on to the next question: just how far can the welfare state be pushed without milking the capitalist cow, the source of high modern produc­tivity, to death? After a brave beginning, The Silent Revolution trails off; it is not governed by any rigorous economic thinking.

But before Professor Osborne comes to what amounts to a non-conclusion, there is much to support the Mises-Hayek-Ashton contention that our standard historians of the industrial revolu­tion failed to do their homework. It was Marx’s collaborator, Fried­rich Engels, who established the stereotype about the idyllic Eng­land of pre-capitalist times. Rely­ing on government reports of a highly selective nature, Engels, along with J. L. and Barbara Hammond of The Town Labourer fame, contrasted the world of the early factories with the “merry England” of supposed tradition. The only trouble with the contrast is that pre-industrial England supported a small population of eight to ten million mostly at a poor subsistence level. Industrial­ism enabled the population to quadruple, and it was a more humane and better fed population than the pre-industrial age had ever known.

“Bucolic” England

It was a coarse and brutal Eng­land that existed in eighteenth century times. The roads were impassable for much of the year; people were bound by the village horizon. The criminal code was harsh; pickpockets could be pun­ished by execution, and the crowds regarded a hanging as a sport­ing event. The ordinary English­man, says Osborne, “was illiterate and uncouth… his conduct swayed between extremes of bois­terous good nature or sullen vio­lence…. Devoid of letters, with his body warped by hunger and illness and his spirit clouded by worry and personal tragedy, this ordinary Englishman was not worse off than his counterparts either in Europe at the time or in Africa or Asia today.” The ordinary Englishman was fatalis­tic about his politics, which gave a conservative tone to public life. In short, the picture of Merry England of the Greenwood was something that existed in Fried­rich Engels’ imagination; the re­ality of bucolic England was often the reality of scratching for a dole under the old poor laws. Chil­dren starved out of sight in rural hovels; and the pre-industrial towns, lacking gas lighting and a decent water supply, were at least as bad as anything that came with the factory system.

Like T. S. Ashton before him, Professor Osborne blames the crowded conditions of Manchester not on “capitalist greed” but on the Napoleonic wars. For a full generation very little housing was built: wartime interest rates were too high, window space and bricks and tiles were heavily taxed, iron ‘lad to be used for cannon instead of pipe, and the war inflation had made the purchase of oak and fir prohibitive. Yet even the crowded warrens of Manchester were pref­erable to life in the countryside; if they hadn’t been, people wouldn’t have moved to take ad­vantage of factory wages.

Enter: Industrial Capitalism

The great textile manufactur­ing inventions of Arkwright, Crompton, Cartwright, Kay, and Hargreaves, supporting each other as spinning caught up with weav­ing, combined with the Watt steam engine to give Britain a jump on the outer world. With affluence a possibility, people got the idea that their troubles could be amelio­rated. This, says Professor Os­borne, gave the reformers their cue. The new Factory Acts, the child labor laws, the extension of the franchise, the growth of schools, the establishment of hos­pitals, and the very rise of Fabian socialism itself, were all possible because the wealth was there to pay the bills.

Professor Osborne’s idea is that the moral climate changed from the coarseness and drunkenness of eighteenth century society to the regularity and prudery of Victori­anism largely because industrial­ism and its superstructure of modern business demanded re­sponsibility. The old spasmodic rhythm of working with the sea­sons gave way to a regularly spaced rhythm of working with the clock. Disciplined work was followed by disciplined sport. The new capitalistic toll roads broke down the parochial England of the village, and the railroads, after the coaching age of Charles Dick­ens, completed the job.

Robert Owen—Capitalist Turned Reformer

If industrial capitalism was needed to support a new humani­tarian England, one would think that Professor Osborne would be at pains to warn the socialists against putting too heavy a charge on it. After all, there must be profits and a continued spirit of innovation to sustain the taxa­tion that pays for welfare. Pro­fessor Osborne, however, doesn’t seem particularly concerned with this problem. He misses the true significance of Robert Owen, the early nineteenth century capital­ist of the New Lanark mills. Long before Henry Ford, Owen decided that a healthy, educated, and rea­sonably well-paid working force would improve both productivity and profits in his factory. And so it proved: Owen, by treating his workers well, became a rich man. Then, in one of the great social non sequiturs of his age, he turned collectivist reformer. His attempt to found a socialist community in America came to grief, and his pompous politicking in Britain got him nowhere. If he had spent his energies on converting other manufacturers to a Henry Ford view of economics, he would have done much more for England.

One wishes that Professor Os­borne had made something of the regression in modern Britain that has accompanied the rejec­tion of nineteenth century capi­talist values. He says that “be­tween 1700 and 1825, no less than one hundred and fifty-four hospitals and dispensaries were founded in the British Isles.” Under the modern British socialized medical schemes, the rate of hos­pital building has fallen to a whisper. Doesn’t this convey some­thing? Industrialism got its start in England, as Professor Osborne points out, because of the prior existence of English freedoms. The state hadn’t become absolute as it had in France. But now the state grows. I wish Professor Os­borne had drawn the proper con­clusion.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.