In spite of all its benefits, capitalism has been furiously attacked and criticized. It is necessary that we understand the origin of this antipathy. It is a fact that the hatred of capitalism originated not with the masses, not among the workers themselves, but among the landed aristocracy–the gentry, the nobility, of England and the European continent. They blamed capitalism for something that was not very pleasant for them: at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the higher wages paid by industry to its workers forced the landed gentry to pay equally higher wages to their agricultural workers. The aristocracy attacked the industries by criticizing the standard of living of the masses of the workers.
Of course–from our viewpoint, the workers’ standard of living was extremely low; conditions under early capitalism were absolutely shocking, but not because the newly developed capitalistic industries had harmed the workers. The people hired to work in factories had already been existing at a virtually subhuman level.
The famous old story, repeated hundreds of times, that the factories employed women and children and that these women and children, before they were working in factories, had lived under satisfactory conditions, is one of the greatest falsehoods of history. The mothers who worked in the factories had nothing to cook with; they did not leave their homes and their kitchens to go into the factories, they went into factories because they had no kitchens, and if they had a kitchen they had no food to cook in those kitchens. And the children did not come from comfortable nurseries. They were starving and dying. And all the talk about the so-called unspeakable horror of early capitalism can be refuted by a single statistic: precisely in these years in which British capitalism developed, precisely in the age called the Industrial Revolution in England, in the years from 1760 to 1830, precisely in those years the population of England doubled, which means that hundreds or thousands of children–who would have died in preceding times–survived and grew to become men and women.
There is no doubt that the conditions of the preceding times were very unsatisfactory. It was capitalist business that improved them. It was precisely those early factories that provided for the needs of their workers, either directly or indirectly by exporting products and importing food and raw materials from other countries. Again and again, the early historians of capitalism have–one can hardly use a milder word-falsified history.
One anecdote they used to tell, quite possibly invented, involved Benjamin Franklin. According to the story, Ben Franklin visited a cotton mill in England, and the owner of the mill told him, full of pride: “Look, here are cotton goods for Hungary.” Benjamin Franklin, looking around, seeing that the workers were shabbily dressed, said: “Why don’t you produce also for your own workers?”
But those exports of which the owner of the mill spoke really meant that he did produce for his own workers, because England had to import all its raw materials. There was no cotton either in England or in continental Europe. There was a shortage of food in England, and food had to be imported from Poland, from Russia, from Hungary. These exports were the payment for the imports of the food which made the survival of the British population possible. Many examples from the history of those ages will show the attitude of the gentry and aristocracy toward the workers. I want to cite only two examples. One is the famous British “Speenhamland” system. By this system, the British government paid all workers who did not get the minimum wage (determined by the government) the difference between the wages they received and this minimum wage. This saved the landed aristocracy the trouble of paying higher wages. The gentry would pay the traditionally low agricultural wage, and the government would supplement it, thus keeping workers from leaving rural occupations to seek urban factory employment.
Eighty years later, after capitalism’s expansion from England to continental Europe, the landed aristocracy again reacted against the new production system. In Germany the Prussian Junkers, having lost many workers to the higher-paying capitalistic industries, invented a special term for the problem: “flight from the countryside”–Landflucht. And in the German Parliament, they discussed what might be done against this evil, as it was seen from the point of view of the landed aristocracy.
Prince Bismarck, the famous chancellor of the German Reich, in a speech one day said, “I met a man in Berlin who once had worked on my estate, and I asked this man, ‘Why did you leave the estate; why did you go away from the country; why are you now living in Berlin?'” And according to Bismarck, this man answered, “You don’t have such a nice Biergarten in the village as we have here in Berlin, where you can sit, drink beer, and listen to music.” This is, of course, a story told from the point of view of Prince Bismarck, the employer. It was not the point of view of all his employees. They went into industry because industry paid them higher wages and raised their standard of living to an unprecedented degree.
Today, in the capitalist countries, there is relatively little difference between the basic life of the so-called higher and lower classes; both have food, clothing, and shelter. But in the eighteenth century and earlier, the difference between the man of the middle class and the man of the lower class was that the man of the middle class had shoes and the man of the lower class did not have shoes. In the United States today the difference between a rich man and a poor man means very often only the difference between a Cadillac and a Chevrolet. The Chevrolet may be bought secondhand, but basically it renders the same services to its owner: he, too, can drive from one point to another. More than fifty percent of the people in the United States are living in houses and apartments they own themselves.
The attacks against capitalism–especially with respect to the higher wage rates–start from the false assumption that wages are ultimately paid by people who are different from those who are employed in the factories. Now it is all right for economists and for students of economic theories to distinguish between the worker and the consumer and to make a distinction between them. But the fact is that every consumer must, in some way or the other, earn the money he spends, and the immense majority of the consumers are precisely the same people who work as employees in the enterprises that produce the things which they consume. Wage rates under capitalism are not set by a class of people different from the class of people who earn the wages; they are the same people. It is not the Hollywood film corporation that pays the wages of a movie star; it is the people who pay admission to the movies. And it is not the entrepreneur of a boxing match who pays the enormous demands of the prize fighters; it is the people who pay admission to the fight. Through the distinction between the employer and the employee, a distinction is drawn in economic theory, but it is not a distinction in real life; here, the employer and the employee ultimately are one and the same person.
There are people in many countries who consider it very unjust that a man who has to support a family with several children will receive the same salary as a man who has only himself to take care of. But the question is not whether the employer should bear greater responsibility for the size of a worker’s family.
The question we must ask in this case is: Are you, as an individual, prepared to pay more for something, let us say, a loaf of bread, if you are told that the man who produced this loaf of bread has six children? The honest man will certainly answer in the negative and say, “In principle I would, but in fact if it costs less I would rather buy the bread produced by a man without any children.” The fact is that, if the buyers do not pay the employer enough to enable him to pay his workers, it becomes impossible for the employer to remain in business.
This article is serialized from Economic Policy: Thoughts for Today and Tomorrow, a book based on six lectures delivered in Buenos Aires in 1959 on Capitalism, Socialism, Interventionism, Inflation, Foreign Investment, and Politics and Ideas by the great 20th century economist who was too good to receive a Noble Prize: Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973). Copyright 1995 by Bettina Bien Greaves. All rights reserved.