Prior to the advent of industrial capitalism (in roughly the 1760s) the lot of the English working class was generally miserable. Utter destitution was rampant, literal starvation not uncommon and the country was overrun with paupers. “There was, in point of fact, widespread poverty of the most abject kind in England and other countries of 18th century Europe.” It is difficult for men in the industrial West today to conceive of the kind of poverty that was widespread in pre-capitalist Europe. By a test employed in Lyons, France, in the 17th century, poverty was reached when daily income was less than the daily cost of minimum bread requirement – in other words, when a person could not make enough money to buy a crust of bread.Life for the least of us in the modern world is vastly better than it was even for Kings and Queens in the pre-Industrial era; whatever iniquities there were in the Industrial Revolution itself (which were far, far less than you've probably heard), we have that revolution in human affairs to thank for our own health, wealth and comfort -- and our ability not just to buy a crust of bread, but to worry instead about obesity and over-eating!
When exactly did the Industrial Revolution start? Gregory Clark suggests perhaps a century before previously thought:
Comparing wages with population, however, suggests that the break from the technological stagnation of the Malthusian era came around 1640, long before the classic Industrial Revolution, and even before the arrival of modern democracy in 1689...What caused the revolution? Tyler Cowen suggests it was an increase in agricultural production (following the Enclosure Act), hence the huge rise in population, and for the first time in millennia a tiny though significant growth rate of 0.35% per year. This set the scene for that grand moment in human affairs when human ingenuity was for the first time in history free to transform human life on a mass scale, and to make the world over. With the Industrial Revoution, human life would change for the better. Vastly improved Life expectancy is just one measure of that dramtic improvement:
The Industrial Revolution brought not only increasing wealth, but a dramatic lengthening of life expectancy and fall in infant mortality — in other words, an unprecedented growth in population. The population economist Julian Simon likes to point out that graphs illustrating population growth and life expectancy in the West look nearly identical. From 8000 B.C., the line is nearly horizontal. Then at about 200 years ago, it turns up like a rocket. Life expectancy jumped from under 30 years to over 75. The growth in world population is equally dramatic...
Yet during the acceleration in population growth, industrial society got better and better...
The solution to this apparent paradox lies in the fact that, as Ayn Rand so often reminded us, man's basic tool of survival is reason. Man is a creator. That solution overthrows any notion of a conflict of interest between human beings. Every person, being equipped with a mind, is a potential problem solver and not just a consumer of resources. Thus, we should expect that more people will solve more problems, make more scientific discoveries, invent more things that make life better. That is exactly what happens...
When you realise the extent of the improvement in life and life expectancy brought about by the Industrial Revolution, and the almost limitless hatred and ignorance directed towards it by assorted hippies and other human ballast, you might find yourself agreeing with Ayn Rand that all of us and especially "those hippies should get down on their knees and kiss the dirtiest, grimiest smokestack they can find." Everyone over the age of thirty-five owes that smokestack and others just like it for their lives.
Linked Articles: The destitution of pre-capitalist Europe - Andrew Bernstein, excerpted from his book, The Capitalist Manifesto
Misreading the Industrial Revolution - Lawrence Reeed
When did the Industrial Revolution start? - Tyler Cowen
Was there an Industrial Revolution? - Tyler Cowen
The population problem that isn't - Sheldon Richman