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Robert Hessen on the Industrial Revolution



Robert Hessen RIP-Econlib

Last month I posted about some of the intellectual contributions of economic and business historian Robert Hessen, who died on April 15. At the time I did not have access to his contribution to Ayn ​​Rand’s book Capitalism: the unknown ideal. But I got a copy from the library and found his essay. It’s called: ‘The consequences of the industrial revolution for women and children.’

My opinion now is that it is very good. When I first read it, at the age of 17, my opinion was that it was incredibly good. Why this change in my views? Because I now know more about the literature and therefore its reasoning and conclusions, which I still like, do not come as a surprise to me. But then they did. I wasn’t much of a reader, except in spurts, and a lot of what I read was fiction. So if you had asked me whether the Industrial Revolution was good or bad for women and children, I would have answered what people around me said: it was bad.

Bob Hessen’s calm reasoning hit me like a thunderbolt. He patiently worked through the effects of the Industrial Revolution on infant mortality (it fell), on women’s opportunities and income (it increased), and on women’s independence (it increased). He also answered the main critics of the Industrial Revolution. Everything he said was correct: I had just never thought about these issues.

Here is an excerpt from the beginning of his essay.

You cannot appreciate the phenomenon of child labor in England during the Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries unless you realize that the introduction of the factory system provided a livelihood, a means of survival, to tens of thousands of children who would doing. In the pre-capitalist eras we did not live as young people.

The factory system led to an increase in general living standards, rapidly declining urban death rates and declining infant mortality – and caused an unprecedented population explosion.

In 1750 England had a population of six million; in 1800 it was nine millions, and in 1820 twelve millions, an increase without precedent in any age. The age distribution of the population has changed enormously; the proportion of children and young people increased sharply. “The proportion of those born in London who die before the age of five years” fell from 74.5 percent in 1730-1749 to 31.8 percent in 1810-1829. [His quote is from Mabel C. Buer, Health, Wealth, and Population in the Early Days of the Industrial Revolution, 1760-1815.]

PS Here is Clark Nardinelli’s version, in David R. Henderson, ed., The concise encyclopedia of economicsabout how quickly wages rose during the Industrial Revolution.

PPS In March 2020, I posted about the work of Robert Hessen, in which he exposed the heroic role of Charles Lindbergh in reporting on the German war effort in aircraft production before World War II.