Home > American history, liberty, state power, the free market > Anti-laissez-faire Ideas since the Founding: 1870-1918 (Part 2)

Anti-laissez-faire Ideas since the Founding: 1870-1918 (Part 2)

June 28th, 2008


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“The reward of any service depended not upon its difficulty, danger or hardship, for throughout the world it seems that the most perilous, severe, and repulsive labor was done by the worst paid classes…,” states Dr. Leete, a knowledgeable member of the society. [5] Indeed, this was not the case in 1887; the natural system of economic rewards resulting from liberal rights is, first and foremost, based on the mutual exchange of desired values, i. e. supply and demand. “Wage slavery” became a popular phrase to describe status of the common laborer. In The Living Wage (1906), John A. Ryan argues that the “American standard of living” is a “natural and absolute right” of citizenship. Though he argued it as a dictum of Christian values, many other leftists embraced a similar belief, and an ends-oriented theory of economic freedom gained popularity. No longer would individual autonomy provided by rights determine one’s economic freedom, but the level of wages would. [6]

Collectivism vs. Individualism

Logically entailed by the change in moral principles was an insistence that the good of the collective trumps the good of the individual. Since the notion of the fairness of market-defined wages was fully rejected, the market was replaced by newly-found social and moral considerations. Henry Demarest Lloyd, one of the foremost antagonists of Social Darwinism, placed great emphasis on collective governance and production. “Our liberties and our wealth are from the people and by the people,” he contends, “and both must be for the people. ” His use of “the people” is not merely political euphemism, but imperative: “wealth, like government, is the product of the co-operation of all, and, like government, must be the property of all its creators. ”[7]

Historically, a principal element of collectivization derived from stressing the importance of labor, in contrast to the capital-focused Industrial Revolutions of the 1800s. In 1914, Congress announced via the Clayton Act, “The labor of a human being is not a commodity. ”[8] There is no better example of American labor-class activism than the writings of Socialist Party figurehead Eugene V. Debs. In Revolutionary Unionism (1905), Debs argues for the unity of the working class and, in Marxist form, condemns the purported separation of the worker from the rightful fruits of his labor. He repudiates the validity and effectiveness of craft unions- usually selective organizations of skilled workers- underscoring that “infinitely greater than [their] loyalty to their craft is their loyalty to the working class as a whole. ”[9] He fiercely criticizes the structure that denies the struggling laborer his desires, but fervently protects “the product of [the worker’s] labor, the property of the capitalist. ” Then, when the dissatisfied become agitated and unrest begins, the government arrives to silence the menace: “If you… have made more steel than your master can sell, and you are locked out and get hungry, and the soldiers are called out, it is to protect the steel and shoot you who made the steel. ”[10] Debs’ arguments reflected common sentiments of outrage toward a society in which a vast majority of people, though they were a necessary part of production, toiled heavily and possessed little while a tiny group reaped gigantic rewards.

A different form of collectivism, nationalism in the spirit of the times also was a popular source of ideological opposition to the free market. Similar opinions had already a large presence during the Founding in the form of the Federalist Party and Alexander Hamilton, who argued for state intervention as a means of furthering the nation’s economic goals. Bellamy’s Looking Backward, which cued a short-lived but large nationalist movement, extolled the replacement of self-interest with a higher cause: “Now that industry of whatever sort is no longer self service, but service of the nation, patriotism, passion for humanity, impel the worker as in your day they did the soldier,” says Dr. Leete. Another thinker, Herbert Croly, believed nationalism belonged hand-in-hand with democracy, stating “the first duty of a good democrat would be that of rendering to his country loyal patriotic service. ”

The Role of the State

Government would be the primary tool in executing these policies, with force as the only way to guarantee Americans their social and economic rights.

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