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

Anti-laissez-faire Ideas since the Founding: 1870-1918

June 28th, 2008


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Most libertarians would say that capitalism is dead in America. Many on the left would say that it is still raging. It’s ultimately a matter of what you define as “capitalism” (voluntary exchange vs. large corporation mercantilism), but we can be sure that the voluntary exchange aspect is killed day by day, and has been attacked and defeated repeatedly in the past, particularly in the 20th century. But big pro-state changes like that don’t happen overnight. They’re usually preceded by years of philosophy (usually very bad) and state-caused problems, much civil unrest, and are followed by gigantic losses of liberty and increases in dependency on the state. –more–>

Let’s take a look at some of the philosophy of anti-laissez-faire, particularly in its heyday: just before the first World War. There is little doubt the explosive growth of America’s economy was the result of the great human effort, the application of knowledge to production to create technology and capital, and the vast land and natural resources at its disposal. The framework of classical liberal (in full form, laissez-faire) economics pioneered by Great Britain gave great incentive for this process. A century of liberalism arose from thousands of years before of dysfunctional human civilization, growing the population and standard of living of human beings far larger than ever before in any century.

However, following the Civil War and the Second Industrial Revolution, class divisions had grown and fresh voices bemoaned the supposedly unjust distribution of wealth in society, calling into question the validity of the free market. Though lacking true ideological conformity, changes in attitude toward laissez-faire capitalism[1] since the Founding have been generally defined by any or all of three major shifts: most importantly, the replacement of liberal political rights with economic entitlements; closely connected, a new emphasis on collective instead of individual good; and in effect, the belief in the use of government as a valuable tool for bettering those collectives.

Of course, some important qualifications must be made. Firstly, not all objections made to the state of the nation under capitalism in the late 19th– and early 20th– centuries were necessarily at odds with traditional liberal principles. Truly consistent advocates of laissez-faire capitalism such as William Graham Sumner believed that government obstruction of trade unions and other forms of collective bargaining[2], for example, interfered with the individual’s right to freedom of association and self-determination. Broadly speaking, the political environment that permitted wealth to buy power in government was an essential threat to traditional liberty. Furthermore, it would be disingenuous to attempt to collectivize the entire spectrum of objections to liberal society, as they can be vastly different in their moral values, justifications for their principles, and the nature and practical execution of their policies. [3] Overall, the following breakdown is only a brief approximation of the characteristics of those opposed to laissez-faire economics, with a select few of several possible examples.

The Rise of “Economic Freedom” As a Standard of Living

The issues of most profound significance to any attitude toward economic and legal systems are the moral concepts that underlie them. Almost universally, opponents of capitalism believed that wrong-doing necessarily occurred from its implementation, whether in its means or in its ends. Previously, most of an individual’s rights in America were defined by a Lockean theory of natural law. Freedom of contract (and a right to a fulfillment of those contracts) permitted one the ability to freely associate with others economically. However, great disparities in wealth concentration led critics of capitalism to denounce the status quo, which was allegedly caused by the consistent legal enactment of these principles. Factions such as the Populist movement, the Progressive movement, and the Socialist Party of America formed in the antebellum period as a response. [4] The introduction of a new kind of right pervaded these new alternatives to laissez-faire capitalism: the economic freedom.

Karl Marx’s famous maxim, “from each according to his ability, and to each according to his need,” was one widely accepted economic substitute for property rights. Looking Backward (1888), a novel by Edward Bellamy, details a futuristic society that has supplanted competition with economic rights and duties in line with Marx’s axiom.

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