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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Life before regulation: the joys of freedom from government -- let's all go back to that wondrous time!

We've Come a Long Way

by Maxine Udall, Girl Economist blog, December 7, 2010
Maybe it would help to remember what life was like before labor unions and government "interference," when income inequality was quite high, most of us were uneducated, we were "free" to work long hours for whatever wage firms were willing to pay us, and our lives were poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
This link contains material reprinted in an old history textbook,Readings in European History Since 1814, edited by Jonathan F. Scott and Alexander Baltzly, and published by Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc. in 1930.

Sarah Gooder, an 8 year old girl:

I'm a trapper in the Gawber pit. It does not tire me, but I have to trap without a light and I'm scared. I go at four and sometimes half past three in the morning, and come out at five and half past. I never go to sleep. Sometimes I sing when I've light, but not in the dark; I dare not sing then. I don't like being in the pit. I am very sleepy when I go sometimes in the morning....I would like to be at school far better than in the pit.
Coaltub Girl pulling a coal tub in mine. From official report of the parliamentary commission.
Now pay particular attention to Mr. Wilson, Esq., mine owner. What he has to say should sound  familiar to those who have been paying attention:
Thomas Wilson, Esq., of the Banks, Silkstone, owner of three collieries.
I object on general principles to government interference in the conduct of any trade, and I am satisfied that in mines it would be productive of the greatest injury and injustice. The art of mining is not so perfectly understood as to admit of the way in which a colliery shall be conducted being dictated by any person, however experienced, with such certainty as would warrant an interference with the management of private business. I should also most decidedly object to placing collieries under the present provisions of the Factory Act with respect to the education of children employed therein. First, because, if it is contended that coal-owners, as employers of children, are bound to attend to their education, this obligation extends equally to all other employers, and therefore it is unjust to single out one class only; secondly, because, if the legislature asserts a right to interfere to secure education, it is bound to make that interference general; and thirdly, because the mining population is in this neighbourhood so intermixed with other classes, and is in such small bodies in any one place, that it would be impossible to provide separate schools for them.
Interesting, isn't it, how the rhetoric really doesn't change much? Yet now we live in a world where the government "interfered." Because of that "interference," 8 year old girls and boys do not spend 12 hours on their knees in mines hauling heavy loads (and can expect to live much longer than they did in 1850), they are educated at the public's expense, and mine owners still appear to make profits. Of course, those who "have" still enjoy longer lives than those who "have not" (Table 4, ht Krugman).
It seems as though some things never change. We hear similar rhetoric every day for why we should not adopt policies that would regulate the financial sector, protect consumers, provide health insurance to the poor and uninsured, and tax the recently-bailed-out top 2% of the US income distribution.
Lest you think it was only mining, here's a link about textile worker conditions and regulation in the 1800s.
We've come a long way. Let's not go back. 
double h/t rjs

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