Friday, February 13, 2009

Bertrand de Jouvenal on the Failure of American Scholarship

"A large part of the Western intellligentsia of today forms and conveys a warped picture of our economic institutions. This is dangerous since it tends to divert a salutary urge to reform from feasible constructive tasks to the unfeasible and the destructive. The historian's contribution to the distortion of the picture has been under discussion, especially his interpretation of the 'Industrial Revolution.' I have little to add. Historians have done their obvious duty in describing the miserable social conditions of which they found ample evidence. They have, however, proved exceptionally incautious in their interpretation of the facts. First, they seem to have taken for granted that a sharp increase in the extent of social awareness of and indignation about misery is a true index of increased misery; they seem to have given little thought to the possibility that such an increase might also be a function of new facilities of expression (due partly to a concentration of workers, partly to greater freedom of speech), of a growing philanthropic sensitivity (as evidenced by the fight for penal reforms), and of a new sense of the human power to change things, mooted by the Industrial Revolution itself. Second, they do not seem to have distinguished sufficiently between the sufferings attendant upon any great migration (and there was a migration to the towns) and those inflicted by the factory system. Third, they do not seem to have attached enough importance to the Demographic Revolution. Had they used the comparative method, they might have found that a massive influx into the towns, with the resultant squalor and pauperism, occurred as well in countries untouched by the Industrial Revolution, where they produced waves of beggars instead of underpaid workers...

"The vast improvement achieved in workers' conditions over the last hundred years is widely attributed to union pressure and good laws correcting an evil system. One may ask, on the other hand, whether this improvement would have occurred but for the achievements of this evil system, and whether political action has not merely shaken from the tree the fruit it had borne. The search for this true cause is not an irrelevant pursuit, since an erroneous attribution of merit may lead to the belief that fruit is produced by shaking trees..."

---Bertrand de Jouvenal, "Treatment of Capitalism by Intellectuals" in FA Hayek, editor, Capitalism and the Historians, pp. 99-100.

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