Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Volokh Conspiracy on the Progressive Myth:
Here’s Obama:

You see, this isn’t the first time America has faced this choice. At the turn of the last century, when a nation of farmers was transitioning to become the world’s industrial giant, we had to decide: would we settle for a country where most of the new railroads and factories were controlled by a few giant monopolies that kept prices high and wages low? Would we allow our citizens and even our children to work ungodly hours in conditions that were unsafe and unsanitary?

This line of thought goes back to the Progressive era itself. As I point out in Rehabilitating Lochner: “Progressives were convinced workers’ living standards were falling, and were in constant danger thanks to unregulated immigration, unregulated labor markets, and a paucity of strong labor unions. Supporters of liberty of contract, by contrast, believed that workers’ lot, though often unpleasant, was gradually improving thanks to the American system of contractual freedom.”

Contrary to the implications of Obama’s speech, the latter group seems to have had the better of the argument. Despite massive immigration during this period and despite (or maybe because of) the lack of labor regulation and low unionization, best estimates are that real wages in manufacturing in the U.S. increased almost 40% between 1890 and 1914. Lawrence H. Officer, Two Centuries of Compensation for U.S. Production Workers in Manufacturing (2009); Albert Rees, Real Wages in Manufacturing 1890–1914 (1961). [Update: I don’t have statistics handy, but working hours were going down without government intervention–for example, few bakers, the subject of the 1895 ten-hour a day law invalidated in Lochner, worked more than ten hours by 1910–and child labor was declining rapidly outside the impoverished Deep South.]
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