Did the Industrial Revolution Harm Most People?

The discussion forums at Liberty Classroom are password-protected, but Tom Woods has seen fit to publish a recent conversation thread from the forum for my Western Civilization since 1500 course.

A high school student posted about his teacher’s presentation of the Industrial Revolution from the traditional Marxist perspective and asked how he should respond. You can see Tom’s and my replies here.

About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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1 Response to Did the Industrial Revolution Harm Most People?

  1. Tony Gill says:

    It is pretty obvious that the world was filled with strawberry-scented rainbows, puppy dogs, marshmallow trees, and unicorns before the Industrial Revolution. Children just played joyfully with kites and never worried about it raining since it only rained in the late evening and the temperature of the world stayed constant.

    A couple ways I address this is to have students check out that reality TV show on PBS where they had people live in the Montana wilderness as frontier families. (Note: PBS can pretty much ruin everything they touch, including reality shows.) The families were only given a minimal amount of supplies that the typical pioneer would have in the mid-1800s (not the 16th century, mind you). And they said, “Have a go at it!” It turns out that they had to rescue the families before the show was sheduled to end lest they have lots of dead people on their show. (Production note: While dead people are easy to film since they don’t move around much thereby lowering cinematography costs, dead people actually are only interesting for viewers for about 1 minute since they don’t move around much.)

    You can also find charts that map out life expectancy from about the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to present. Life expectancy happens to be one of our most reliable statistics since even the most rudimentary governments since even rudimentary governments like to know who is in their territory so they can tax them. Plus, it is pretty easy to measure births and deaths. If your life really sucked, you died early (either as a child before 5, or early in your adult years). If your life didn’t suck, you lived longer. Turns out that the average life expectancy skyrockets during the I.R., not only because fewer kids died early, but also because adults lived longer. The other thing notable about these charts is that the time series line is much “smoother” after the I.R. than before. Before the I.R. life expectancy was very erratic because of various large scale “die offs” due to famine, plague, and war.

    As for diseases, we do have more diseases now than prior to the I.R. Prior to the I.R., there was a common disease knowns as “I didn’t get enough food” disease, which resulted in early deaths. Now with a higher life expectancy, we see a lot of different diseases we never saw before that are associated with older age (e.g., various cancers, Alzheimer’s). It drives me crazy to have people point out how many cancer rates are increasing without realizing that they are increasing among people who are living much older.

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