Economic Nonsense: 17. The Industrial Revolution brought squalor and impoverished the poor


Life for poor people, which meant most people, was pretty miserable before the Industrial Revolution. It was short, full of toil and deprivation. Most worked on the land, rose at dawn, retired at dusk, and did hard physical labour. Starvation was an ever-present threat, and subsistence depended on adequate harvests. A bad year could be fatal. Life expectancy was low, diets were poor and disease was rampant. Movement into the towns and factories spurred by the Industrial Revolution was a step up for the overwhelming majority. They earned wages. They lived in housing that is today thought squalid, but was in fact an improvement on the pitiful country hovels they had lived in previously. Their food was better and life expectancy began to rise. They began to be able to afford luxuries such as pottery, metal utensils and tea.

The myth that the Industrial Revolution brought squalor and deprivation was propagated by Friedrich Engels amongst others, who failed to compare conditions in industrial towns with the conditions they replaced. It was a commonplace error until T S Ashton published "The Industrial Revolution" in 1949, showing how it brought social and economic progress, and lifted the living standards and life chances of millions.

It was the Industrial Revolution that generated the wealth that paid for advances in public health and sanitation. It led to the conquest not only of extreme poverty, but of curable and preventable diseases. Far from bringing poverty and misery to the masses, it did the opposite, lifting their material conditions at a rate and to a level never before witnessed in human history. It was one of the most benign events that people have brought about, and it set the world on an upward course which still benefits millions of people today.