The Truth About the “Robber Barons”
Mises Daily: Saturday, September 23, 2006 by Thomas J. DiLorenzo
It’s long but interesting, after reading it think about what has been going on around us for decades, longer really, since what is discussed in this fascinating piece has only gotten worse since the long dead protagonists passed from the stage:
The American economy has always included a mix of market and political entrepreneurs — self-made men and women as well as political connivers and manipulators. And sometimes, people who have achieved success as market entrepreneurs in one period of their lives later become political entrepreneurs. But the distinction between the two is critical to make, for market entrepreneurship is a hallmark of genuine capitalism, whereas political entrepreneurship is not — it is neomercantilism.
In some cases, of course, the entrepreneurs commonly labeled “robber barons” did indeed profit by exploiting American customers, but these were not market entrepreneurs. For example, Leland Stanford, a former governor and US senator from California, used his political connections to have the state pass laws prohibiting competition for his Central Pacific railroad, and he and his business partners profited from this monopoly scheme. Unfortunately, the resentment that this naturally generated among the public was unfairly directed at other entrepreneurs who succeeded in the railroad industry without political interference that tilted the playing field in their direction. Thanks to historians who fail to (or refuse to) make this crucial distinction, many Americans have an inaccurate view of American capitalism.
As a header for the article, DiLorenzo has this quote:
Free-market capitalism is a network of free and voluntary exchanges in which producers work, produce, and exchange their products for the products of others through prices voluntarily arrived at. State capitalism consists of one or more groups making use of the coercive apparatus of the government… for themselves by expropriating the production of others by force and violence.
— Murray N. Rothbard, The Logic of Action (1997)
So the taxonomy here is:
- Free market capitalism
- Political ( crony) capitalism
- State capitalism
But the whole story is much more complex than this article outlines, since all of the actors in the dance, (‘good’ guys and ‘bad’) were acting out of self interest, enlightened self interest, altruistic self interest and more darkly unconscious self interest, based on very, ( by today’s standards, very, very) poor information and worse theories of cause and effect. It is all but certain they were trying to do the best they could for the audience they cared about (sometimes but rarely, just themselves.) Even monsters think they are doing the right thing (sometimes via massive self delusion admittedly) whatever outside observers perceive.