Cheery Capitalism

JPod: Good point, that sounds right to me — if we’re talking about modern conservatives and neocons, not libertarians or classical liberals, two groups that were part of the general fusionist conservative movement (and joined up much earlier than the neocons, I might add). And the libertarians and classical liberal folks certainly helped revive the argument for classical liberalism on the Right. There were certainly classical liberals who talked-up capitalism as good in and of itself (Peter’s use of “redemptive” is still too tendentious to deal with). And that argument does have an older pedigree. One of my favorite capitalism-is-good-for-you ideologues was Edward Atkinson.

In Addresses upon the Labor Question (1886), he expressed his view of free-market competition as “a beneficent and constructive force, gradually but surely promoting greater equality in the division of the increasing annual product, upon which human welfare depends.”

Here’s a relevant bit from a piece I did last June on Robber Barons for NR:

And this wealth did more than simply “trickle down” to the poor. The robber barons didn’t “steal” their wealth from the working classes; they took a commission, and a pretty small one at that. Cotton magnate Edward Atkinson spelled it out. “Through competition among capitalists,” he wrote, “capital itself is every year more effective in production, and tends ever to increasing abundance. Under its working the commodities that have been the luxuries of one generation become the comforts of the next and the necessities of the third. . . . The plane of what constitutes a comfortable subsistence is constantly rising, and as the years go by greater and greater numbers attain this plane.”

Addressing some workers in 1886, Atkinson tried to explain how everyone gained from a free market. Cornelius Vanderbilt, Atkinson observed, made a profit of 14 cents from every barrel of flour shipped over his railroads. His efficiency lowered the price of flour for consumers. “Did Vanderbilt keep any of you down,” challenged Atkinson, “by saving you $2.75 on a barrel of flour, while he was making 14 cents?”

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