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The Great Industrialists: Heroes or Villains?
The Great Industrialists: Heroes or Villains?

The Great Industrialists: Heroes or Villains?

How many of us have been taught in history about the “Robber Barons?” Everyone here been taught about them, right? They must be evil and corrupt and unethical, right? They caused all kinds of trouble, right? They are in a class with Hitler, right? But where did that term come from? And who decided they were “Robber Barons?” And by what standard? Have any of us ever looked at the evidence to see whether the great American industrialists and businessmen of the 1800s and 1900s were really “Robber Barons?” What is it when we believe things about people based on hearsay — isn’t it called “gossip?” And isn’t it unjust to condemn without evidence and without a hearing? If these questions have never been answered, or never brought up…of what account, our history education? Of what account its honesty, of what account its truth, of what account its morality? Besides such moral issues, what would life be like if not for the “Robber Barons?” They were the people who made the Industrial Revolution, they were the people who made steel and other metals cheap and affordable, who built railroads across the US, who built canals and waterways before the railroads, who built steamboat enterprises, who made the automobile cheap and affordable, who invented new products and new means of production. So we’d have no…what? Railroads. Trucking lines. Airlines. Ambulances. Modern hospitals. Movie theatres. Cell phones. What else is made of metal or requires metal? What else is affordable only when mass produced and financed by wealthy industrialists? Dishwashers? Washers and driers? Hair driers? CAT scans? Needles for medicines? X-rays machines? We’d have no McDonalds. No HEBs (a local grocery store). No trucks to deliver produce. No big companies making cheap medicines. How would we see loved ones and friends in other states? How would we take vacations? Where could we go? Would we have computers and all they’ve made possible? Would we be able to order some old text books from the 1800s or 1950s on the Internet, and have them delivered within a week — all for under, possibly, $20? So we should say “damn evil, those Robber Barons, for all they’ve made possible???” Would we be able to order affordable medications over the Internet and have them arrive within a week? So we should say “damn evil, those Robber Barons, for all they’ve made possible???” Do we owe censure and rebuke to the men and women who brought us these things and made these things cheap? Again: If these questions have never been answered, or never brought up…of what account, our history education? Burton Folsom has done some of the research work for us. He wrote a book entitled The Myth of the Robber Barons, which discusses some of these accused and condemned without a trial American Industrialists. He also wrote Empire Builders: How Michigan Entrepreneurs Helped Make America Great. (The link takes you to information about the book, as well as several audio excerpts from the book. What a find! Listen, and listen again.) The Foundation for Freedom has a lecture by Mr. Folsom online (at least as of this writing!); the lecture is based on The Myth of the Robber Barons. They also have a short article based on the/a lecture. The books and the lectures and the articles are highly recommended. People use the term “hero” loosely, but properly speaking, it means “a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.” This meaning of the term being more correct (than the “loose” usage) is shown by its (purported?) origin in classical mythology, where it meant “a being of godlike prowess and beneficence who often came to be honored as a divinity,” or “(in the Homeric period) a warrior-chieftain of special strength, courage, or ability.” A villain is “a cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted to wickedness or crime; scoundrel.” Or is “robber baron” less evil than “villain,” and a more appropriate judgment of the industrialists?  Even then, a “baron” is “a member of the lowest grade of nobility” or “a feudal vassal holding his lands under a direct grant from the king;’ a “robber” is one who takes “property from (a person) illegally by using or threatening to use violence or force.” So a “robber baron” would be someone who has a governmental position that he or she uses to steal money from people on a wide scale (or someone who uses force on a massive scale to amass wealth — but I don’t see how this can be done but by complicity with government officials; hence, the person would have, essentially, a “governmental position”). So…the Industrialists: heroes or villains/”robber barons?”  And can they be praised or vilified as a class, or do we need to judge each one on his or her own merits or demerits? Regardless, one should not judge the industrialists without reading Folsom’s books and without doing some serious research. A judgment of this sort cannot and should not be made without developing a moral-economic case based on reasoning, induction, and facts, as is expected in the best traditions of law and philosophy.

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