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Resources: The Standard of Living Debate

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Brief extract:

The debate about whether the standard of living for the common people increased or decreased during the classic period of the British industrial revolution between c. 1770-1850 has been one of the central controversies in discussions about Britain's industrial transformation. The early nineteenth century debate about the standard of living controversy between the poet Robert Southey and the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay was widely noted at the time and continues to be referenced in the literature. Other Victorian literary notables, such as Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, Friedrich Engels, and Karl Marx, also made important contributions to the "Condition of England" question. During the first half of the nineteenth century, few of the most prominent commentators on the subject doubted that the immense progress brought by the new mechanical means of production had not brought much, if any, economic improvement to the lives of ordinary workers. During the 1870s, Arnold Toynbee, the first historian to make the phrase "industrial revolution" popular in England, supported the pessimistic interpretation of the standard of living question. As the benefits of economic growth became more obvious for ordinary workers during the second half of the nineteenth century, more voices were heard, which argued that even during the classic period of industrialization, there had been some improvement in the standard of living for the common people. By the early twentieth century some serious quantitative research on the topic was beginning to show that there had been some improvement in the economic wellbeing of the common people even during the period c. 1770 to 1850. Other statistical research was less optimistic. At the same time, new historical research argued that, even if there had been some economic improvement in the wages of the common people (adjusted for changes in prices), their quality of life nonetheless deteriorated due to rapid urbanization, pollution, unhealthy and unsafe working and living conditions, loss of independence and status of workers in trades that formerly had employed mostly skilled workers, and many other factors that reduced the quality of life of the working classes. By the 1970s most economists were on the side of the optimists while the pessimists were reinforced by such widely read new left historians, such as E. P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm. More recently, as Western culture has become more conservative, or as some would say, more neo-liberal, there has been a new wave of optimistic contributions to the standard of living question, which has been bolstered by sophisticated econometric and statistical techniques and neo-classical economic theory. Nonetheless, the debate remains far from resolved. Two recent important contributors to the optimistic case are Peter Lindert and Jeffrey C. Williams while Charles H. Feinstein has provided a restatement of the pessimistic argument.

Download the full text of the Standard of Living Debate by Gerard M. Koot (pdf)