Early 20th century socio-economic commentary: history in the making

Several years ago, I used to watch the television show Bones. The only quote I remember from that show was surprisingly pithy given its origins. Regarding a serial killer the team has finally tracked down and neutralized, the resident psychologist, Dr. Lance Sweets, says: “I was right. He was nobody – angry at history for ignoring him.” Contemplating the second part of the quote, one realizes that the potentially histrionic line holds some alarming applicability today.

Tom Palmer wrote a magnificent article, “The Terrifying Rise of Authoritarian Populism,” which he examined the way that failed individuals and communities turn to a collective identity to bolster their self-esteem, which in turn creates a dynamic conducive to populist ideologies of all stripes. The pressing question is: Why does the majority feel entitled to dictate to the minority, in a form of mob-rule wrapped in the husk of democracy? In order to understand, though never to solve, this question in America, the one country whose founders openly designed it specifically to avoid tyranny, both of the majority and the minority, one must look to a mixture of factors.

In Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, there is a snippet of story about the history professor “who couldn’t get a job because he taught that the inhabitants of slums were not the men who made this country.” Quite literally because none of the Founding Fathers came from insignificance, outside of Alexander Hamilton, the illegitimate son of a Scottish gentleman, a man who was rather blatantly waiting around for a woman of rank to become available and who didn’t leave his son any of his extensive property.[1]Given that Hamilton’s early promise belied his later invention of the early federal reserve and his apologetics for tariffs, the suspicion of historians – and Hamilton’s own peers if private letters among Jefferson, the Adams, and others are to be believed – that he had some bitterness toward the propertied class on the basis of his childhood is justifiable. Benjamin Franklin was very proud of the fact that he managed to make his own fortune – having parted acrimoniously with his solidly middle-class extended family. To be fair, Franklin never claimed to be “self-made,” just to have had to be self-reliant at an unusually young age for a man of his class. There is much to be admired in Franklin’s rigidly honest self-definition, especially today. To return to the quote from Rand, the idea expressed was not a comment upon the literal Founding Fathers but rather upon the building of identities and the falsity contained therein. 

The visualization graphic linked from FEE shows clearly the extent to which incomes have increased over the years. The discontent connected and displayed through dramatic claims about “shrinking middle-class,” “stagnant wages,” “1 percent,” etc. was predicted in 1907 by economist Alvin Saunders Johnson (1874 – 1971) in his study “Influences Affecting the Development of Thrift.” Starting with the question:

If it is proposed, through legislation, to liberate a given social class from some of the uncertainties and hardships of the laissez-faire regime, one of the first questions to be raised is: “What will be the effects upon the habits of saving of the class concerned?” 

After laying out in great detail why redistributive policies were bound to fail fiscally and socially, Johnson took direct aim at what he perceived to be the source of the problem:

To-day the working class is rising into an autonomous position. The workingman of to-day repudiates the term “the lower classes.” His position is not the same as that of the property owner, but it is not in his opinion inferior. It follows that any line of conduct rising normally out of his position as a wage earner will be held in honor by him. It is pertinent, therefore, to inquire what attitude toward thrift the exigencies of his situation lead him to adopt. 

It is no part of the workingman’s view of progress that each individual should become the owner of a capital whose earnings may supplement those of his labor. No such supplementary income should, in the laborer’s view, be necessary; and the work- man who endeavors to secure it for himself, instead of bending his efforts to the winning of better conditions for labor in general, is likely to be blamed for selfishness rather than praised for self-restraint. […]

Light-handed spending in time of prosperity, mutual aid in time of distress- such appears to be the approved conduct of a permanent body of property-less laborers. And if this is true, we may be quite certain that such practices will in the end be idealized, and that middle-class schemes of cultivating thrift among the working classes will meet with increasing resistance. Already it is easy to find bodies of intelligent workmen who express the greatest contempt for the fellow workman who is ” salting down ” a part of his earnings. 

All of these factors, predicted Johnson, would lead to increase inequality, social and financial, and anger with the socio-economic system. The inequality would stem, not from literal economic inequality, but from the loss of the “laborers” to discern genuine investment, in self, family, and business, from mere consumption, leading to a knowledge- and know-how gap.

At the time Johnson wrote his study, the Progressive movement and its acolytes were running rampant in the US, promoting what we would call today a “soft” socialist state, and the campaigners were experiencing unusual popularity in response to an agriculture bubble due to subsidies that inflated land prices and a more general move toward socialism among urban workers. While the prototype socialists blamed consumption, adopting eagerly the vocabulary of Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class(1899), Johnson rejected the idea completely:

“Conspicuous consumption” is a proof of economic success, and wherever it is the most telling proof, the standard of economic success is likely to be a standard of consumption. But wherever economic success is better displayed in some other way, as for example by increase in one’s visible assets or productive equipment, the standard of consumption exercises little influence upon economic conduct. A standard of conspicuous possession or of productive power takes its place.[2]

Instead, the root problem was a mass loss of will to be capitalists and to engage in and with the capitalist system. This in turn stemmed from a desire for dignity, a pursuit doomed to failure because it was built not on the dignity of work and the worthiness of independence but upon class identity. Exacerbating the situation, as Tom Palmer explored, is the fact that this identity is collective, which fits with a rejection of capitalist pursuit because entrepreneurship is inherently a singular, individual effort.  

Today, we are facing the consequences of the rejection of what Margaret Thatcher called “the strenuous life of liberty and enterprise.” Those who embrace this lifestyle ideal are the ones who have made and continue to determine history. While they may be mappable as a network or a general type of group, all of their achievements lie outside a collective identity. Any set of people can be distilled down to a select set of characteristics that give the impression of a collective unity; for example, one can make a blanket statement along the lines of “the majority of tech billionaires are Ivy Plus dropouts” which would be true in a literal sense and false in its reductionist view. 

The collective view of the social peer must fail of necessity. It is what Johnson meant when he mentioned the derision directed by working-men at those of their fellows who stepped outside a collective concept of “place” and tried to become capitalists through saving. The policing of the peer in America has failed miserably as Palmer described when he wrote of individuals seeking solace in the notion that their community is successful, even if they are not. The illogic of this position escapes them: it is impossible for a community of individual underachievers to become successful merely through combining into a collective. History shows many times over that such a situation only increases the multiplication of failure. And it is the inexorability of history – though not, heeding Karl Popper’s admonition, historicism – that is the source of the anger today. The collective from the slums does not make history, and those who make up the collective are now angry at history for ignoring them.        


[1]To be fair to Hamilton Sr., not much is known about the circumstances of his estate. It is perfectly possible that it was entailed and therefore could not be bequeathed at will. Hamilton Sr did pay for an elite, in a Caribbean-colonies context, education and funded his son’s early ventures in New York City. Also a good proof for the idea that the bank of mom and dad is NOT a Millennial invention.  

[2]Johnson is an American economist who really deserves greater recognition. He grew up on the Midwestern plains, and in these fairly isolated circumstances, he articulated a theory of economics which he later recognized as part of the Austrian School. He co-founded The New School in NYC and was single-handedly responsible for the university becoming a home to Austrian and other central European scholars forced to flee from the Nazis.