Laissez-Faire in the Factories

In the traditional economy, guilds had regulated working conditions; the manufactures, which emerged out of the guild economy and established larger business enterprises, similarily. The economic state policy of the early 19th century, regarding factories and manufactures, was that of laissez-faire or non-interference, based on the theory that employer and employee would sign contracts, based on mutual, freely made decisions, which would result in the best solution for both parties involved.

Entrepreneurs were interested in upkeeping the state policy of non-interference. Many entrepreneurs regarded themselves benefactors of their employees, providing some of them with housing; they blamed the deplorable living and working conditions many industrial workers had to endure, on market forces (low prices), on the drinking habits of the workers, and - not without justification, on the large family size of many working families.

The laissez-faire policy permitted the working and living conditions of the workers to deteriorate. Very long (unregulated) working hours, pollution, a hazardous working environment, low pay, no pay in case of illness, no vacation, child labour, no protection against sudden firing from the job, in case of women, harrassment on the job, poor housing, lack of sanitation, malnutrition.
Actually, laissez-faire describes the situation only in part. For workers were forbidden to form associations; the worker had to negotiate his contract individually, which gave the employer an advantage. The property or tax qualifications excluded workers from voting; the authorities observed the assembly of workers with suspicion. When a group of workers assembled on St. Peter's Field in Manchester in 1819, the police clamped down on them, seemingly unprovoked (the Peterloo Massacre). The policy of upholding the Corn Laws also burdened the workers, who lived mainly on potatoes, for bread was a luxury.

Peterloo Massacre, from Spartacus Schoolnet
Adam Smith's Laissez-Faire Policies, from Victorian Web
DOCUMENTS The Peterloo Massacre of 1819, from Modern History Sourcebook
REFERENCE Carlo M. Cipolla (ed.), The Fontana Economic History of Europe, Vol.3 : the Industrial Revolution, Glasgow : William Collins & Sons (1973) 1978 [G]

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on October 5th 2003, last revised on April 17th 2006

Click here to go Home
Click here to go to Information about KMLA, WHKMLA, the author and webmaster
Click here to go to Statistics