What is More Important: Quality Consumer Goods or Social Equality?

CarnegieThe obvious answer is quality consumer goods. How could we live without them?

At least this is how Pennsylvania steel magnate Andrew Carnegie would have answered the question posed in the title of my post.

Yesterday  in my Pennsylvania History class I taught Carnegie’s famous 1889 North American Review essay titled “Wealth.”

Here is part of what he said:

Formerly articles were manufactured at the domestic hearth in small shops which formed part of the household. The master and his apprentices worked side by side, the latter living with the master and therefore subject to the same conditions.  When these apprentices rose to be master, there was little or no change in their mode of life, and they, in turn, educated in the same routine succeeding apprentices.  There was, substantially, social equality….

But the inevitable result of such a mode of manufacture was crude articles at high prices.  To-day the world obtains commodities of excellent quality at prices which even the general preceding this would have deemed incredible. In the commercial world similar causes have produced similar results, and the race is benefited thereby. The poor enjoy what the rich could not before afford. What were the luxuries have become the necessaries of life. The laborer has now more comforts than the landlord had a few generations ago. The farmer has more luxuries than the landlord had, and is more richly clad and better housed. The landlord has books and pictures rarer, and appointments more artistic, than the King could then obtain.

The price we pay for this salutary change is, no doubt, great. We assemble thousands of operatives in the factory, in the mine, and in the counting-house, of whom the employer can know little or nothing, and to whom the employer is little better than a myth. All intercourse between them is at an end. Rigid Castes are formed, and, as usual, mutual ignorance breeds mutual distrust. Each Caste is without sympathy for the other, and ready to credit anything disparaging in regard to it. Under the law of competition, the employer of thousands is forced into the strictest economies, among which the rates paid to labor figure prominently, and often there is friction between the employer and the employed, between capital and labor, between rich and poor. Human society loses homogeneity.

The price which society pays for the law of competition, like the price it pays for cheap comforts and luxuries, is also great;but the advantage of this law are also greater still, for it is to this law that we owe our wonderful material development, which brings improved conditions in its train.

After walking my students through this text, I ended class and let them ponder it over the weekend.  We will see what they think on Monday.