- Introduction to the Gilded Age
- The Gilded Age and the Second Industrial Revolution
- What was the Gilded Age?
- Social Darwinism in the Gilded Age
- Misunderstanding evolution: a biologist's perspective on Social Darwinism
- Misunderstanding evolution: a historian's perspective on Social Darwinism
- America moves to the city
- Development of the middle class
- Politics in the Gilded Age
- Gilded Age politics: patronage
- Laissez-faire policies in the Gilded Age
- The Knights of Labor
- Labor battles in the Gilded Age
- The Populists
- Immigration and migration in the Gilded Age
- Continuity and change in the Gilded Age
- The Gilded Age
- During the Gilded Age, proponents of laissez-faire policies opposed government intervention in society or the market.
- Laissez-faire ideology influenced government policies toward labor relations and Reconstruction.
One of the most influential ideas of the Gilded Age was laissez-faire (pronounced LAY-zay FAIR). From the French for “let them do [what they will],” proponents of laissez-faire policies, known as liberals, believed that the free market would naturally produce the best and most efficient solutions to economic and social problems. In other words, it was best to allow businesses to do what they wanted: trade freely, set their own prices, and determine workers’ wages and working conditions.
Liberalism, as it was known in the late nineteenth century, had a very different definition than it does today: instead of advocating for government intervention to solve social problems as today’s liberals do, liberals in the Gilded Age opposed most government intervention in the economy or labor relations. Libertarians are the closest equivalent to Gilded Age liberals in US politics today.
Laissez-faire combined the principles of limited government and the free market with some of the ideas of Social Darwinism. Applying Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to human institutions, liberals believed that competition was necessary for progress. Any measures that interfered with complete freedom—defined as the freedom to buy and sell your labor and property any way you chose—were contrary to natural selection and impeded the march of civilization.
Laissez-faire principles in practice during the Gilded Age
Laissez-faire ideology influenced many aspects of politics, society, and economics in the Gilded Age. In general, liberals argued against anything they perceived as interference in the individual’s ability to compete freely.
In politics, liberals worked to curb corruption in government, which ran rampant during the Gilded Age. A splinter faction of the Republican Party, the Liberal Republicans, were so frustrated with the corruption in Ulysses S. Grant’s administration—and with his approach to Reconstruction, discussed below—that they ran a separate candidate for president (Horace Greeley) in the election of 1872. Liberals also worried about the political influence of immigrants, particularly Catholics, and formerly-enslaved African Americans. Some even advocated returning to a system of property qualifications for voting.
Campaign poster for Horace Greeley.
Liberals viewed attempts to improve social conditions through government initiatives as counterproductive. Arguing that federal assistance prevented African Americans in the South from achieving their potential through free competition, liberals played a key role in the Republican Party’s abandonment of Reconstruction in the late 1870s.
Proponents of laissez-faire were especially concerned with “liberty of contract,” or the rights of businesses and workers to agree to a labor contract under any terms. The Supreme Court adopted this reasoning to overturn state laws that instituted minimum wages, maximum working hours, or safe working conditions. State regulations, as well as labor unions, according to the Court, interfered with the rights of citizens to negotiate their own labor contracts. The relative power of individuals and businesses to determine wages and working conditions did not factor into the Court’s rulings.
What do you think?
What is an example of a laissez-faire policy?
In what ways was laissez-faire ideology similar to Social Darwinism? In what ways was it different?
Want to join the conversation?
- As I understand it, Laissez-faire ideology maintains that the "free market" is the best way to determine what businesses can and should do. This means that businesses, in competition with one another, should be free to determine their own paths free from any government rules or regulation. The belief is that the competition among various businesses will ultimately result in the best outcomes for society in general - Adam Smith's "invisible hand". As part of this philosophy, workers should also be free to compete with each other and choose to work wherever they wish and this process will also result in the best results for the workers as well.
However, isn't there a huge assumption in this philosophy? Doesn't the whole justification of this belief depend on the condition that there is perfect competition and any company and any worker have the equal ability to compete with one another?
What if there is not perfect competition? What if some companies have advantages - due to any of a whole array of reasons - that place them in a non-competitive position vis a vis their competitors? Without perfect competition then other companies are not necessarily able to compete with other companies that have certain advantages. If such a situation exists, then advantaged companies may have the ability to pursue a course that results in their private benefit, but not necessarily to the benefit of society as a whole. The same would apply to workers in that reduced competition among companies would result in decreased leverage for potential employees.
To recap, if Laissez-faire ideology maintains it's the best economic policy for society as a whole, and it depends on there being perfect competition on an ongoing basis with minimal government intervention, doesn't it fall apart if there is in fact less than perfect competition?(10 votes)
- The capitalism ideology uses laissez-faire. It is important for the free market.
You are asking if it collapses when there is no perfect completion. What happens actually in the world is different from ideologies. The reason we learn about these types of ideologies as if they are perfect is because that is the point of a model. So in the perfect case capitalism would work as laissez-faire and so everything works. If there is no perfect competition it may break apart but then the whole model is already not accurate. When modelling politics and economics we assume perfection because that is the point of using models to understand the world.(5 votes)
- What were government acts that fought Laissez-Faire politics?(7 votes)
- Im not too sure what you mean by this, but id say that a way that they "faugh" in a way like didn't really follow it? so id say that they didn't really follow Laissez-Faire politics because they gave land grants and money grants to railroads(1 vote)
- If the liberals played a key role in the Republican Party’s abandonment of Reconstruction in the late 1870s, who were the Democrats at the time and what were they doing with regard to Reconstruction?(0 votes)
- Do not assume that just because an organization in the 21st century has kept the name it had in the 19th Century, that it resembles something of 150 years ago. Organizations change and change and change. That goes for political parties, corporations, religious organizations, universities and banks. The political beliefs of the Republican and Democratic parties in the USA in the 1870s are diametrically opposite of the beliefs of those same parties in 2020. The "when", "why" and "how" of the transformation is the very stuff of political history, which is far too detailed to be contained in one Khan Academy lesson.(5 votes)
- Why were industrialists/capitalists against government regulation?(1 vote)
- Government regulation seems, to capitalists, interference in their quest to get and retain as much control as is possible. Industrialists would rather pollute the environment and make money by exploiting workers. Capitalists would rather just take and maintain control to see who can get the richest. It's often about uncontrolled ego.(2 votes)
- laisse-faire is similar because of free market and do what you want(1 vote)
- Laisee-faire is French for "let it flow freely", or "don't control it". So if I find a way to sieze something that belongs to the public and divert it for my own profit, just let me do that.(2 votes)