The captains of industry who have driven the railway systems across this continent, who have built up our commerce, who have developed our manufactures, have on the whole done great good to our people. Without them the material development of which we are so justly proud could never have taken place."
Theodore Roosevelt (1858 - 1919)
The term "Robber Baron" is an interesting one. Of course it's a term intended as a slant, intended as a swipe at reality, and intended as a means to sway readers of history away from capitalism as a viable form of economic development.
But how did the west, how did the United States, grow so rich, and so fast?
Because monopolistic capitalists preyed on the poor and built huge business entities by suppressing all advantages to the ignorant and the slow?
No, not really. Were there abuses, a word used above by Mr. Roosevelt? Certainly. There always are. And the gubment provided a backlash toward what they perceived as monopolistic growth by trying to crush it with antitrust legislation. What that succeeded in doing was breaking up a whole into smaller parts which each grew larger than the previous whole. But that is another story.
The brilliant organizers of the American industrial revolution did so because they took advantage of new business organization techniques, and took huge risks. They developed technologies and utilized natural resources to such an extent that out of nothing that previously was they created a vibrant something! Not only did their businesses (and industries) grow, but all of the ancillary businesses (and industries) grew as well. Think, for example, of all the towns, and businesses in those towns, that sprung up because of thousands of miles of railroad tracks that connected left to right, and up to down? Goods and services could move from place to place, and thrive.
These Business Barons took advantage of free-market economics, which they called "enterprise," and combined it with the politics of freedom and rugged individualism, attracted a work force made up of natural-born citizens and immigrants who came to share in this growth, and utilized the diversity of skills (not heritage) and knowledge and energy of this work force, so well that these Fortresses of Free Enterprise made lives better for everybody. They were EXCEPTIONAL at it.
If these immigrants were so badly mistreated why did so many keep coming for decades to take advantage here of what they could not take advantage of from where they came? These immigrants kept coming because the word got out! It was better here! Was the work hard? Yes. Did they deal with personal and religious prejudices? Yes. Was there severe mistreatment at times? Yes. Was the life easy? No. But opportunity was in abundance, and futures were staked.
No group of men, these Business Barons, put a bigger stamp on the cultural and charitable and educational institutions in our society. They established museums, art galleries, cultural halls, theaters, schools and universities, libraries, church buildings, orchestras, and other social and educational entities in virtually every city in which they prospered. Indeed, no group of men in history has contributed more to these kinds of social things, and in particular to charities, than this group of men.
These so-called "Captains of Industry" created extraordinary economic privilege for all. And how? By employing an uncommonly forceful defense of laissez faire gubment policies and the protection of private property rights to form these new economic systems. The means of finding, developing, producing, combining, transforming, manufacturing, transporting, communicating and financing a nation's natural resources came to be. This is what T.R. meant by "material development" in the quote above, about which "we are so justly proud."
And the west, and the country, and the people, grew rich. Let's keep it that way.
Free enterprise does great good to the people.