Roots of West Virginia's Anti-Capitalistic Mentality
By Bryan Caplan
West Virginia’s got the lowest level of economic freedom in the U.S. What’s the reason? Newly-minted WVU Ph.D. Claudia Williamson traces it to West Virginians’ serious historical misconceptions in her chapter in Russ Sobel’s edited volume, Unleashing Capitalism: Why Prosperity Stops at the West Virginia Border and How to Fix It. Here’s Williamson:
Growing up in West Virginia, I was often told of the horrific and unbearable conditions that coal miners faced over the state’s history. The stories usually involved numerous accounts of how the conditions of the mines were unsafe, the miners were not fairly compensated, and miners were continually exploited by the owners of the mines. The most popular stories of exploitation surround examples of miners and their families living in over-priced, yet run-down company housing and having to shop at the company store where prices were heavily inflated.
Drawing on Price Fishback’s work, Williamson persuasively argues that, once again, popular opinion is dead wrong. Miners enjoyed the benefits of a competitive labor market, got paid extra for dangerous condition, and didn’t “owe their souls to the company store.”
Ken Fones, WVU history prof takes issue with Williamson’s chapter, though it’s surprising how much ground he gives – and how many of his complaints reflect a poor grasp of basic econ. From his conclusion:
The people of West Virginia do not object to capitalism per se; they object to the unfettered sway of large corporations that have no interest in building a balanced and self-sustaining economy that promises high wages and high productivity in the market so that all of the state’s people might benefit.
It’s almost like historians don’t see that “unfettered “corporations increase productivity – and compete for workers – out of simple self-interest. Almost.