The Robber Barons: Neither Robbers Nor Barons
By David Henderson
But a careful reading of the economic research on the “robber barons” leads to a diametrically opposite conclusion: the so-called robber barons were neither robbers nor barons. They didn’t rob. Instead, they got their money the old-fashioned way: they earned it. Nor were they barons. The word “baron” is a title of nobility, one typically granted by a king or established by force. But Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, and many of the others referred to as robber barons started their businesses from scratch and were granted no special privileges. Moreover, not only did they earn their money and not only were they not granted privileges, but they also helped consumers and, in one famous case, destroyed a monopoly.
This is an excerpt from the Econlib Feature Article for March. This one was written by me. In the piece, I go through the evidence, focusing particularly on two of the people who are often thought of as being among the most notorious robber barons: Cornelius Vanderbilt and John D. Rockefeller.
I wrote this piece because I was looking around for a single article that makes all the empirical historical points I make in the piece and also ties it into why private, non-government-supported monopolies tend to be short-lived. I couldn’t find such a piece. When I make these points in class, I draw on 3 or 4 articles. So I wrote this one myself. In the economics course I teach in the fall, this article will be on the syllabus.