I disagree with the above assertion that laissez faire policies were not to blame for the economic and social ills of the later 1800s, early 1900s America. Was it attractive under such policies to start a business? Sure. Was it attractive to exploit your workers to make a bigger profit. Sure. These policies denied the workers even the idea that they were anything other than expendable.
Add to this that, in a laissez-faire economy, there was a boom and bust economic cycle that was particularly vicious. The economic high times were great for those at the top. The economic depressions that inevitably result were horrible for the lower classes, while the rich still did just fine.
In the 1920s, after three successive laissez-faire Presidents, we had a Great Depression. Most recently, after we relaxed many New Deal era rules and regulations on corporations, banking and the stock market, and there was a predictable crash. There is a balance to be maintained between government regulation, worker pay and benefits, and a business friendly economic model. Every generation or so, we seem to forget this historical example.
It is a matter of opinion as to what problems were actually due to these ideas. There were certainly a number of social and economic problems during the time (around the start of the 20th century) but it is by no means clear that the problems were caused by laissez faire or that another ideology would have been better for the US.
The main problems that most people would probably list would include
- low wages for workers
- poor working conditions, including conditions that were actual threats to life and health
- prevalence of child labor
- prevalence of poverty
The largest and most pressing issues that resulted from the application of laissez faire principles and Social Darwinist gospel was that it created a large underclass that gained in number and magnitude of anger. The fundamental notion beneath both philosophies is the binary construction of "winner" and "loser." The presence of the former can only come with the result of the latter. This also means that there are more of the latter than the former. This comes in the form of the economically dispossessed, the economically impoverished, and those who are compensated at vastly different rates. With the numbers of these people growing, this represented the fundamental challenge of laissez faire and Social Darwinist ideas. In the end and with a great deal of irony, there had to be some modification of these notions in order for them to survive.