Were the robber barons good or bad?

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teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Objectively speaking (in terms of economic stability, democracy, and distribution of wealth), the robber barons were bad. Also, some of what they did was morally reprehensible.

The robber barons were owners of big industry or real estate in the late-nineteenth century who engaged in predatory business practices and used their money to corrupt politicians and amass huge fortunes. While they helped make the United States a very wealthy country—alongside all the people who actually did the bulk of the work—they took a hugely disproportionate amount of the profit and used illegal means to crush union efforts, even to the point of killing union leaders and participants. Families like the Astors, who owned real estate, made huge amounts of money in Manhattan by charging high rents on unspeakably dark, overcrowded, unhealthy, rat-infested tenement apartments, while they themselves lived in wealth and splendor. By the end of the nineteenth century, people were questioning how a few families lived in princely conditions while so many laboring Americans suffered in poverty and want.

Today, the work of many people, such as economist Thomas Piketty in Capital in the 21st Century, focuses on the huge rise of economic inequality in our time, which is very similar to the time of the robber barons. These individuals often argue that democracy itself is threatened unless we use the political process to share the wealth more equally. Other work on wealth inequality has shown that rich and poor alike have better health and less anxiety when disparities in wealth are not so great. So, yes, in creating such a massive wealth inequality, the robber barons did a bad thing. It would have bee better for everyone if they had taken less. 

thetall eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There has been much debate as to whether the wealthy businessmen of the 18th century in America should be referred to as Robber Barons or Captains of the Industry. These two terms determine whether their actions are deemed to have been negatively or positive respectively. I acknowledge the fact that the businessmen were philanthropic and generously gave back to society. They also created employment for many people in the business dynasties they established. However, I disapprove of the tactics they employed in their pursuit for wealth.

They had no regard for their labor force which was overworked and underpaid.  They were also corrupt and used their political networks to influence decisions in favor of their enterprises. In addition to that, they employed unethical predatory pricing in order to eliminate competition and establish monopolies that afterwards overpriced their commodities.

In conclusion, just like industrialization had both negative and positive implications, the Robber Barons were both bad and good.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The best answer to this is "yes."  In other words, the "robber barons" were both good and bad.

The robber barons were good in that their efforts led to a boom in American manufacturing and other sectors.  They built bigger and bigger businesses that were more and more efficient.  As they did this, they built the foundation for a very prosperous (on average) economy.  They also can be seen as good for the charity work that they did later in life.

The robber barons were bad in that they hurt specific people and groups of people as they built their businesses.  They used tactics that could be quite ruthless to defeat competitors.  They were also willing to condone violence to defeat workers who were trying to use unionization to get better pay and working conditions.

In these ways, the robber barons did things that were good for the economy as a whole, but they hurt various people while doing so.