Ideas and Consequences: Of Meat and Myth
NOVEMBER 01, 1994 by LAWRENCE W. REED
Dr. Reed, economist and author, is President of The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free market research and educational organization headquartered in Midland, Michigan.
Advocates of the spontaneous order of freedom and free markets are forever stomping out the fires of fallacious reasoning, anti-capitalist bias, and twisted history. It seems that as soon as we put out one fire, opponents of the market manage to ignite ten others.
We spend as much time explaining the workings of the market as we do debunking myths and clichés about it. Statists and interventionists spout an endless stream of put-downs and one-liners that pass as thorough critiques of the market, each one requiring a time-consuming, painstaking response and appeal to reason. We are constantly rewriting prejudiced accounts of history to match what really happened.
Nearly ninety years ago, muckraking novelist Upton Sinclair wrote a book titled The Jungle which wove a tale of greed and abuse that reverberates to this day as a powerful case against laissez faire. Sinclair’s focus of scorn was the meatpacking industry. The objective of his effort was government regulation. The culmination of his work was the passage in 1906 of the famed Meat Inspection Act, enshrined in most history books as a sacred cow (excuse the pun) of the interventionist state.
Were Sinclair’s allegations of a corrupt industry foisting unhealthy products on an unsuspecting public really true? And if so, should the free market stand forever indicted and convicted as a result? A response from advocates of freedom is long overdue. Here’s a healthy start.
The Jungle was, first and foremost, a novel. It was intended to be a polemic—a diatribe, if you will and not a well-researched and dispassionate documentary. Sinclair relied heavily on both his own imagination and on the hearsay of others. He did not even pretend to have actually witnessed the horrendous conditions he ascribed to Chicago packinghouses, nor to have verified them, nor to have derived them from any official records.
Sinclair hoped the book would ignite a powerful socialist movement on behalf of America’s workers. The public’s attention was directed instead to his fewer than a dozen pages of supposed descriptions of unsanitary conditions in the meatpacking plants. “I aimed at the public’s heart,” he later wrote, “and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”1
Though his novelized and sensational accusations prompted later congressional investigations of the industry, the investigators themselves expressed skepticism of Sinclair’s integrity and credibility as a source of information. President Theodore Roosevelt wrote of Sinclair in a letter to William Allen White in July 1906, “I have an utter contempt for him. He is hysterical, unbalanced, and untruthful. Three-fourths of the things he said were absolute falsehoods. For some of the remainder there was only a basis of truth.”2
Sinclair’s fellow writer and philosophical intimate, Jack London, wrote this announcement of The Jungle, a promo that was approved by Sinclair himself:
Dear Comrades: . . . The book we have been waiting for these many years! It will open countless ears that have been deaf to Socialism. It will make thousands of converts to our cause. It depicts what our country really is, the home of oppression and injustice, a nightmare of misery, an inferno of suffering, a human hell, a jungle of wild beasts.
And take notice and remember, comrades, this book is straight proletarian. It is written by an intellectual proletarian, for the proletarian. It is to be published by a proletarian publishing house. It is to be read by the proletariat. What Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for the black slaves The Jungle has a large chance to do for the white slaves of today.3
The Jungle’s fictitious characters tell of men falling into tanks in meatpacking plants and being ground up with animal parts, then made into “Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard.” Historian Stewart H. Holbrook writes, “The grunts, the groans, the agonized squeals of animals being butchered, the rivers of blood, the steaming masses of intestines, the various stenches . . . were displayed along with the corruption of government inspectors”4 and, of course, the callous greed of the ruthless packers.
Most Americans would be surprised to know that government meat inspection did not begin in 1906. The inspectors Holbrook refers to as being mentioned in Sinclair’s book were among hundreds employed by federal, state, and local governments for more than a decade. Indeed, Congressman E. D. Crumpacker of Indiana noted in testimony before the House Agriculture Committee in June 1906 that not even one of those officials “ever registered any complaint or [gave] any public information with respect to the manner of the slaughtering or preparation of meat or food products”5
To Crumpacker and other contemporary skeptics, “Either the Government officials in Chicago [were] woefully derelict in their duty, or the situation over there [had been] outrageously over- stated to the country.”6 If the packing plants were as bad as alleged in The Jungle, surely the government inspectors who never said so must be judged as guilty of neglect as the packers were of abuse.
Some two million visitors came to tour the stockyards and packinghouses of Chicago every year. Thousands of people worked in both. Why is it that it took a novel written by an anti-capitalist ideologue who spent but a few weeks there to unveil the real conditions to the American public?
All of the big Chicago packers combined accounted for less than 50 percent of the meat products produced in the United States; few if any charges were ever made against the sanitary conditions of the packinghouses of other cities. If the Chicago packers were guilty of anything like the terribly unsanitary conditions suggested by Sinclair, wouldn’t they be foolishly exposing themselves to devastating losses of market share?
Historians with an ideological axe to grind against the market usually ignore an authoritative 1906 report of the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Animal Husbandry. Its investigators provided a point-by-point refutation of the worst of Sinclair’s allegations, some of which they labeled as” willful and deliberate misrepresentations of fact,” “atrocious exaggeration,” and “not at all characteristic.”7
Instead, some of these same historians dwell on the Neill-Reynolds Report of the same year because it at least tentatively supported Sinclair. It turns out that neither Neill nor Reynolds had any experience in the meatpacking business and spent a grand total of two and one-half weeks in the spring of 1906 investigating and preparing what turned out to be a carelessly-written report with preconceived conclusions. Gabriel Kolko, a socialist but nonetheless an historian with a respect for facts, dismisses Sinclair as a propagandist and assails Neill and Reynolds as “two inexperienced Washington bureaucrats who freely admitted they knew nothing”8 of the meatpacking process. Their own subsequent testimony revealed that they had gone to Chicago with the intention of finding fault with industry practices so as to get a new inspection law passed.9
As popular myth would have it, there were no government inspectors before Congress acted in response to The Jungle and the greedy meatpackers fought federal inspection all the way. The truth is that not only did government inspection exist, but meatpackers themselves supported it and were in the forefront of the effort to extend it!
When the sensational accusations of The Jungle became worldwide news, foreign purchases of American meat were cut in half and the meatpackers looked for new regulations to give their markets a calming sense of security. The only congressional hearings on what ultimately became the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 were held by Congressman James Wadsworth’s Agriculture Committee between June 6 and 11. A careful reading of the deliberations of the Wadsworth committee and the subsequent floor debate leads inexorably to one conclusion: Knowing that a new law would allay public fears fanned by The Jungle, bring smaller competitors under regulation, and put a newly laundered government stamp of approval on their products, the major meatpackers strongly endorsed the proposed act and only quibbled over who should pay for it.
In the end, Americans got a new federal meat inspection law. The big packers got the taxpayers to pick up the entire $3 million price tag for its implementation as well asnew regulations on their smaller competitors, and another myth entered the annals of anti-market dogma.
To his credit, Upton Sinclair actually opposed the law because he saw it for what it really was-—boon for the big meatpackers.10 Far from a crusading and objective truth-seeker, Sinclair was a fool and a sucker who ended up being used by the very industry he hated.
Myths die hard. What you’ve just read is not at all “politically correct.” But defending the market from historical attack begins with explaining what really happened. Those who persist in the shallow claim that The Jungle stands as a compelling indictment of the market should clean up their act because upon inspection, there seems to be an unpleasant odor hovering over it. 
The author wishes to thank Professor Timothy G. Nash of Northwood University in Midland, Michigan, for his research assistance in the preparation of this column.
- 1. Gabriel Kolko, The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916 (Chicago: Qued-tangle Books, 1967), p. 103.
- 2. Roosevelt to William Allen White, July 31, 1906, Elting E. Morison and John M. Blum, editors, The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, 8 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951- 54), vol. 5, p. 340.
- 3. Mark Sullivan, Our Times: The United States, 19001925; vol. 2: America Finding Herself (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927), p. 473.
- 4. Stewart H. Holbrook, The Age of the Moguls (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1953), pp. 1 I0-11 I.
- 5. U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Agriculture, Hearings on the So-called “Beveridge Amendment” to the Agriculture Appropriation Bill, 59th Congress, 1st Session, 1906, p. 194.
- 6. Ibid.
- 7. Ibid., pp. 346-350.
- 8. Kolko, p. 105.
- 9. Hearings, p. 102.
- 10. Upton Sinclair, “The Condemned-Meat Industry: A Reply to Mr. J, Ogden Armour,” Everybody’s Magazine, XIV, 1906, pp. 612-613.