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Underrated Industrialist, Josiah Wedgwood

Blog Post | Politics & Freedom

Underrated Industrialist, Josiah Wedgwood

Josiah Wedgwood was an entrepreneur, abolitionist, inventor, and in many respects the first modern philanthropist.

Summary: Josiah Wedgwood challenged the prevailing perspective on entrepreneurship, rising from humble beginnings to become an esteemed industrialists and advocates of Enlightenment ideals. Wedgwood’s story exemplifies the transformative power of entrepreneurship, philanthropy, and innovation, reshaping not only the economy but also societal perceptions of wealth and social responsibility.


This article was published at Libertarianism.org on 12/18/2023.

We use and encounter the word “entrepreneur” constantly in our daily lives. Entrepreneurs are an indispensable part of the modern economy, but for much of the Western world’s history, aristocratic elites looked down on merchants as crass money-​makers. A long tradition stretching back to antiquity enforced the aristocratic view of property ownership and agriculture as the only honorable ways of making money. But in the 18th century, things started to change dramatically.

At the forefront of change was Josiah Wedgwood, a man born the child of a potter, who ended his life as an esteemed industrialist, a trendsetter for English society, and an advocate of Enlightenment ideals. He is also one of first examples of the entrepreneurial philanthropist in the modern sense, using his profits to build schools, homes, and improve the working conditions of his employees. Most famously, he was a staunch advocate for the abolition of slavery.

Wedgwood’s Upbringing

Josiah Wedgwood was born on the 12th of July 1730 in Burslem, Staffordshire. He was the eleventh child of Thomas and Mary Wedgwood. Wedgwood’s family, while not poor, was not particularly rich either.

Wedgwood’s father and his father’s father had both been potters. According to all conventional wisdom, Wedgwood would follow in his ancestors’ footsteps and earn a similarly modest living. Though there were many potters in his hometown of Staffordshire, potters only sold their wares locally. To sell to London was rare; to sell abroad was unheard of. Staffordshire was not the cosmopolitan center of the United Kingdom. By the end of Wedgwood’s life, this all radically changed.

From a young age, Wedgwood showed great promise as a potter, but at the age of nine he contracted smallpox, permanently weakening his knee, meaning he could not use the foot pedal on a potter’s wheel. But Wedgwood took this tragedy in stride despite his young age. While healing, he used his spare time to read, research, and most importantly, experiment. Instead of making the same pots his family had always crafted, he dedicated himself to innovating.

Combining Science and Faith

After his father’s death, Wedgwood’s mother took charge of educating her son imparting to him a deep appreciation for curiosity. Wedgwood came from a family of English dissenters, Protestants who broke off from the English state-​supported Anglican church to start their own religious establishments. Specifically, Wedgwood and his family were Unitarian: they emphasized the importance of humans using reason to interpret scripture. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Unitarians did not see science and religion as conflicting ways of viewing the world but complementary. Because of this attitude, Unitarians were often found defending freedom of speech and conscience as indispensable rights for political and religious life.

Where Unitarians split most noticeably from the established Anglican church was their view of Original Sin. Growing up, Wedgwood was taught that the world could be made a better place through human effort. A modern observer views progress and making the world a better place as a common aspiration, however, few of our ancestors believed there was such a thing as consistent material or moral progress. It is easy to see why, given that belief system, most people were content to work the same job their father had using the same tools that had been used for hundreds if not thousands of years.

The Beginnings of a Business

At the age of 30, Wedgwood began his own business in Staffordshire at his Ivy House factory. Because of England’s vast colonial territories, tea and coffee were making their way to England in larger quantities. The emerging middle class began to frequent coffee and tea houses to converse with their peers, dramatically increasing the demand for pottery. Wedgwood observed an increased demand for pottery, but also an increased demand for beauty and style in everyday items.

In Wedgwood’s early days of business, elaborate designs were not popular; what was demanded was the pure simplicity of materials like porcelain. Porcelain, however, was in short supply and extremely fragile. To remedy this, Wedgwood began developing cream glaze that would give earthenware the appearance of porcelain with none of the downsides. After conducting over 5,000 painstaking tests, Wedgwood perfected what came to be known as creamware, something few of his competitors replicated.

Increasingly known for his high-​quality products, Wedgwood was invited to participate in a competition with all the potteries of Staffordshire to provide a tea service or set for Queen Charlotte. Knowing this was a crucial opportunity, Wedgwood went all-​in on creating a creamware set, even painstakingly using honey to help stick 22-​karat gold to his pure white creamware. Wedgwood won the competition and was made the Queen’s potter. Wedgwood was light years ahead of his competition when it came to marketing and branding, and from this point onwards, all of the company’s paperwork and stationery boasted the royal association.

Wedgwood and the Consumer Experience

Wedgwood established showrooms in London to sell his wares. In the 18th century, most stores were cramped and dingy places. Wedgwood also pioneered a range of services we expect as standard today, including money-​back guarantees, free delivery, illustrated catalogs, and even an early form of self-​checkout. More than any of his contemporaries, Wedgwood focused on perfecting the retail experience. His showrooms were immediately popular, establishing his reputation throughout London, Bath, Liverpool, Dublin, and Westminster. Some showrooms were so popular they caused traffic jams with long-​winding lines stretching through the street.

The Division of Labor and International Markets

The increasing demand led to Wedgwood being so successful he founded a new factory in 1769 named “Etruria” after the Etruscans of ancient Italy. Here Wedgwood dreamed of becoming “Vase Maker General to the Universe.” Despite being named after an ancient land, it was arguably at the time the most modern industrial space in the world. To minimize mistakes, Wedgwood broke down the process of making earthenware into a series of smaller tasks. Like the contemporaneous Adam Smith, Wedgwood observed that the division of labor dramatically increases productivity. As an employer, Wedgwood was an exemplar of humane business. Knowing the hot conditions of factories, he attempted to develop a form of air conditioning. He paid his employees well and provided cottages for his workers around Etruria.

With his modernizing practices, Wedgwood brought artistic perfection to an industrial scale. Though many of his popular products were initially purchased by the aristocracy, he eventually reduced the prices to appeal to an increasingly broader market. Wedgwood noticed that a high price was necessary to make the vases esteemed ornaments for palaces, but once aristocrats popularized his products, he would then reduce the price accordingly. Everyday people began to drink from mugs and decorate their homes with vases that for centuries had been exclusively owned by aristocrats.

Wedgwood had transformed Staffordshire from a town that nearly always sold their produce locally to a place that supplied goods for the whole nation. But Wedgwood saw the potential for further expansion abroad. Wedgwood began to ship to Europe but then rapidly expanded across the globe to places like Mexico, the United States, Turkey, and China. By the 1780s, Wedgwood was exporting most of his products abroad. Though during this period of his life business was booming, Wedgwood’s smallpox afflicted knee worsened, resulting in his leg being amputated without anesthetic and replaced with a wooden prosthetic. Seemingly unbothered, Wedgwood Christened the event “St. Amputation Day” and resumed work.

Business for a Good Cause

As Wedgwood shipped more goods abroad, he increasingly frequented London’s port, the largest slave-​trading port in the world at the time. Wedgwood saw the whip-​scarred bodies of enslaved people being shipped in from abroad. Wedgwood abhorred slavery, not only because it was immoral, but because for Wedgwood, it was not befitting of the national character and the esteem Britain ought to hold as a free nation. At its inception, in 1787 Wedgwood joined the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

He campaigned against slavery by using his craft to create mass-​produced cameos of a black man in chains on his knees against a white background with an inscription beneath reading “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” Wedgwood gave away these medallions free of charge to abolitionist groups, even sending medallions to Benjamin Franklin, then to the president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. Franklin praised his medallions, saying their effectiveness was equal to the best written works against slavery. Gentlemen had this image inlaid in their snuff boxes, and ladies wore it on bracelets and hairpins.

A friend of Wedgwood and fellow abolitionist wrote of Wedgwood’s medallions, “the taste for wearing them became general, and thus fashion, which usually confines itself to worthless things, was seen for once in the honorable office of promoting the cause of justice, humanity and freedom.” Wedgwood saw how fashion could be a vehicle for political change. His medallions perfectly captured the message of the abolitionist cause, two hundred years before the advent of the t-​shirt, today’s preferred method of displaying one’s political affections.

Wedgwood was not only a master craftsman, an industrialist, and an activist: he was also a scientist. In 1765, he joined the Lunar Society of Birmingham, a group of industrialists, scientists, and philosophers who met during the full moon because the light made the journey at night easier. Members included people such as Joseph Priestly and Matthew Bolton. In 1783, Wedgwood was elected to The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge by inventing the pyrometer, a device used to measure the high temperatures of kilns while firing pottery.

Death and Legacy

After a life dedicated to his work and the betterment of the world, Wedgwood passed away on the 3rd of January 1795 at the age of 64. The name Wedgwood became synonymous with excellence in pottery, and remains so today.

Throughout Western history, aristocrats, nobles, and other elites often peddled a narrative that prosperity was achieved through familial ties of property ownership and military prowess. People like Josiah Wedgwood challenged this narrative by showing a new path for the Enlightened industrialist and philanthropist. Instead of making his fortune from familial connections and war, Wedgwood showed the peaceful path to wealth by simply fulfilling consumers’ desires. His marketing practices were light years ahead of his time, and his penchant for building a distinct brand through advertising and high-​quality goods was an unprecedentedly modern strategy at a time when the wealthy still wore powdered wigs.

Wedgwood used his wealth to benefit the world by treating his workers with dignity while advocating for humane causes like the abolition of slavery. Stories like Wedgwood’s counter the anti-​capitalist narrative of the corrupting tendencies of private enterprise, showing how business can be humane, cosmopolitan, and most importantly, for Wedgwood, beautiful.

Blog Post | Human Development

What Is Progress? (Or, Progress Towards What?)

How we define ultimate progress depends on axiology; that is, on our theory of value.

Summary: The definition of progress varies from worldview to worldview. While material progress, social progress, and human progress are interconnected, the notion of progress isn’t universally agreed upon and often hinges on differing standards of value. However, there are are key throughlines that unify different reasonable notions of progress more than is initially obvious.


In one sense, the concept of progress is simple, straightforward, and uncontroversial. In another sense, it contains an entire worldview.

The most basic meaning of “progress” is simply advancement along a path, or more generally from one state to another that is considered more advanced by some standard. (In this sense, progress can be good, neutral, or even bad—e.g., the progress of a disease.) The question is always: advancement along what path, in what direction, by what standard?

Types of Progress

“Scientific progress,” “technological progress,” and “economic progress” are relatively straightforward. They are hard to measure, they are multi-dimensional, and we might argue about specific examples—but in general, scientific progress consists of more knowledge, better theories and explanations, a deeper understanding of the universe; technological progress consists of more inventions that work better (more powerfully or reliably or efficiently) and enable us to do more things; economic progress consists of more production, infrastructure, and wealth.

Together, we can call these “material progress”: improvements in our ability to comprehend and to command the material world. Combined with more intangible advances in the level of social organization—institutions, corporations, bureaucracy—these constitute “progress in capabilities”: that is, our ability to do whatever it is we decide on.

True Progress

But this form of progress is not an end in itself. True progress is advancement toward the good, toward ultimate values—call this “ultimate progress,” or “progress in outcomes.” Defining this depends on axiology; that is, on our theory of value.

To a humanist, ultimate progress means progress in human well-being: “human progress.” Not everyone agrees on what constitutes well-being, but it certainly includes health, happiness, and life satisfaction. In my opinion, human well-being is not purely material, and not purely hedonic: it also includes “spiritual” values such as knowledge, beauty, love, adventure, and purpose.

The humanist also sees other kinds of progress contributing to human well-being: “moral progress,” such as the decline of violence, the elimination of slavery, and the spread of equal rights for all races and sexes; and more broadly “social progress,” such as the evolution from monarchy to representative democracy, or the spread of education and especially literacy.

Others have different standards. Biologist David Graber called himself a “biocentrist,” by which he meant

… those of us who value wildness for its own sake, not for what value it confers upon mankind. … We are not interested in the utility of a particular species, or free-flowing river, or ecosystem, to mankind. They have intrinsic value, more value—to me—than another human body, or a billion of them. … Human happiness, and certainly human fecundity, are not as important as a wild and healthy planet.

By this standard, virtually all human activity is antithetical to progress: Graber called humans “a cancer… a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth.”

Or for another example, one Lutheran stated that his “primary measure of the goodness of a society is the population share which is a baptized Christian and regularly attending church.”

The idea of progress isn’t completely incompatible with some flavors of environmentalism or of religion (and there are both Christians and environmentalists in the progress movement!) but these examples show that it is possible to focus on a non-human standard, such as God or Nature, to the point where human health and happiness become irrelevant or even diametrically opposed to “progress.”

Unqualified progress

What are we talking about when we refer to “progress” unqualified, as in “the progress of mankind” or “the roots of progress”?

“Progress” in this sense is the concept of material progress, social progress, and human progress as a unified whole. It is based on the premise that progress in capabilities really does on the whole lead to progress in outcomes. This doesn’t mean that all aspects of progress move in lockstep—they don’t. It means that all aspects of progress support each other and over the long term depend on each other; they are intertwined and ultimately inseparable.

Consider, for instance, how Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen defined the term in their article calling for “progress studies”:

By “progress,” we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries.

David Deutsch, in The Beginning of Infinity, is even more explicit, saying that progress includes “improvements not only in scientific understanding, but also in technology, political institutions, moral values, art, and every aspect of human welfare.”

Skepticism of this idea of progress is sometimes expressed as: “progress towards what?” The undertone of this question is: “in your focus on material progress, you have lost sight of social and/or human progress.” On the premise that different forms of progress are diverging and even coming into opposition, this is an urgent challenge; on the premise that progress is a unified whole, it is a valuable intellectual question but not a major dilemma.

Historical Progress

“Progress” is also an interpretation of history according to which all these forms of progress have, by and large, been happening.

In this sense, the study of “progress” is the intersection of axiology and history: given a standard of value, are things getting better?

In Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, the bulk of the chapters are devoted to documenting this history. Many of the charts in that book were sourced from Our World in Data, which also emphasizes the historical reality of progress.

So-Called “Progress”

Not everyone agrees with this concept of progress. It depends on an Enlightenment worldview that includes confidence in reason and science, and a humanist morality.

One argument against the idea of progress claims that material progress has not actually led to human well-being. Perhaps the benefits of progress are outweighed by the costs and risks: health hazards, technological unemployment, environmental damage, existential threats, etc. Some downplay or deny the benefits themselves, arguing that material progress doesn’t increase happiness (owing to the hedonic treadmill), that it doesn’t satisfy our spiritual values, or that it degrades our moral character. Rousseau famously asserted that “the progress of the sciences and the arts has added nothing to our true happiness” and that “our souls have become corrupted to the extent that our sciences and our arts have advanced towards perfection.”

Others, as mentioned above, argue for a different standard of value altogether, such as nature or God. (Often these arguments contain some equivocation between whether these things are good in themselves, or whether we should value them because they are good for human well-being over the long term.)

When people start to conclude that progress is not in fact good, they talk about this as no longer “believing in progress.” Historian Carl Becker, writing in the shadow of World War I, said that “the fact of progress is disputed and the doctrine discredited,” and asked: “May we still, in whatever different fashion, believe in the progress of mankind?” In 1991, Christopher Lasch asked:

How does it happen that serious people continue to believe in progress, in the face of massive evidence that might have been expected to refute the idea of progress once and for all?

Those who dispute the idea of progress often avoid the term, or quarantine it in scare quotes: so-called “progress.” When Jeremy Caradonna questioned the concept in The Atlantic, the headline was: “Is ‘Progress’ Good for Humanity?” One of the first court rulings on environmental protection law, in 1971, said that such law represented “the commitment of the Government to control, at long last, the destructive engine of material ‘progress.’” Or consider this from Guns, Germs, and Steel:

… I do not assume that industrialized states are “better” than hunter-gatherer tribes, or that the abandonment of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for iron-based statehood represents “progress,” or that it has led to an increase in human happiness.

The idea of progress is inherently an idea that progress, overall, is good. If “progress” is destructive, if it does not in fact improve human well-being, then it hardly deserves the name.

Contrast this with the concept of growth. “Growth,” writ large, refers to an increase in the population, the economy, and the scale of human organization and activity. It is not inherently good: everyone agrees that it is happening, but some are against it; some even define themselves by being against it (the “degrowth” movement). No one is against progress, they are only against “progress”: that is, they either believe in it, or deny it.

The most important question in the philosophy of progress, then, is whether the idea of progress is valid—whether “progress” is real.

“Progress” in the 19th Century

Before the World Wars, there was an idea of progress that went even beyond what I have defined above, and which contained at least two major errors.

One error was the idea that progress is inevitable. Becker, in the essay quoted above, said that according to “the doctrine of progress,”

the Idea or the Dialectic or Natural Law, functioning through the conscious purposes or the unconscious activities of men, could be counted on to safeguard mankind against future hazards. … At the present moment the world seems indeed out of joint, and it is difficult to believe with any conviction that a power not ourselves … will ever set it right.

(Emphasis added.)

The other was the idea that moral progress was so closely connected to material progress that they would always move together. Condorcet believed that prosperity would “naturally dispose men to humanity, to benevolence and to justice,” and that “nature has connected, by a chain which cannot be broken, truth, happiness, and virtue.”

The 20th century, with the outbreak of world war and the rise of totalitarianism, proved these ideas disastrously wrong.

“Progress” in the 21st Century and Beyond

To move forward, we need a wiser, more mature idea of progress.

Progress is not automatic or inevitable. It depends on choice and effort. It is up to us.

Progress is not automatically good. It must be steered. Progress always creates new problems, and they don’t get solved automatically. Solving them requires active focus and effort, and this is a part of progress, too.

Material progress does not automatically lead to moral progress. Technology within an evil social system can do more harm than good. We must commit to improving morality and society along with science, technology, and industry.

With these lessons well learned, we can rescue the idea of progress and carry it forward into the 21st century and beyond.

This article was published at The Roots of Progress on 3/9/2024.

Axios | Labor & Employment

Average Worker Now Logs off at 4 p.m. On Fridays

“Quitting time has been shifting earlier throughout the week, and it’s especially early on Friday, according to an analysis of sign-off times from some 75,000 workers at 816 companies by the workplace analytics firm ActivTrak.

Friday sign-off times have moved up from around 5 p.m. at the start of 2021 to around 4 p.m. now. Monday-Thursday sign-offs have also shifted earlier, to around 5 p.m. on average.”

From Axios.

BBC | LGBT

Thailand Moves to Legalize Same-Sex Marriage

“Thailand has taken a historic step closer to marriage equality after the lower house passed a bill giving legal recognition to same-sex marriage.

It still needs approval from the Senate and royal endorsement to become law.

But it is widely expected to happen by the end of 2024, making Thailand the only South East Asian country to recognise same-sex unions.”

From BBC.