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November 13, 2010

The Truth About Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle

As I observed in an earlier installment, millions of Americans believe that . . .

We need the government to regulate business people, otherwise they will run wild, laying waste to the environment, and selling us bad food, bad drugs, and harmful products.

One big reason people believe this is because they attended government schools and were taught about a famous book, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. Mr. Sinclair’s book supposedly demonstrated that . . .

  • Once upon a time, before government regulation, meat packing plants were endangering Americans with poison food
  • The motivation for this poisoning was profits.

But here’s what most people don’t know . . .

  • The Jungle was a novel, not a factual report
  • Most of what Sinclair wrote was pure fiction, un-connected to reality

This is your chance to learn the truth.

The Jungle was intended to dramatize working conditions, NOT food safety. In fact . . .

Sinclair’s fictional claims about food safety were limited to a mere 12 pages, but these pages got all the attention, leading Sinclair to later write . . .

“I aimed at the publics’ heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

(Source: Gabriel Kolko, The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916, Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1967, p. 103.)

Sinclair’s novel caused a sensation, and led to Congressional investigations, even though many politicians were skeptical of Sinclair. For instance, here’s what President Theodore Roosevelt wrote about him in July 1906 (even though he shared Sinclair’s distrust of big business):

“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.”

(Source: letter to William Allen White, July 31, 1906, from “The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt,” 8 vols, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951-54, vol. 5, p. 340.)

Sinclair’s fictional characters talk of workers falling into vats and being turned into “Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard,” which was then sold to the public. This was supposedly made possible by the alleged “corruption of government inspectors.” (Source: The Age of the Moguls by Stewart H. Holbrook, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1953, pp. 110-111)

Yes, you see, there were government inspectors, even back in 1905, so does it really make sense that the solution to this supposed food safety problem was . . . government inspectors?

In fact, there were hundreds of inspectors. They came from all levels of government, federal, state, and local, and had been at work for more than a decade. As for their supposed corruption (and Sinclair’s other claims), a Congressional investigation found little evidence. Instead . . .

The 1906 report of the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Animal Husbandry refuted the worst of Sinclair’s charges point-by-point. The report labeled his claims . . .

  • “willful and deliberate misrepresentations of fact”
  • “atrocious exaggeration”
  • And “not at all characteristic (of the meat packing industry)”

(Source: U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Agriculture, Hearings on the So-called “Beveridge Amendment” to the Agriculture Appropriation Bill, 59th Congress, 1st Session, 1906, pp. 346-350.)

Meanwhile, as Congress went through the time-consuming process of investigating Sinclair’s fictions, the free market was regulating the meat packing industry in its own harsh way. Meat sales plummeted.

This led the meat packing industry to lobby Congress for increased regulation!

The industry actually wanted the government to protect them from the consumer backlash by imposing regulations that would restore consumer confidence, even though new regulations were totally unneeded! The result was the passage of the Meat Inspection Act of 1906.

But this was not a triumph for the idea of government regulation. Instead, it was a victory for corporate welfare . . .

  • Taxpayers picked up the $3 million price tag for the new regulations
  • Big meat packers benefited because small packers had a more difficult time complying with the new regulations

Upton Sinclair himself actually recognized this, and opposed the law!

(Source: Upton Sinclair, “The Condemned-Meat Industry: A Reply to Mr. J. Ogden Armour,” Everybody’s Magazine, XIV, 1906, pp. 612-613.)

The myth of The Jungle has had a terrible impact on the American mind. It has led millions of people to believe that regulation by politicians and bureaucrats is superior to regulation by the free market forces of consumers, investors, lenders, insurance companies, and legal liability.

  • If the meat packing industry wanted government regulation, then it should have paid for it, not the taxpayers
  • And all packing companies should have been free to reject government regulation, especially small producers
  • This would have allowed consumers to decide what they preferred, and what they were willing to pay for – meat inspected by the government, or meat regulated by the self-interest of the meat packers.

In other words, government coercion was completely unjustified, even if Sinclair had been writing fact, instead of fiction.

We would like to thank Lawrence W. Reed, President of the Foundation for Economic Education. The facts used in this essay were drawn from an article he wrote for the The Freeman: “Ideas and Consequences: Of Meat and Myth.”

This message is an educational service of the Downsize DC Foundation. Please share it with others. Please tell your friends that they can receive similar material in the future by subscribing to our free email newsletter, The Downsizer-Dispatch.

Copyright (c) 2010 by Perry Willis. Permission to distribute this blog post for educational purposes is granted, if done with attribution to the author and the Downsize DC Foundation. Permission to use for commercial purposes is denied.

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