Every American knows the fable of the Progressive Era and that "trust buster" Teddy Roosevelt wielding the big stick of federal power to battle the greedy corporations. We would be better off if more people knew the work of the man who dismantled this myth: historian Gabriel Kolko, who died this month at age 81.
Kolko was a self-described socialist and a Harvard-educated historian, but he had little use for the liberal political establishment's pious regard for the Progressive Era of 1900 to 1916. And he was never credulous enough to believe that government intervention in the economy was generally in the public interest.
The standard history of the Progressive Period—which painted Teddy and the Feds as the scourge of Big Business—relied too much on the public rhetoric of TR and his cohorts. Kolko dug deeper to show how Big Business truly felt about Big Government, and how the Progressives truly felt about Big Business.For today’s politics, Kolko’s most important book was The Triumph of Conservatism, published in 1967. His thesis: “The dominant fact of American political life” in the Progressive Period “was that big business led the struggle for the federal regulation of the economy."
Many corporate titans in the early 20th Century, buying into the pervasive hubris of the day, believed that a state-managed economy was the inevitable end of a rational society—the conclusion of what Standard Oil’s top lobbyist Samuel Dodd called the “march of civilization.” Competition, in their eyes, was destructive redundancy.
“Competition is industrial war,” James Logan of the U.S. Envelope Company wrote in 1901. “Ignorant, unrestricted competition carried to its logical conclusion means death to some of the combatants and injury for all.”
Steel baron Andrew Carnegie constantly strove to turn the steel industry into a cartel and keep prices high. Competition, however, always had a way pulling prices down. As Carnegie wrote in 1908, “It always comes back to me that Government control, and that alone, will properly solve the problem.”
Kolko also showed how the socialists welcomed corporate-state collusion to advance monopoly as part of “progress.” In the Social Democratic Party’s 1900 campaign book, writing of Standard Oil’s dominance, socialist W.J. Ghent declared: “No better way could be invented by which the natural resources may be made available for the world’s need. The lesson of the trust, how to secure the greatest satisfaction for the least expenditure of human energy, is too good to be lost.”
This has its echoes in contemporary progressive politics, whenever today’s progressives are astute and honest enough to pull back the populist veil.
When conservatives challenged Obamacare's individual mandate, the White House had the backing of the insurance industry and the hospital lobby. After Obama won at the Supreme Court, liberal Bill Scher wrote in the New York Times that progressive victories historically flow from the Left's alliances with Big Business.
“The key to President Obama’s success was enlisting drug companies to pay for pro-reform advertisements,” Scher wrote.
Liberal scholar William Galston at the Brookings Institution explains the economics at play. “Corporations have sizeable cash flows and access to credit markets, which gives them a cushion against adversity and added costs,” he wrote in 2013, explaining why the big guys often welcome regulation. “[S]mall businesses often operate much closer to the margin and are acutely sensitive to policies that threaten to drive up costs.” Also, “CEOs can hire experts to help them cope with added regulatory burdens and can spread the costs over a large workforce.”
Kolko’s research smashed the favorite tales of the Progressive myth. When Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, which included descriptions of rancid meat-packing plants, Roosevelt saw Sinclair as personally despicable, but a useful asset in his quest to impose federal meat inspection. Sinclair opposed Roosevelt's regulation, and Kolko relates that “the big packers were warm friends of regulation, especially when it primarily affected their innumerable small competitors.”
By "conservatism," Kolko meant "stability," and preservation of the status quo. This is often the aim of corporate giants. It is consistently the consequence of federal action. And it is reliably the enemy of entrepreneurship, economic growth and free choice.
Kolko in his life never succeeded in upending the conventional wisdom. As today's progressives, led by President Obama, continue Teddy Roosevelt's collusive policies hidden by populist rhetoric, America needs Kolko's insights more than ever.
Timothy P. Carney, The Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Sunday and Wednesday on washingtonexaminer.com.