Book Review: "The Progressive Era"

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Dispelling Progressive myths long regarded as Gospel, Professor Rothbard offers a unique take on the formative years of modern America and on the intellectual roots of our current political establishment.

The Progressive Era in the United States (a loose term that is typically applied to the time period spanning the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson) is perhaps the most understudied, yet arguably most important, segment of American history. The Progressive era ushered in big government as we know it. The modern doctrines upheld by the United States of of regulatory bureaucracy, social engineering, economic interventionism, and military interventionism (so called welfare-warfare statism) all came about during this period. This new paradigm in American government is one that I am sure is reviled amongst most readers of this site. Yet I am sure you were all taught in public school (if the era was covered in your U.S. History course at all) that the Progressive era was the period of America's coming of age as a proper and upstanding member of the community of nations.

Typical treatments of the period speak of the tyranny of powerful monopolists, for example. These supposed monopolists, ran roughshod over the American people, concentrating wealth in their hands by forcing their products on dimwitted consumers. Unfettered by a feckless federal government dedicated to the archaic notions of individual liberty and laissez faire capitalism, these "Robber Barons", as they were called, continued to grow in power and influence until a bottom up movement, the Progressive movement, challenged their power. These heroic Progressives fought tooth and nail to claw back the sovereignty of the consumer and to create a more "perfectly competitive market", to borrow a phrase from alleged Laissez Faire economist Frank Knight.

This story however, like so many other stories of the Progressive era taught in our public schools and universities is naught but myth. Even at its best, it still fails to even live up to the standard of an overly romanticized version of events. Rather, it is complete fiction. The truth, as Professor Rothbard points out, is that the Progressives and these wannabe monopolistic corporations were one in the same. Monopoly cannot occur in the free market, they fail every time they're attempted. Government creates monopoly, and wannabe monopolists always turn to politicians to grant them their privileged status. The story of the Progressive era then is not one of out of control business being tamed by wise Technocrats and socially enlightened phd's but rather one of opportunistic politicians being tamed by certain business interests and set loose to maul the rest of their masters' competition. In short, the Progressive era was one of rampant corporatism and the erosion of competition in the market. Quite the opposite from what it is taught today.

The Progressive myth, sadly, is so ingrained in the academic literature regarding the period that is difficult to even begin to examine the truth. After all, history is written by its winners. Up until this point, any information which suggested the validity any view which deviated from the standard, that of the heroic Progressive reformer challenging the hegemonic Robber Barons, was difficult to identify for laypeople and broadly dispersed. The best treatment of the Progressive era up until now has been Gabriel Kolko's "Triumph of Conservatism" (the title of the book is of course meant to be ironic). Kolko's treatment of the progressive era was truly devastating and receives a full throated endorsement from the present writer. Kolko however was a Marxist and presented his case against the Progressives from the left.

For those on the right however, there has been no single work until now which offered a comprehensive rebuttal of the myths of the Progressive era from the perspective of a friend to the free market and presented all of the evidence in a convenient place for any good conservative to find. Such a work I believe is essential for anyone who intends to argue against the modern Progressives and their neo-Naderian crusades against the supposedly "out of control free market" we live in today. These modern Progressives echo the same talking points as the Progressives of a century ago. If we seek to defeat the Progressive movement of today, we must learn from the success of the Progressive movement of 100 years ago, lest we allow our fellow countrymen (self described Progressives included) fall for these blatant lies again. Perhaps we could even start to turn back the clock?

I think this might explain something that has baffled me. It explains why some of my older relatives who were born and raised during the depression and WWII believe they are democrats even though when asked specific questions about various government involved intervention into peoples lives they answer like conservatives. They were told one thing but actually lived differently than they were taught. In other words, they were very self sufficient out of necessity, didn't think anyone should tell them how to live, but somehow also bought into the idea that the government should do things for people.

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By infesting "education" early on in their "march through the institutions" they've dictated the narrative about themselves all along. The real difference between progressives of the "right" and those of the "left" is just how fast we should "progress" toward total control by the state and it's ruling elites who just coincidentally include the favored corporatists for each "side".

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