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The Real History Of America

A very interesting essay by Roderick Long:

There's a popular historical legend that goes like this: Once upon a time (for this is how stories of this kind should begin), back in the 19th century, the United States economy was almost completely unregulated and laissez-faire. But then there arose a movement to subject business to regulatory restraint in the interests of workers and consumers, a movement that culminated in the presidencies of Wilson and the two Roosevelts.

This story comes in both left-wing and right-wing versions, depending on whether the government is seen as heroically rescuing the poor and weak from the rapacious clutches of unrestrained corporate power, or as unfairly imposing burdensome socialistic fetters on peaceful and productive enterprise. But both versions agree on the central narrative: a century of laissez-faire, followed by a flurry of anti-business legislation.

Every part of this story is false.

Observant libertarians have long noted that in general, captains of industry are not capitalists (or to use Jonah Goldberg's (via whom I found his link) more accurate phrase, "free-market economists"--"capitalism" is a Marxist term), and never have been.


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Andy Freeman wrote:

Since Wilson was an ardent seggregationist who bears significant responsibility for WWI, you gotta admire the loyalty of Dems for claiming that he's a good guy. Or, maybe they actually like that stuff, which is more likely considering how often they do it.

Rand Simberg wrote:

Hey, he was one of the world's first fascist dictators, and a racist to boot. What's not to like?

Pro Libertate wrote:

Didn't have time to read the full essay, but one fallacy in beliefs about 19th century regulation is that the absence of federal regulation meant the absence of regulation. The states were actually pretty meddlesome--even to the extent of threatening to revoke or revoking corporate charters when the business did something the state didn't like.

Carl Pham wrote:

Phoo, I'm underwhelmed. A bomb-throwing pseudo-Marxist essay which strikes even my amateur historian ears as absurdly oversimplified and not a little bit paranoid.

For one thing, I think he mistakes what transpires in history's spotlight for what most people experience most of the time. Was 1968 a year in which people in general were restive, prone to demonstrate in the streets, violently against the war in Vietnam, fearful of race riots on Main Street? Why, no. None of these things is true in general about the United States of 1968. But that's what the history books, as well as the media then and since, have focussed on. It would be a dreadful mistake to think the Democratic Convention of 1968 seared its mark on everyone born in 1958 or earlier and changed their lives.

The fact that big captains of industry are not above co-opting government to make competition with themselves harder is not really news, I'd say. What interest group doesn't try to co-opt whatever political power is lying around, ready to be used? It's the nature of power, as Lord Acton so aptly observed. And it's a long logical leap from there to the notion that the whole Progressive Era was, ha ha, really "corporatist" policy writ large but cleverly secretly, an attempt to cement the policy power of Standard Oil and US Steel in place while appearing to be enacting labor laws legalizing unions, collective bargaining, mandating overtime and occupational safety rules, enforcing civil rights, codifying the right of initiative and recall, yadda yadda.

That strikes me as the usual fantasy that Illuminati are running the world, and we know they're all powerful by the very fact that we've never heard of them. Fnord.

Rand Simberg wrote:

"Bomb-throwing"? "Pseudo-Marxist"? "Paranoid"?

Carl, you seem to have read a completely different essay than I did.

Carl Pham wrote:

Maybe it's one of those many-worlds quantum effects, Rand. How's the weather on your Earth?

Rand Simberg wrote:

How's the weather on your Earth?

The same as it is on Jonah Goldberg's earth, apparently. I got the link via his blog, where he called it an "excellent essay."

Bill Maron wrote:

John D. Rockefeller was attacked by his competitors this way. He knocked the price of kerosene down from 26 cents to 8 cents/gal. and he was the bad guy. All that government influence worked really well for his enemies and cost consumers more for fuel. Thank you trustbusters.

ken anthony wrote:

I define most business owners as anti-capitalists. One of the defining features of capitalism for me is low entry barriers. The first thing most business owners want to do is raise the entry barriers. It's true in any shopping mall in America. Actually, it seems to me to be a general truism.

A robust economy needs diversity and real competition. It's best for everybody, including the big businesses that don't really want to see it.

Did you see how Boeing/Lockheed tried to hinder SpaceX from entering their turf? Instead they should have been welcoming them because eventually it will lead to a much bigger market and more profits for all. but they just don't see it that way.

Bill Maron wrote:

So Ken,
When I see 8 shoe stores at the mall, they are in cahoots to try and keep out numbers 9 and 10? And mall management goes along with this when it's in their interest to fill every space?

Martin wrote:

"ken anthony wrote:

"I define most business owners as anti-capitalists."

It is an odd definition of capitalism - at least an odd definition from a libertarian perspective I should think - that writes businessmen out of it.

I guess free enterprise is too important to be left to businessmen. That is also the view of most socialists, isn't it?

"Did you see how Boeing/Lockheed tried to hinder SpaceX from entering their turf? Instead they should have been welcoming them because eventually it will lead to a much bigger market and more profits for all. but they just don't see it that way."

Perhaps they understand their business better than you do.

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This page contains a single entry by Rand Simberg published on September 23, 2008 8:05 AM.

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