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Thread: Why Understanding the Progressive Era Still Matters

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    Why Understanding the Progressive Era Still Matters

    Why Understanding the Progressive Era Still Matters is a review of Murray Rothbard's posthumous new book The Progressive Era.

    Rothbard did not amass details merely to give readers a sense of the Progressive Era, from the 1880s to the 1920s. Rather, he uses these details to support a revolutionary new interpretation. Many people view the Progressives as reformers who fought against corruption and modernized our laws and institutions. Rothbard proves to the hilt that this common opinion is false.

    The Progressives aimed to displace a 19th-century America that respected individual rights based on natural law. They claimed that natural law and a free economy were outmoded and unscientific ideas; and argued that through applying science to politics, they could replace a corrupt and stagnant old order with a State-ordered more prosperous and egalitarian one.

    Rothbard dissents:
    Briefly, the thesis is that the rapid upsurge of statism in this period was propelled by a coalition of two broad groups: (a) certain big business groups, anxious to replace a roughly laissez-faire economy by a new form of mercantilism, cartelized and controlled and subsidized by a strong government under their influence and control; and (b) newly burgeoning groups of intellectuals, technocrats, and professionals: economists, writers, engineers, planners, physicians, etc., anxious for power and lucrative employment at the hands of the State. Since America had been born in an antimonopoly tradition, it became important to put over the new system of cartelization as a “progressive” curbing of big business by a humanitarian government; intellectuals were relied on for this selling job. These two groups were inspired by Bismarck’s creation of a monopolized welfare-warfare state in Prussia and Germany.
    Rothbard constantly overturns accepted ideas as he argues for his interpretation. Most of us have heard of the furor early in the 20th century over conditions in the Chicago meat packing industry, set off by Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle. Few people are aware, however, that Sinclair’s sensationalism was fiction, in direct contradiction to what contemporary inspections of the meat packing plants revealed.

    Rothbard goes much further. He shows how, beginning in the 1880s, the large meat packing plants lobbied for greater regulation themselves.
    Unfortunately for the myth, [about The Jungle’s influence] the drive for federal meat inspection actually began more than two decades earlier, and was launched mainly by the big meat packers themselves. The spur was the urge to penetrate the European market for meat, something which the large meat packers thought could be done if the government would certify the quality of meat, and thereby make American meat more highly rated abroad. Not coincidentally, as in all Colbertist mercantilist legislation over the centuries, a governmentally-coerced upgrading of quality would serve to cartelize: to lower production, restrict competition, and raise prices to the consumers.
    Rothbard sees in postmillennial pietism a key to the entire Progressive Era. The postmillennials preached that Jesus would inaugurate His kingdom only after the world had been reformed, and they accordingly saw a religious mandate to institute the social reforms they favored.
    Edmund Burke: "In vain you tell me that Artificial Government is good, but that I fall out only with the Abuse. The Thing! the Thing itself is the Abuse!"

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    The brilliance of Rothbard was his ability to wade into the copious historical details and synthesize them into simple descriptions and explanations.

    Incidentally, I studied American history under a self-described progressive professor in Chicago. He readily acknowledged to the class that the progressive era was characterized in large part by an overweening sense of elitism and technocracy. He wasn't the least bit shy in admitting this.
    Two things awe me most, the starry sky above me and the moral law within me.
    --Immanuel Kant

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