The Regressionism of Progressivism

From the print edtion of The New American

The Progressive Era, by Murray N. Rothbard, Auburn, Alabama: Mises Institute, 2017, 539 pages, paperback.

The late Murray Rothbard was an advocate of liberty, having learned under the great professor Ludwig von Mises, the namesake of the publisher of this book. Rothbard was a prolific writer, and this work was unpublished at the time of his death in 1995. Fortunately, the Mises Institute has shared this masterpiece with the rest of us.

I first heard of Rothbard in 1976 when I purchased his book America’s Great Depression. In it, he provided me with an understanding of the cause of that horrible event. It was not the free market, but rather government intervention, that brought on the collapse of 1929, and it was government intervention that turned it into what we know as the Great Depression.

In The Progressive Era, Rothbard destroys all credibility of the myth that the government interventions driven by the “Progressive Era” saved us from the excesses of the free market. In the Introduction, Patrick Newman summarizes Rothbard’s central thesis: “Big business had previously tried to cartelize on the free market around the turn of the 20th century, but had failed to do so.” Having failed, they turned to government to create the myriad regulations sold as somehow controlling the big “trusts,” but which in reality were designed to reduce competition from smaller businesses.

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Try as they might, cartels formed in a free market situation are doomed to failure. As difficult as it is for the players inside the cartel to stick to the agreements on prices and production, they always have to fend off new players in the market. Government regulations, however, favor big business interests over smaller, less-capitalized small businesses. For example, there were the dairy producers who wanted protection from such “fraud” as oleomargarine. In 1886, the dairy interests won a federal tax against the manufacture and sale of oleomargarine.

The politician most important in providing the leadership for the progressives was Republican Theodore Roosevelt. “It was during his administration that progressivism began to take shape as a political force,” Rothbard wrote. Roosevelt was a key player in advancing the cause of “civil service reform,” an effort to take “politics” out of government. “Civil service reform was the first proto-progressive cause to blend moralistic attacks on ‘corruption’ with a supposedly scientific plea for ‘efficiency’ and non-partisanship in government,” Rothbard argued. These laws, such as the federal Pendleton Act, removed large numbers of federal bureaucrats from partisan appointment — and ultimately, partisan responsibility for subsequent performance.

While this appears to be a good thing to most people, Rothbard contended “the consequence was to build and preserve a continuing ruling oligarchy that was not subject to the democratic check of the voting public,” and thus “fastening of a permanent bureaucratic elite upon the hapless public.”

This appears to be the pattern of the progressive agenda — a “reform” that appears to solve some “problem,” real or imagined, but only advances the causes of Big Government and cronyism.

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