Why the US Got 'Regulated'

By Joseph C. Harsch. Joseph C. Harsch is a former longtime Monitor correspondent. | The Christian Science Monitor, February 14, 1995 | Go to article overview

Why the US Got 'Regulated'


Joseph C. Harsch. Joseph C. Harsch is a former longtime Monitor correspondent., The Christian Science Monitor


WHAT is happening in Washington today would sound familiar to my grandfather, who was a great admirer of the first Roosevelt, Theodore, or to his father, who supported Grover Cleveland a generation before.

The battle in those days was between those who wanted full freedom for private enterprise and those who favored regulations and controls to curb abuses, which by that time had reached scandalous proportions.

From the Civil War down to the Cleveland administration, the United States had an almost entirely unregulated laissez faire economy, one in which almost anything goes. Public lands were overgrazed; national forests were decimated; Indians were abused, exploited, and robbed; vast monopolies bilked the public; stock fraud was common. The market was flooded with fake or dangerous drugs and contaminated food. Fortunes were made selling shoddy goods to the government.

Perhaps the worst abuse was the bribing of legislators. It was said, "Congress is the best legislature that money could buy."

By 1901, when Teddy Roosevelt became president, the unregulated economy was no longer socially or politically tolerable. Some reform had been achieved under Cleveland, but not until Roosevelt was a real attempt made to enforce antitrust laws.

The first real effort to domesticate and civilize the American economic system began under Cleveland and Roosevelt and continued under Woodrow Wilson. Much progress was made in curbing abuse of power, exploitation of natural resources, and just plain corruption. There was a serious relapse under Warren Harding, but reform revived under Franklin Roosevelt.

All the elements in present "government intrusion" into private enterprise today are the result of government rules and regulations introduced to correct past abuses.

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