The Issue of Federal Regulation in the Progressive Era

By Richard Abrams | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

GOVERNMENT INTERVENTION IN SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC ACTIVITIES IS "TWO- handed." On the one hand, the government intervenes to support and encourage; on the other, it intervenes to limit and control. The restrictive form of intervention is actually the older in American history, dating to the Jamestown and Plymouth settlements. The more positive form. though largely unacknowledged because it contradicted a powerful American credo founded in "rugged individualism," "laissez faire," and "self-help," reached formidable proportions in the nineteenth century and is a well-established part of traditional American behavior, as the Robert Lively selection is designed to show. In fact, all government action, whatever the intent, whether state or Federal. both aids and restricts, encourages and restrains. An import tariff restricts consumer's freedom to choose among alternative products or commodities and limits the opportunity of merchants to deal in certain imported goods. while at the same time it encourages the development of certain domestic industries and enhances the job opportunities of domestic workers. The seemingly "neutral" business of government road-building opens opportunities for some merchants by multiplying the markets they can reach and aids industries like trucking, petroleum, and automobile manufacturing, while at the same time it limits the opportunities of some other merchants who must meet new competition in their local market and injures the status of some industries like the railroads. The manners in which municipal, state, and Federal revenues are collected, the banks they are "stored" in, the purposes of their distribution and the forms in which they are distributed have always--by intention and by inadvertence--stifled some private interests and stimulated others. It is no wonder that determination of these questions has been the source of many of the country's most acrimonious political struggles, from Alexander Hamilton's program of Federal assumption of the states' debts through the controversies over the two Banks of the United States, the Greenback and "Free Silver" furors, and the establishment of the Federal Reserve System. Even in carrying on its "normal" state functions, like distributing the mail and parcel post, the government can determine the profit expectations and perhaps the survival of railroads, truckers, air lines, and

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