Perspectives on 20th Century America: Readings and Commentary

By Otis L. Graham Jr. | Go to book overview

growing political radicalism in some of the states and an increasingly fierce competition for markets. When a merger movement failed to end the competitive strife except in a few isolated sectors of the economy, farsighted capitalists decided that federal regulation offered the best hope for stability. Regulation, if properly accomplished, would head off both new competitors and the possibility of confiscatory state regulation and would insure the long-range stability which modern corporations required. This decision led businessmen far from their traditional laissez-faire ideas; but the situation was serious, and they proved themselves adroit and pragmatic manipulators of the political machinery. To illustrate his argument, Kolko studies in detail the "détente" between TR and several financial and business groups on the question of "unfair" business practice, and the federal laws extending regulation to life insurance, meat-packing, and banking. The rest of what had traditionally been called progressivism -- the battles against municipal corruption, the settlement house movement, prohibition, child labor laws, and the rest -- Kolko considers peripheral and insignificant. The central reform was the regulation of business; and he presents detailed evidence purporting to show that businessmen had instigated the regulation, controlled its direction, and benefited by its effects.

Clearly this is one of the most stimulating theories about recent American history ever put forward in scholarly form. Kolko attempts a number of conceptual realignments in his book. He would focus our attention on the zones of agreement in American political-economic debates rather than upon areas of conflict, for he is impressed with the absence of real ideological disagreement. In addition, he would have historians repudiate entirely an assumption many of them have made, that the mere fact of government regulation -- and of the National Association of Manufacturers' disapproval -- means that the public interest has triumphed over private greed. If anything, Kolko assumes the reverse: that when regulatory legislation is passed the regulated industries have probably controlled and desired the result. Whether or not this suspicion is justified, The Triumph of Conservatism should at the very least embarrass those who have assumed that speeches, platforms, and Presidential elections were more important than the details of legislation, the economic condition of leading industries, and the evolving direction of bureaucratic administration.

But critics, in a rather extensive literature, have raised a variety of objections to Kolko's argument. If by calling progressivism "conservative" Kolko refers to the fact that it was not socialistic, then he utters a truism; no serious student of the era ever thought otherwise. More importantly, there has been strong dissent from Kolko's assessment of the effect of regulation in meat-packing and railroad rates (which he dealt with in a subsequent book, Railroads and Regulation: 1877-1916 [ 1965]). Critics have asserted that in these cases, at least, Kolko underestimated the concessions forced upon the regulated industries, and ignored serious differences within the business community itself. Scholars have also criticized the book for overlooking the vast domain of reform outside the federal regulatory orbit. It is a fair presumption that the reforms secured at the city and state levels in the areas of economic regulation, labor legislation, taxation, public health, electoral reform, and conservation brought democratic change rather than the triumph of the status quo. Kolko generalizes about the era without discussion of these sectors of reform. And what value is a general theory, crit

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