Capitalism and the American Political Ideal

By Edward S. Greenberg | Go to book overview

5. Economic Concentration
and the Age of Reform

The period from the late 1890s to the beginning of the Second World War has come to be known as the Age of Reform. 1 It is so designated because of the enormous changes that were wrought during this period in the size, reach, organization, and responsibilities of government. The "reform" label is attached because the transformation of government, from an intermittently active and uncoordinated institution to a continuously active and more coherent one, was seemingly spurred by a series of idealistic, reform-minded mass movements: populism, Progressivism, and New Deal liberalism. It was during the Age of Reform that the federal government assumed responsibility for regulating the corporation and the economy and alleviating some of the hardships of the victims of the new industrial order. To reform liberals, this period generally represents the start of an evolutionary process in which the American people fashioned their government into an instrument for the humanization of capitalism. To free-market conservatives, on the other hand, this period can only be construed as the beginning of the tragic retreat from the market economy and the attendant decline of individual freedom.

Neither view, in my opinion, makes much sense of the period, for when all is said and done, the results of the Age of Reform seem less than the rhetoric of the supporters and detractors of reform suggest. Despite government regulation and intervention, giant industrial, commercial, and financial institutions continue to sit astride and dominate the economy, shaping the contours of American life. They do so not only unhindered by government, but often with its active support. Moreover, the benevolent impact of government activities on the lives of the nonaffluent and the nonwhite has been minimal at best; at worst

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