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The Limits of Learning from the Progressive Era

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Sabeel Rahman has a piece in the The Nation that reviews some of the journal’s classic essays from the Progressive Era as a way for us to learn about that period today as we deal with the New Gilded Age. Do the Progressives offer a way forward for us? Rahman suggests yes in a piece titled “How to Revive Progressive Era Economics for the New Gilded Age, including around issues of public utilities. And that’s fine, I don’t disagree. However, it’s worth noting here just how limited Progressives’ visions were for the government and how little power they actually took from corporations. Yes, a few trusts were busted here and there and some forests kept out of private control. But for the most part, the Progressives wanted to work with capitalists to save them from their own excesses. And in a period without a strong radical movement and where we are engaging in full givebacks to corporate control around previously untouchable parts of American life like public schools, these sort of moderate arguments of the Progressives might be as far as we can push.

But we should also note that Progressive Era economics largely failed on their own terms. The Panic of 1907 was averted only through appealing to J.P. Morgan to bail out the government for instance. And the challenges of the 20th century economy were far too great for Progressivism. In any essay on the period and its lessons, I think it has to be noted that the ultimate Progressive was Herbert Hoover. He brought those Progressive Era ideas into the presidency and of course they completely failed in dealing with the Great Depression. The voluntarism, mild government interventions, and public-private partnerships so valued by Hoover and other Progressives were no match for real government regulation. And that’s why the New Deal offers far more lessons on how to tame the overreach of corporate capitalism than the Progressives. It’s not as if the New Deal was overtly anti-capitalist. The NRA was openly pro-capitalist, bringing corporate ideas into the government, largely to protect the companies from the cutthroat competition than industrial leaders thought was at the root of their economic problems. Ultimately, only widespread direct government intervention in the economy and the creation of a relatively powerful regulatory state has created a fair playing field for everyday people in U.S. history. So while there may be useful lessons from the Progressives for us today, we have to note their real limitations as well.

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