Just finished reading Burton Folson's The Myth of the Robber Barons. It's a quick read (the third edition comes to 134 pages outside of notes), and contains the eye-opening stories of true capitalists like Vanderbilt, Hill, and Rockefeller.
As Folson explains, these are the kind of men whom Ayn Rand idealized in Atlas Shrugged—entrepreneurs who devote themselves to selling what the public wants at continually lower prices. In the process, such men get rich, and so does society.
Folson contrasts these "market entrepreneurs" with the "political entrepreneurs," with whom many were forced to compete. He tells the stories of Vanderbilt and Hill competing against their subsidized peers and yet surviving, a testament both to the folly of government-funded infrastructure and to the brilliance and tenacity of Vanderbilt and Hill. They implemented bold ideas, leaving well-funded competition in the dust and hostile legislators scratching their heads.
At the end of the book, Folson reviews the works of modern historians and finds that this message is either ignored or replaced by anti-corporation mantras. "Big business," these historians claim, was the cause of the corruption of the time. Folson shows that these historians ignore the crucial distinction between market entrepreneurs and political entrepreneurs—that graft, waste, and corruption were primarily found in government-funded operations.
Other myths are debunked equally well: Folson argues that the war on "trusts" and "monopolies" perpetuated by politicians like Teddy Roosevelt and laws like the Sherman Act was harmful, in that they damaged businesses that drove costs down and benefited their wasteful competition. He discusses studies on "social mobility" and finds that in many cases, historians have underestimated the amount of social movement both up from poverty and down from wealth. Folson also clears Andrew Mellon's name, arguing that his tax cuts during the 1920s were beneficial, particularly to the poor.
This is clearly a well-researched book—there are copious notes, directing the reader to more information about every aspect of the subject matter. It's also an easy read—well-written, engaging, and fairly short. Definitely worth a read!