The Progressive Era Still Haunts Us Today
[Patrick Newman is editor of a forthcoming book by Murray Rothbard titled The Progressive Era. Dr. Newman recently spoke with us about the book and Rothbard's innovative views on the period.]
THE AUSTRIAN: Why is this book only being published now and how did you become involved?
PATRICK NEWMAN: The book totals 15 chapters and begins with an unpublished manuscript (Chapters 1–9) that Rothbard wrote in the late 1970s. In the early 1980s Rothbard stopped working on the manuscript but continued his project by writing essays on what he planned to include in the later chapters. These essays are included in the book (Chapters 10–15). The original book manuscript is only being published now because it was a rough draft and was in a relatively disorganized state in the Rothbard archives. Archivist Barbara Pickard and I spent a considerable amount of time searching for all of the pages in the manuscript (Rothbard fortunately numbered his pages, so it was easy to see what we had and what we were missing).
I was a Fellow at the Mises Institute in 2012 and 2013, and in the second year I spent time working in the Rothbard archives. One of the projects I worked on was an unpublished and deleted chapter of Man, Economy, and State on producer’s theory, later published in the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics as “Original Chapter 5: Producer’s Activity” (2016). At the 2015 Austrian Economics Research Conference I spent some time working in the archives in order to finish the unpublished chapter. While there I stumbled upon some of the chapters of the Progressive Era manuscript, and over the next couple of years I spent a significant amount of time reading and researching on the time period. We later found more and more chapters of the book and the project grew from there.
TA: What is different about Rothbard’s perspective on the Progressive Era, and why is the era so important to understand?
PN: Most historians consider the Progressive Era a very important and beneficial time period in American history. This is because the common perception of the late 19th century is that it was plagued by harmful monopolies, unsafe working conditions, poor quality consumer products, crippling deflation, and frequent and severe business cycles. The country was rapidly industrializing, and in order for it to fully grow up, the government needed to take a more activist role in regulating the economy. The Progressive Era was when the populist masses and well intentioned social reformers rose up, fought the established interests, and instituted enlightened measures essential for modern society.
Rothbard turns this entire explanation on its head. He argues that not only are the standard myths of the late 19th century untrue, and that businesses were fiercely competitive and living standards significantly rose, but that the Progressive Era was not due to the masses or altruistic intellectuals. It instead was due to a coalition of businesses looking to institute regulations in order to cartelize markets and hamper competition, and power seeking government officials and intellectuals looking to actively plan and run society. It is essential to understand that the early 20th century was not progressive, but actually regressive, because it pushed the economy back to the old system of mercantilism. The current relationship between the modern state and the economy has its roots in the Progressive Era.
TA: Rothbard has written on the Progressive Era before. What is new in these writings?
PN: The unpublished manuscript contains material that Rothbard briefly alluded to in other writings, such as in A History of Money and Banking in the United States (2005) and The Case Against the Fed (1994), or covered in his lecture series "The American Economy and the End of Laissez-Faire: 1870 to World War II" (1986). His analysis covers important historical events from the Civil War era to Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency (1901–1909). He starts off with an extensive discussion of railroads, from the Civil War subsidies to the interventions up to and after the formation of the Interstate Commerce Commission (1887). He then describes the failed merger movement around the turn of the century when businesses unsuccessfully attempted to monopolize markets. He also spends a considerable amount of time chronicling the political battles between the laissez-faire Democrats and the interventionist Republicans in the third party system (1854–1896) of American politics, and describes the fall of the relatively noninterventionist Democratic Party after William Jennings Bryan and the Populists supplanted Grover Cleveland and the Bourbon Democrats for control of the party in 1896. He then describes the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt and the various federal, state, and local interventions that occurred. Lastly, there is an unpublished section of his important essay “World War I as Fulfillment: Power and the Intellectuals” (published in this book as Chapter 13) on the drive by scientists and other professionals to centralize scientific activity under government aegis through the National Research Council.
TA: Looking at our current political situation, what can we apply from Rothbard’s work on the Progressives to understanding our own time?
PN: One of the important questions Rothbard asks in the book is how a surge in government intervention occurred at the beginning of the 20th century, despite an American tradition to individualism and laissez-faire. By what means was the state, especially on the federal level, able to drastically increase its power and scope over society? Rothbard answers this question by pointing to the fall of the major laissez-faire force in America, the Democratic Party. During the late 19th century there were two main factions in the Democratic Party: the Bourbons, or the classical liberal laissez-faire wing generally centered in the Northeast and Midwest, and the emerging statist Populists, centered in the South and Far West.
In the 1890s, after the Panic of 1893 the Populists were able to wrestle control of the party structure away from the Bourbon Democrats, culminating in the election of 1896 when the Populist William Jennings Bryan lost to William McKinley. This election marked the beginning of the increased similarity between the two center statist parties, the downplaying of ideology, and increased voter turnout. Moreover, it coincided with the emergence of a bureaucratic state shielded from voter control and mainly interested in aggrandizing government power over the economy.
The same system exists today, only at an accelerated pace. Both the Democrats and Republicans are interventionist in their own ways, and voters are presented with very little real choice between candidates. Moreover, most of the US government is unaccountable to the public in elections, it consists of an army of unelected bureaucrats that are resistant to change and act largely with regard to their own self-interest. The current political environment of two pro-big government parties, lack of choice for the voters, and administrative state all derives from the Progressive Era.
TA: Where does this new book stand when compared to Rothbard’s other works? (Is this just a minor work or something more?)
PN: The entire book, counting the unpublished manuscript and published essays that complete his narrative by describing later events in the Progressive Era, such as social and urban reform, World War I, the Federal Reserve, and Herbert Hoover in the 1920s, is over 500 pages. It is a monumental work that stands in the same realm of importance as his other historical books, such as America’s Great Depression (1963), Conceived in Liberty (1975, 1975, 1976, 1979), and A History of Money and Banking in the United States (2005). The book shows Rothbard the historian at his best: a grand synthesizer who creates his own unique narrative and draws on a wealth of historians and various disciplines and fields of research, including Austrian economics, libertarian philosophy, economic history, political science, and power elite analysis. Rothbard spent an enormous amount of his academic career reading, writing, and researching on the time period, a book collection with just Rothbard’s previously published essays on the Progressive Era would highlight this. But the unpublished manuscript shows so much more of Rothbard’s system of thought that he only spoke about in lectures or briefly mentioned in footnotes. It is a magnificent complement to Rothbard’s other works and is essential reading for anyone interested in the Progressive Era, Austrian economics, or libertarianism.
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Cite This Article
Patrick Newman, " The Progressive Era: A Conversation with Patrick Newman on an Unpublished Rothbard Manuscript," The Austrian 3, no. 4 (2017): 15–17.