Using Progressive Means to Restore Liberty

Scores of millions of Americans sense that something terrible has been happening in our country recently.  Democracy has been steadily slipping away for years, but never faster than in the catastrophic year of 2020.   Meanwhile, the process continues at an ever-increasing rate under the administration of the cognitively declining man in the White House.  Incompetent tyrants at the federal, state, and local level rule the American people.  Who knew that anonymous local health officials could violate our property rights by shutting down small businesses and that governors could restrict our rights to freedom of association and of worship?  Who knew that social media corporations could censor our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech? 

Leading American corporations publicly embrace the radical agenda of the far left while holding in contempt much of the population whom they seem to regard as “white supremacists.”   It would be hard to find a major American corporation with an international presence that does not think of itself in global rather than national terms.  This should not be surprising.  Globalism is the antithesis of nationalism -- or should I say, patriotism.

CEOs of major corporations act like oligarchs who can do as they please as long as they have government on their side.  So, they donate hundreds of millions of dollars either directly or indirectly to the party of government and tilt the electoral process toward their friends in high places. What’s more, many of those big corporations have gone woke in an effort to please their Democrat allies.   In the aftermath of the recent intervention by much of corporate America into the controversy about Georgia’s election law, many conservatives are awakening to the magnitude of this problem.  Scores of millions of Americans feel helpless in the face of this overwhelming threat posed to our liberty.

What most Americans don’t know -- because we don’t teach history very well anymore -- is that we faced a very similar dilemma before and that Americans charted a path to overcome the corporate oligarchy of another era.  Our ancestors even gave us many of the tools we need to bend our modern oligarchs to the popular will.   Ironically, given the behavior and ideas of their contemporary namesakes, they were known as “progressives.”

The corporate oligarchs of the past had names like Rockefeller, Morgan, and Carnegie.  Along with scores of lesser tycoons, they ran “trusts” which used their monopolistic power to crush competitors and undermine the free market system of business enterprise.  Money bought them enormous influence in the courts, statehouses, and even in Congress.  Through their enterprise they created much of modern America, but they did it in such a manner as to rouse enormous hostility. Though it did not always seem so at the time, they did a great deal of good and gradually raised standards of living throughout much of the nation, and ultimately the world.  The problem was that their unrestricted power and influence threatened to destroy both the free enterprise system and democracy itself.

In response, agrarian “populists,” and urban “progressives,” the reformers of their time, organized, agitated, and enlisted the assistance of friendly members of the press in a crusade to use the power of government to subject private power to the public will.  Over the course of many years, they successfully established two major tools to deal with the threat of monopoly created by big business.  One was the use of the government power to regulate business activities.  The other was the employment of government force to break up enterprises that became so big and powerful as to threaten the ability of the people to govern themselves.  The latter was anti-trust action.  During the course of the twentieth century, anti-trust action was used intermittently in a handful of high-profile court cases while ongoing regulation of big business on a day-to-day basis by government agencies became routine.  It is time to revive the use of anti-trust action to deal with the oligarchs of our time. 

Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) has recently introduced a bill into Congress called the “Trust-Busting for the Twenty-First Century Act.”  In promoting his legislation Hawley rightly said that “a small group of woke mega-corporations control... the information Americans can receive, and the speech Americans can engage in.”  Although Americans of the early twentieth century had never heard of a “woke mega-corporation,” and monopolistic control of the flow of information in a free society was inconceivable, otherwise the language in that sentence could have been lifted almost verbatim from the political debates of one hundred-twenty years ago. 

Two of the progressive reform leaders and presidents of the era were Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, one a Republican and the other a Democrat.  Roosevelt earned a reputation as a “trust-buster,” because his administration conducted a number of high-profile anti-trust suits against the likes of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust, and the financial magnate J.P. Morgan’s Northern Securities Company, but his preferred course of action was to deal with “malefactors of great wealth” through regulation rather than by breaking them up.  This eventually led, during the 1912 presidential campaign, to an ongoing debate between TR and Wilson, who feared that federal regulation of the type TR advocated, would eventually lead to partnership between the government and big business.  This in turn Wilson thought would create such a powerful combination that the common man would have little chance to compete and succeed.   Accordingly, he championed the more aggressive use of anti-trust action to break up powerful monopolies and re-establish free market conditions.  In Wilson’s vision, the fragments that remained after the trusts were broken up would be compelled to compete against one another, thereby creating greater opportunity for entrepreneurs to challenge their dominance.

Ironically, while in office Wilson came around to TR’s position and used regulatory action more aggressively than TR ever did.  Indeed, during the First World War he went so far as to use the power of the federal government to temporarily seize and run a wide variety of war industries.  Although the government takeover was abandoned after the war, the idea of government-business partnership inspired the establishment of the second Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration (NRA) during the Depression.  In a final irony, it looks as though Wilson’s fears of business-government partnership have been realized in our time.  But even he never imagined that a woke tyranny of the self–loathing would take root in American corporations and hijack the federal government. 

Early twentieth-century progressives provided citizens with yet additional tools to fight despotism.  Reformers in some states, California prominent among them, made provision in their state constitutions for the initiative and referendum and the recall of incompetent or tyrannical officials.  This makes it possible for citizens to override the state legislatures when they are unresponsive to the public will.  It also makes it possible to recall recalcitrant public officials such as Governor Gavin Newsom.  The initiative process could be used to restrict the powers of local health officials to order destructive and unconstitutional lockdowns.

Unfortunately, there is little chance that Hawley’s legislation will be passed before a new conservative administration takes over in Washington and a friendly majority is in control of Congress.  Nevertheless, American citizens can make use of some of these tools established by progressive reformers over a hundred years ago to make it more difficult for tyrants to trample on their liberties.

Image: Public Domain

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