The New Robber Barons

 A free country will always have its robber barons.  But not all such barons are equal.  Nor are they all equally bad -- or good.

The title was not meant to be a compliment when it was first given to the Rockefellers and Carnegies of the late 19th century.  Curiously, it has not been attached at all to today’s Big Tech barons.  And yet they are worse, maybe even far worse, than their counterparts of long ago.  This is true for many reasons, far from the least of which is that their impact has been to make this country less free. 

All our barons have benefited from operating in a country grounded in political and economic freedom.  But only our modern Big Tech barons have used their power to police, and yes, rob individuals of individual thoughts with one click, while producing herdlike thinking and behavior with another.  In the process, they have also helped diminish America as a unique beacon of freedom in the world.

Today’s tech barons -- Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and the like -- are much more powerful, much more insidious, and much more dangerous than their counterparts of long ago.  They are also just as willing as any Rockefeller to crush their competitors and just as committed as any Carnegie to controlling their workers.

More than that, they are also willing to do the bidding of America’s enemies.  Witness Apple’s kowtowing to the “request” of the Chinese communist regime that it shut down communication among Hong Kong anti-regime protesters.

In this country they seem far more interested in cooperating with one major political party than the other.  Witness the Zuckerberg “investment” of hundreds of millions in the 2020 election, less to bolster American democracy than to assure a Democrat party victory.

What to do, given the clout and predilections of our current robber barons?  Ironically, maybe the best answer would be to reverse the course of action taken by the original progressives in their attempt to rein in the original robber barons.

There is little doubt that those barons presented a serious challenge to our founding constitutional order of limited government and divided powers.  In fact, so serious was this challenge that both major parties developed reform-minded progressive wings.  And yet over the course of the past century those bipartisan progressive reforms have played a major role in further upending that original constitutional order.      

Our first progressive president, Theodore Roosevelt, was convinced that something had to be done about the “wealthy criminal class.” Despite his trust-busting reputation, TR’s real emphasis was on building up the state rather than on breaking down the trusts. 

Good Darwinian that he was, Republican Roosevelt assumed that evolution toward bigness in business and government was both inevitable and ultimately beneficial.  In addition, he presumed that a progressive federal bureaucracy would always be staffed and run by politically disinterested experts. Democrat President Woodrow Wilson essentially agreed, thereby giving the progressive agenda an additional bipartisan sheen.

While this presidential pair did not deny that the Constitution of 1787 may have been a good starting point for a new country, they were both convinced that the time had come to move beyond that ancient document.

Well, given the power and reach of today’s robber barons, coupled with the power and reach of a federal bureaucracy that often operates in tandem with them, it might be time to put that old Constitution to some newly vigorous use.  The Founders would likely agree.  While they believed in a limited (Jeffersonian) sphere for government, they also endorsed the “energetic” (Hamiltonian) use of government.

If successfully applied, that constitutional energy could -- and should -- generate a great reversal, as opposed to any “Great Reset.”  The eventual result might also be a great irony.  How so?  If the conduct of the original robber barons eventually led to big-government progressivism, the conduct of our modern robber barons could lead to the gradual reversal of the process that gave us an ever-expanding federal government in the first place.

Let’s first concede that both sets of robber barons have been innovators and builders, who have made life better in many ways for countless numbers of Americans.  Nonetheless, the social and political costs that have accompanied our modern technological advances are no less real -- and have become much more immediately apparent -- than any environmental costs levied by the barons of long ago.  Certainly, the negative impact of Big Tech on society, while subtle, is much greater and ultimately much more damaging than anything the original robber barons might have imagined -- or imposed. 

The societal contagions that have been unleashed by Big Tech have been especially damaging among the young.  Witness the current social contagion that is the transgender movement.    

Finally, the revelations that have come from Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter have exposed the underside of the Rooseveltian vision of a politically neutral federal bureaucracy.  Witness the now revealed collusion between the FBI and Twitter to define and condemn what together they decided was “disinformation,” followed by Twitter acting to “deplatform” those deemed to be spreading it. 

Only the very Constitution that the original progressives disdained is equipped to halt this juggernaut.  With political will, plus executive and judicial support, Congress could reassert itself as the first branch of government, whether by ceasing to surrender its authority to the bureaucracy or by some meaningful trustbusting of Big Tech. 

Bureaucracy busting should also take place.  No longer remotely bipartisan, the federal bureaucracy has essentially become an arm of the Democrat party.  Maybe it’s time to return to a partial version of the old spoils system.   

Scrapping the FBI and starting over would be a good next step.  Other bureaucracies should be scattered around the country.  Disease-ridden with politics, the CDC could remain in Atlanta, so long as it is placed under strict quarantine.

Eliminating the Department of Education and returning schooling decisions to the states and local school boards should also occur.  In sum, let’s revitalize localism.  That should be a bipartisan goal, but it isn’t. 

The ultimate goal would not be to restore the 18th century, but to revive the spirit of America.  Such a revival surely makes more sense than continuing to centralize -- and politicize (in one direction only) -- virtually everything.

That such a revival would also be a reversal is deliciously ironic.  Really now, what could be more ironic than one day looking back and realizing that this reversal, this devolution, had been triggered by the actions of a new cadre of robber barons whose grasp for power and control far exceeded anything that the Rockefellers and Carnegies could have ever envisioned? 

Then again, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that a different set of robber barons would provoke a different set of reforms.  What might be surprising to the original progressives is that today’s reforms cannot possibly be bipartisan.  After all, the problem today is not simply the existence of robber barons, but the link between our robber barons and one of our two major political parties.

Nonetheless, adding even more to the irony of it all is this: The power and influence of our modern robber barons is so great, and the possibility of a permanent one-party state is so real, that action must now be taken against not one, but two powerful forces, namely Big Tech and the federal bureaucracy that was initially called into being to counter robber barons far less daunting and far less damaging than the robber barons of today.

John C. “Chuck” Chalberg writes from Bloomington, MN, and has performed for many years as Theodore Roosevelt.

Image: Samuel Ehrhardt

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