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Conscious Commitment: The Golden Age of Antitrust

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Part 3 of 5 in a series, "The History of Antitrust"

No mollycoddling.jpgFor the first ten years of its legal life, the Sherman Antitrust Act did not receive much attention from regulators or from the public. The two presidents of the 1890s, Grover Cleveland and William McKinley, emphasized sound tariff policy as a means of lowering prices and promoting competition and did not attempt to utilize the Sherman Act as a major tool to attain those same goals. However, their efforts proved highly ineffective, and at the turn of the century the country was conscious of the need for antitrust enforcement as it has never been before or since.

The activists of the day, commonly known as the Progressives, espoused an economic reform plan fundamentally dissimilar to the liberalism of today in several important respects. For example, though the Socialist party did gain some traction in these turbulent years under the leadership of dynamic, persuasive labor organizer Eugene Debs, the core of the movement sought to protect rather than overthrow the system of free market capitalism. Most prominent agitators of the day emphasized the responsibilities of corporations to offer fair wages to employees and fair choices to consumers, but did not contend that government ought to assume those responsibilities. As a result, attention centered on monopolization and its injurious effects. Reform magazines such as McClure's and LaFollette's stirred public sentiment against the trusts by highlighting individual cases of wrongdoing and by bringing complex economic debates directly to the public forum. Though this "muckraking" journalistic genre could include factually inaccurate or overly sensational serials, it also comprised works as enduring as Ida Tarbell's History of the Standard Oil Company, a meticulously detailed study of the methods used to restrain trade, and Louis Brandeis' Other People's Money, a scathing look at the banking industry that demonstrated how "The fetters that bind the people are forged of the people's own gold." The literary sphere contributed pioneering novels such as Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, the tale of an immigrant laborer who experiences firsthand the duplicitous practices of the meatpacking industry, and Frank Norris' The Octopus, a scathing indictment of the Central Pacific Railroad. The ringing words of Theodore Roosevelt's first State of the Union recognized this tide of public sentiment and epitomized the principles underlying it:

"There are real and grave evils, one of the chief being over-capitalization because of its many baleful consequences; and a resolute and practical effort must be made to correct these evils. There is a widespread conviction in the minds of the American people that the great corporations known as trusts are in certain of their features and tendencies hurtful to the general welfare... It should be as much the aim of those who seek social betterment to rid the business world of crimes of cunning as to rid the entire body politic of crimes of violence. Great corporations exist only because they are created and safeguarded by our institutions; and it is therefore our right and our duty to see that they work in harmony with these institutions."

The central tenets of antitrust policy were as much a part of popular culture as of law; and this, in turn, spurred the authorities to take further action at almost every level. The federal Department of Commerce and Labor, Interstate Commerce Commission, and Federal Trade Commission were all creatures of this period, as was the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department. In 1904, the Supreme Court declared that the Sherman Act was a lawful measure designed to preserve and not encumber freedom of contract, in a landmark decision that compelled the Northern Securities railway conglomerate to dissolve: "If, in the judgment of Congress, the public convenience or the general welfare will be best subserved when the natural laws of competition are left undisturbed by those engaged in interstate commerce, that must be, for all, the end of the matter if this is to remain a government of laws, and not of men." Northern Securities v. United States, 193 U.S. 197 (1904). Additionally, the lawmakers of the several states repeatedly endeavored to address the problem of interstate monopolies affecting commerce within their borders. One commission report from the New York state legislature succinctly summarizes the importance of maintaining free commerce:

"1. Competition between buyers of the raw material enhances the price to the producer.
2. Competition between sellers of the manufactured article reduces its price to the consumer.
3. Reduction of price multiplies the number of consumers.
4. Increase of consumption stimulates production to supply the increased demand.
5. Increase of production implies an increase in the employment of labour.
6. Competition between the employers of labour enhances the wages of labour.
7. Enhancement of the wages of labour involves the material and moral amelioration of the condition of the labouring class.
8. Competition to sell stimulates to improvements in the quality of the article offered.
9. Competition to sell urging reduction in the cost of the article, ingenuity is quickened to the invention of expense-saving and labour-saving machinery, and so a stimulus is applied to the progress of the useful arts and sciences. In short, competition ministers to the welfare of all classes of the community, and augments the resources and power of the state." 


Roosevelt Taft.jpgThe first decade of the twentieth century was the zenith of antitrust enforcement in the United States. Citizens' mounting discontent with untrammeled oligopoly had finally found its voice in the progressivism of the Roosevelt administration, and the rare harmony between official policy and public beliefs led to real change in many cases. Yet these conditions could not last indefinitely. The special interests had been unable to maintain their hold over the popular presses and had even suffered major defeats in the courts such as that in Northern Securities - yet they did not quietly acquiesce to the societal shifts threatening their prominence. In 1912, they succeeded in wresting the Republican nomination away from Roosevelt, who had a majority of the popular vote, and instead supporting William H. Taft, whose record showed only unsuccessful, indifferent attempts to enforce the Sherman Act - and the resulting schism in the Republican party caused the election of little-known New Jersey governor Woodrow Wilson. He had made vague promises about economic liberty during the campaign, but did not actively protect that right once in office and failed to effectively enforce the Clayton Act of 1914. As Roosevelt complained from the stump, "The chapter describing what Mr. Wilson has done about trusts... would read precisely like a chapter describing snakes in Ireland, which ran: 'There are no snakes in Ireland.' Mr. Wilson has done precisely and exactly nothing about the trusts." 

The so-called golden age of the free market had clearly ended. Three years later America entered World War I, and the resulting shortages of many commodities enabled corporations to justify all manner of monopolistic actions in the name of the war effort. A decade of laissez-faire tolerance of the trusts followed, when the lack of competition was justified by an unsustainable illusion of prosperity. As subsequent events would prove, nothing short of complete economic collapse could reawaken the United States to the importance of antitrust enforcement.

Read the second part of this series, "Against Public Policy, Unlawful and Void"

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