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Book of the Week: Tim Carney on The Triumph of Conservatism

Big Business Progressives, from TR to Obama

12:03 PM, May 28, 2011 • By TIM CARNEY
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The Triumph of Conservatism

By Gabriel Kolko

Since he began running for President, Barack Obama has made a full time job of pretending to battle against the special interests. Somehow, even after letting the drug industry write the health-care bill, supporting the Wall Street bailouts, ramping up corporate welfare of all stripes, and sending the government-lobbyist revolving door spinning, Obama gets away with it.

He must have studied Teddy Roosevelt.

Teddy, like Obama, talked as if he hated Big Business. And Teddy, like Obama, increased government, in the name of “Progressivism,” and to the benefit of the biggest businesses. Left-wing historian Gabriel Kolko  spelled out the pattern convincingly in his 1963 history of the Progressive Period, titled The Triumph of Conservatism.

Kolko’s “conservatism” had nothing to do with today’s understanding of political conservatism. Kolko wrote about how TR’s big-government progressive policies protected the incumbent businesses.

Kolko’s thesis:

There were any number of options involving government and economics abstractly available to national political leaders during the period 1900-1916, and in virtually every case they chose those solutions to problems advocated by the representatives of concerned business and financial interests.

Paul Krugman or Frank Rich would assume, at this point, that Kolko was about to argue that the Progressive Period was really a period of Laissez-Faire. But in fact, it was the very Big Government programs pursued in this period that protected the biggest businesses. Kolko goes to original sources to tear down the hoary myths we’ve all been taught about the era.

Remember how Upton Sinclair wrote about the horrible conditions of meat packing plants and Teddy Roosevelt took on the meat packers, sticking them with tough safety regulations? Kolko reveals that: “The reality of the matter, of course, is that the big packers were warm friends of regulation, especially when it primarily affected their innumerable small competitors.”

Remember how Andrew Carnegie and the big trusts were converging on monopoly until Roosevelt busted them? Kolko sets the record straight: “that it was not the existence of monopoly that caused the federal government to intervene in the economy, but the lack of it.”

Kolko reports that steel cartels always fell apart, as the temptation of lower prices always shattered them. “Having failed in the realm of economics,” Kolko writes, “the efforts of the United States Steel group were to be shifted to politics.” Andrew Carnegie called for “government control” of steel prices.

The Left often skates by on the Big Myth that opponents of Big Government are shills for Big Business. Teddy Roosevelt sure did. Kolko’s book is a great corrective to the Progressive Myth – and a very relevant one today.

Tim Carney is a Senior Political Columnist for The Washington Examiner.

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