In this reinterpretation of the Progressive Era, Gabriel Kolko marshalls a host of historical sources from the National Archives, the Library of Congress and other great outposts of scholarship to advance a bold thesis: that the Progressive Era was a "triumph of conservatism," the business reforms of the time having been fought for and shaped by not only the reformers but also the very business interests that were to be regulated. Kolko is a socialist, and his case is actually more radical than I have indicated. But it is his dispelling of many widely believed myths that I find the most enticing.
Take the "merger movement" at the turn of last century. It was and is popularly believed that competition was at an all-time low, monopoly an all-time high and Theodore Roosevelt's trust-busting the necessary and proper response. But Kolko proves this conventional belief false. In case studies of the big powerhouse industries of the time, he shows that, in spite of (or because of) the merger movement, they were more competitive than they had ever been. Whether the industry was steel, oil, automobiles, agricultural machinery, telephones, copper or meat-packing--Kolko's conclusion is the same: mergers, if anything, decreased companies' efficiency relative to their competitors. In the new century's first decade, the total number of competing firms in each industry grew; market shares of the dominant players, meanwhile, shrunk. As Kolko states, "There was *more* competition, and profits, if anything, declined. Most contemporary economists and many smaller businessmen failed to appreciate this fact, and historians have probably failed to recognize it altogether" (emphasis Kolko's).
The stage thus set by the failure of the merger movement, Kolko moves on to the myth that Progressive Era reforms were uniformly or even predominantly opposed by their affected industries. The key is to realize that, economic strategies like corporate consolidation having failed, companies turned to political strategies to freeze the status quo or to gain new competitive advantages. As Kolko states, "the essential purpose and goal of any measure of importance in the Progressive Era was not merely endorsed by key representatives of businesses involved; rather such bills were first proposed by them." Food companies, for example, wanted the Food and Drug Act so that they could turn its regulations against their competitors (e.g., oleo versus butter). Big meat packers desired to save their industry from tainted meat, which hurt business, but were unable to ensure the quality of small packers' meat and unwilling to pay for independent meat inspection--so they themselves initiated the meat inspection movement, lobbied for and won passage of the Meat Inspection Act, thereby forcing inspection onto the industry and its costs onto the federal government. As for the Federal Reserve Act, it was the product of a banking reform movement "initiated and sustained" by big bankers who sought to protect themselves from small bank competition. The Clayton Antitrust Act and the Federal Reserve Act? Most businessmen supported them to better protect themselves from antitrust prosecution under the Sherman Act's vague provisions or (among smaller businesses) to gain such advantages as enforced "fair trade price-fixing." Thus, Kolko shows that whether for protection from competition or from the government, businesses themselves initiated or shaped these Progressive Era reforms and others that most Americans regard as being part of an anti-business (or at least not pro-business) reform movement.
This book will fascinate students of American business and reform history. Ironically, given Kolko's philosophical disposition, even ardent pro-capitalists should relish it. That audience will likely be reminded of Burton W. Folsom's distinction, in his eye-opening *Myth of the Robber Barons*, between "market entrepreneurs" and "political entrepreneurs." Dominick Armentano's *Antitrust and Monopoly: Anatomy of a Policy Failure*, a work of heavier scholarship, may also be recalled to mind. His thesis that antitrust laws, even when not passed unequivocally to benefit special business interests, have "solved" nonexistent problems (and caused a few real ones) and should be repealed is entirely confirmed by Kolko's *Triumph of Conservatism*, which Armentano even cites in support (in addition to another of Kolko's works, on railroad regulations).