The Progressive Era, Government and Industry and Trust

The political climate over the past year has gotten me thinking about the relationship between government and the economy, and it's turned my thinking around in a number of different ways. It's an incredibly difficult subject to approach, and I've often found myself caught between both sides of the argument.

I've recently been studying the Progressive Era, especially in the state of Vermont, in the early 1900s. From the mid 1800s to that point, Vermont underwent a bit of a technical revolution, with larger industries, namely with Granite in Barre, coming into the state, with their own histories with organized labor and several incidents of unrest. In my current research, I'm examining Byron Clark, a Burlington man who I feel exemplifies the Progressive era as a model representative, and through this research, I've come across several sources that have noted that the Progressive Era was a time of massive social reform in response to industry.

"The progressive era has long been recognized as one of substantial contribution to social legislation. Working through state and national legislatures, reformers rewrote child labor laws and safety and factory inspection statues. They cast the society's response to industrial accident and death into the new form of workmen's compensation. They limited working hours for some women and in a few cases, for men. In some states, night work became illegal. By 1915, several states had passed minimum wage legislation." (1)

As business and the economy grew in the United States during this time, many of these reforms were left to the states. As the economy likewise began to nationalize, so to did reformers, who saw a need for uniform legislation to cover a more uniform economy. (2) Clark wasn't involved with this level of the Progressive era, as I've found little evidence that he worked in state-wide or national politics, but his actions clearly indicate that he saw a need for the sort of things that industry detracted from in society - the need for a well rounded education in the body, mind and spirit of children, for example, which still lives on with him today through the continued operation of YMCA Camp Abnaki in North Hero, VT.

My point in all of this is that the unfettered rise of industry in this country is one that is not pretty. It was exploitative on a wide scale level, by industry bosses who raced to undercut their competitors at the expense of the workers who made up their bottom line. One of the more interesting reads that I've come across is David Von Drehle's book, Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, which looks at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire that killed a number of workers because the company's upper management felt that the risk of workers taking too many smoking breaks outweighed the risk of proper safety. As it happened, workers died because the fire escapes were chained up.

A friend of mine, in her blog, pondered the question, why is it more important to distrust government over industry? There are valid arguments for distrust of any sort of governmental setup - an overabundance of regulation when it comes to industry can harm the innovation and expansion of market power that helps keep the economy robust, as many Republican members of congress have noted in their oppositions to the current reforms that are ongoing in legislation at the moment.

This, I think, is where the Progressive era can be extremely helpful. Faced with the excesses of industry and overwhelming legislation, the Progressive Era is a transitional point between the two extremes, from a laissez-faire part of history prior to the era, to the New Deal reforms of the 1930s and 1940s. The Progressive Era was the middle ground that seems to be so coveted by the American public, but for some reason, it seems to be unobtainable.

Like Amber noted in her blog, I don't trust Industry. From its own history throughout its rise, it has proven, time and time again that the interests of a nation and the well being of the people are not at the forefront of any sort of industrial agenda, aside from the added effect of raising a country's GDP and economy. In this excuse, it seems to be okay for companies to contaminate our ground and air, duck responsibility for accidents and try to deceive the general public. While I was in college, I worked with a small company that helps to inspect and analyze groundwater contamination, and by Dad, who's worked at the company, has been called as an expert witness on the behalf of some, going up against larger oil companies who try to pass off the problem to those who ultimately are not responsible. Similarly, with companies such as Union Carbide, Pfizer and Monsanto Corporation are all modern companies who have had similar accidents for which they have shown that while they can provide much good for the well being of the nation, they can also cause a great amount of harm for those who are unfortunate enough to live in the same areas. People who argue that industry can be responsible may have some valid points, but they miss or disregard most of the arguments that prove that this isn't the case. Industry cannot be responsible for its own actions because it has shown that. Regulation, in many cases, not all, helps to keep this behavior in check, to keep industry responsible for its actions. This is the greatest lesson out of the Progressive era that I've come across.

From the past and present, we have to look to the future. The current argument of government vs. economy is one that will rage on for a long time, and I've found myself thinking about it while reading Paolo Bacigalupi's first novel, The Windup Girl. It's a hard SF novel that deals with this very issue - a world that is overrun by industrial greed, in the form of large agricultural companies who have decimated the planet with artificial plagues that have run out of control. I'm hoping to write up a review for the book in the coming week or so (I'm taking my time with it right now), but I think that there are some valuable lessons here - industrial and corporate powers are really not the ones to be trusted - their interests lie elsewhere. While generating a profit is hardly a bad thing, it should not be at the expense of the lives of the people around them.

1 - William Graebner. "Federalism in the Progressive Era: A Structural Interpretation of Reform." The Journal of American History, Vol 64, No. 2 (Sept 1977), 331 2 - Ibid, 332