John C. Goodman

Liberals aren't liberals anymore. These days they call themselves "progressives."

Writing in The New York Times, Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs said there were two progressive eras: one in the early part of the last century and the other during the administration of Franklin Roosevelt. He called on liberals to create a third progressive era, in part "to re-establish the supremacy of people votes over dollar votes in Washington."

To hear Sachs tell it, progressivism means being in favor of the little guy and against the special interests. Aligning himself with the motley crew that calls itself Occupy Wall Street, he writes:

The young people in Zuccotti Park and more than 1,000 cities have started America on a path to renewal. The movement, still in its first days, will have to expand in several strategic ways. Activists are needed among shareholders, consumers and students to hold corporations and politicians to account. Shareholders, for example, should pressure companies to get out of politics. Consumers should take their money and purchasing power away from companies that confuse business and political power.

Sachs doesn't know much about history. Nor do most other people. Given Teddy Roosevelt’s attacks on "the trusts" and the muckraking novels of Upton Sinclair and Ida Tarbell, you might suppose that 100 years ago progressives were antibusiness. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. The fundamental economic vision of progressivism was to not to combat special interests, but to embrace and empower them. In a very real sense, "progressivism" means rule by special interests.

As the leftist historian Gabriel Kolko has documented, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) — our first progressive-era federal regulatory agency — was dominated by, and served the interest of, the railroads. The main accomplishments of regulation were to outlaw price cutting, establish minimum prices and make the railroads more profitable than they had ever been. The experience was far from unique.

The regulatory apparatus created by the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 served the interests of large meat packers. Safety standards were invariably already being met — or were easily accommodated — by large companies. But the regulations forced many small enterprises out of business and made it difficult for new ones to enter the industry.


John C. Goodman

John C. Goodman is Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute and author of the widely acclaimed book, Priceless: Curing the Healthcare Crisis. The Wall Street Journal and National Journal, among other media, have called him the "Father of Health Savings Accounts."