WASHINGTON: The time between 1890 and 1920 was known as the Progressive Era. It was a time when Americans demanded responses to a number of economic and social problems. These problems were brought about by the transformative Industrial Revolution (IR). The IR propelled the US to have the world’s largest and most prosperous economy. It was remarkable since the US went from the birth of the nation to the most prosperous in less than 150 years. Other countries were hundreds or even thousands of years older.
But with the prosperity and a much higher quality standard of living came some economic and social problems.
Prior to the IR, there were no factory jobs. As a result, the labor force was generally employed in agriculture, ranching or a skilled trade. Many families simply produced enough to sustain the family, usually with a minimum of tools. This resulted in a lifestyle where there was little extra income earned.
The IR changed that.
Machines were built in factories that could efficiently produce many goods. Factory jobs began to appear. Because of these factories, workers became very productive. As such they could earn much higher wages. But every time a new factory opened, thousands of workers applied for just hundreds of jobs. That resulted in low wages.
Still, the workers reasoned, the wages were higher than they could earn elsewhere. In some instances, labor market conditions were such that the wage was extremely low. So low that only children would work those jobs. In addition, working conditions were poor and children were mistreated.
Americans reacted to this by demanding the country progress forward to cure these social injustices. According to the History Department at The George Washington University, these progressives “were people who believed that the problems society faced (poverty, violence, greed, racism, class warfare) could best be addressed by providing good education, a safe environment, and an efficient workplace.”
Determining the role of government.
Essentially this was when decisions had to be made about the role of government in regulating big business. Also, since the country was so prosperous, what public goods should the government offer?
By the time the Progressive Era ended around 1920, the Progressives’ goals were on their way to being met. Workers were gaining protections in the workplace and the role of government was being expanded. There was, however, some resistance to expanding the role of government.
Some argued that our economy was able to prosper because Americans were free to pursue their interests without government intervention. They also feared that once the government intervenes, more control and regulation would follow. That will tend to slow economic growth.
There was also some concern about the government providing more services to the public. That’s because the extra services had to be paid for by income earners. The resulting higher taxes tend to reduce economic growth. The Progressives said they did not agree with that assessment since expenditures for public goods like education are really investments.
Finding the balance.
Over time a balance was found where social injustices were held to a minimum and the economy prospered. That balance reflected the need for social justice and adherence to the principles that fueled economic prosperity. Those principles emphasized individual freedom, individual responsibility, low rates of taxation and a limited role for government.
It is critical that the balance is kept. Leaning too far to either side causes significant problems. While Americans today tend to have a strong social conscience, this country was founded mainly because our forefathers’ quest for a less dominant government, lower taxes and more individual freedom.
Today’s Liberals want to dramatically upset the balance. From 2008 to 2016 Liberals were successful in “fundamentally transforming America.” During that period they heavily regulated healthcare and almost turned it into a public good. They also severely regulated both the business sector and the banking industry. That resulted in very slow economic growth and no prosperity.
The Government is here to help
Now they want to make healthcare a fully public good, paid for by higher taxes. They also want to make higher education a public good, paid for by higher taxes. And they want to regulate heavily, which will be paid for by higher taxes or higher prices for goods and services. Often it seems as if they want to regulate everything.
This would not move the country forward. This would result in the economy stagnating and never seeing true economic prosperity again. Why? Simply because the increase in public goods leads to increases in taxes. That results in less overall demand from consumers. That means less growth.
Since the wealthy would end up paying way more in taxes, there would be way less capital going into markets. In a capital intensive economy that means slow growth.
This would not be progressive, this would be regressive. We would go back to the time before our independence when taxes were high, the government was heavy-handed and there was less individual freedom.
Today’s Liberals really are Regressives.
—Lead image: Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com from Pexels.