Book Review: The Progressive Era by Murray N. Rothbard

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I recently finished reading a great new book published by the Mises Institute, entitled The Progressive Era. This new work is mostly formed of previously unpublished material – 9 previously unpublished chapters and 6 previously published essays, which have been edited together into a cohesive whole  – written by the great ‘Austrian’ economist, historian, and libertarian theorist Murray N. Rothbard. As the title would tend to suggest, the book covers the ‘Progressive’ period of American history (generally dated from the 1890s to the 1920s), during which the relatively laissez-faire politics and economics of 19th century America gave way to the modern corporatist and interventionist state as we know it today.

Rothbard began writing the book in the 1970s during his association with the Cato Institute, but due to a number of reasons – ranging from his other projects to the characteristic way in which his great enthusiasm for the subject matter propelled the book far beyond its initial word limit, and ultimately due to his premature death in 1995 – the book was never completed in his lifetime. Fortunately however, the book’s editor Dr. Patrick Newman (with whom I was a Mises Institute Fellow in Residence in the summer of 2017) was able to unearth the unpublished manuscripts from Rothbard’s voluminous archives and piece this great work back together for publication over 22 years after the author’s death. The result is a brilliant account of this important period of American history, and a towering achievement in its own right, even aside from the significance of its author and the story of its troubled journey to publication.

Typical accounts of the Progressive Era usually paint it as a glorious victory of benevolent government which, in faithful response to the demands of the people, put an end to the dog-eat-dog competition and robber barons of 19th-century capitalism. In light of how naive and simplistic such traditional accounts of the era have been, it is particularly refreshing to hear Rothbard’s revisionist history of the period, particularly given the extraordinary scope and depth of the work.

Rothbard begins his study with an analysis of the rise of the railroads in the 1840s as America’s first big business and extends it through the cartelisation and regulation which characterised the Progressive Era, the collapse of the Third Party System, and ultimately to the ‘fulfillment’ of the new progressive state in World War One and the Great Depression. Far from a benevolent government response to the spontaneous outcries of the people, Rothbard finds that the key policies of the Progressive era can more often be characterised as attempts at cartelisation by big businesses in the pursuit of higher profits. Having failed to successfully cartelise on the relatively free markets of the preceding decades, such big businesses increasingly turned to government in the latter years of the 19th century, to enforce such cartels and impose burdensome regulations on their smaller competitors. This revisionist interpretation is strongly supported by Rothbard’s characteristically details-oriented approach to history writing, making this book an excellent resource for students and researchers, with plenty of pointers to further reading implied by the vast number of figures and events referenced.

Rothbard’s analysis is also set apart from others on the subject by the great weight it gives to religious divisions in US for understanding the Third Party System and its ultimate collapse. Reduced to its absolute essentials, Rothbard’s argument is that postmillennial Pietists (usually Protestants) believed that the Second Advent of Jesus Christ could not occur until a thousand-year Kingdom of God on Earth was established, which they believed required the stamping out of a great number of personal sins, significantly including alcohol. This led the Pietists to favour a much higher degree of state intervention into the economic and personal lives of its subjects, in the pursuit of this lofty and vital goal. The Pietists were consequently much more likely to vote for the statist parties of the time, including the Republicans, the Abolitionists, and the strongly anti-immigrant ‘Know-Nothing’ party. Liturgicals (such as Catholics) conversely believed that the thousand-year Kingdom of God on Earth would occur after the Second Advent of Jesus Christ, causing them to concern themselves more with adhering to religious rituals, keeping an eye out for portents that His coming was near, and so forth. The Liturgicals were therefore less concerned with stamping out personal sin and enforcing holiness, and hence were much more likely to vote for the more laissez-faire Democratic party. While most modern historians are inclined to dismiss such religious considerations in favour of ‘real’ factors, such as economic class, ethnicity, geography and so forth, Rothbard’s case is nevertheless made extremely convincing by his extensive application of demographic and electoral data from the time. Even if you’re inclined to disagree with Rothbard’s conclusions, it is now difficult for me to believe, having read the book, that one’s understanding of the Progressive Era and the Third Party System could be complete without this understanding of the religious factors at play.

In conclusion, I am simply amazed that such strong material was able to go unpublished for so many years, and am grateful to Dr. Patrick Newman and the Mises Institute for their efforts in bringing this masterful book to publication at last. Rothbard’s Progressive Era provides an account of that important time in American history that is both sweepingly broad and deeply details-oriented in a way that will satisfy both serious researchers and interested lay readers.

Furthermore, thanks to the generosity of the Mises Institute’s donors, the book is available for free on their website as a PDF, an ebook, and an audiobook! For more details, see this link: https://mises.org/library/progressive-era-0

If you would like to own a physical copy of the book, you can buy one at this link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Progressive-Era-Murray-N-Rothbard/dp/1610166744/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1516631097&sr=8-1&keywords=rothbard+progressive+era

Finally, if you’re interested to learn more about the book and this period of history before reading, the book’s editor Dr. Patrick Newman gave an excellent talk about the subject at the Mises Institute’s Mises University summer programme last year.

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