The time period roughly between 1900 and the advent of WWI is typically known as the Progressive Era. So, obviously, with a name like that how could anything have gone wrong? (I’ll let you in on a top secret insight…historians and politicians like to frame issues and time periods so as to lead you to an assumption before you even know anything). None the less, it was called the Progressive Era because of the then emerging Progressive Movement, which was a social and economic revolution, in my opinion, that transformed the role of government. When we look at Colonial America and most of history preceding the American Civil War, the government was confined by very specific, enumerated rights and responsibilities. Other than a few Presidents (Jackson and Lincoln come to mind), most pre-Progressive Era Presidents did not have the mindset of “Well, the Constitution doesn’t say I CAN’T do this so…” Perhaps due to a much smaller American population, and a more informed populace, the American government was usually bound by public opinion. So then why is the Progressive Era so different and what does all of this have to do with meat?
Rapid industrialization following the Civil War led to unprecedented wealth and an increase in the standard of living. Granted, there continued to be a lower, poverty-stricken social class. But it has to be understood that there has ALWAYS been a lower class and always will. This is not to say that charities, churches, and private social programs are a bad thing, for they certainly have done a lot of good for the poor; but, without a doubt, the development of laissez faire capitalism has done more to alleviate poverty than any program in history! Consider this…even today, America’s poor, for the most part, still have televisions, refrigerators, air conditioning, a car, and a cellphone! This is apples and oranges compared to poverty around the world. And yet, here is the standard narrative of the Progressive Era…
Greedy capitalists began to make a lot of money while they mistreated their workers and bullied the American economy. They lived in luxury as America’s poor and immigrants lived in the slums, dying of disease and malnutrition. Therefore, thank the Lord that the “Progressives” were there to call on big government to combat these social ills. The Progressives, embodied by the Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, began to regulate and tame big business, helped the urban poor, improved working conditions in the factories, protected consumers, and preserved natural resources. What would we ever have done without big government? Surely free market capitalism must have been failing or else there would have been no need for the government to step in.
This is wrong on almost all accounts. There are so many fallacies and historical errors attached to the standard narrative of the Progressive Movement that it would take days to correct them all. The one fallacy I want to focus on quickly is the idea that the government HAD to protect consumers. In 1906, Theodore Roosevelt signed into law the Meat Inspection Act. His understanding of the “atrocious” conditions of the meat packing plants was largely based upon Upton Sinclair’s *novel (*see “not based on facts”) The Jungle. Sinclair’s novel was a depiction of an immigrant couple who, the morning after being up all night for their wedding celebration, immediately go back to work for their mean boss. The novel plays capitalists as heartless animals who care nothing for the basic needs of their workers. More specifically, it supposedly shows what the meat packing plants of the day were like. It describes rats often falling into the vats of ground beef, as well as human limbs. The plants were described as unsanitary, unregulated, and abhorrent. Fun fact, Sinclair had barely even stepped in a meat plant when he wrote his book. Roosevelt read Sinclair’s novel and proceeded to push through a law which would regulate the industry and protect consumers, purportedly. Additionally, he also passed the Pure Food and Drug Act the same year in an attempt to protect consumer safety in other areas besides meat. The idea of protecting consumers and regulating dirty businesses sounds good, so maybe you’re wondering why I think it was such a bad idea.
We must first look at why businesses exist and how they stay in business. Let’s say I started a meat plant in 1906. As a business owner and a capitalist, my primary motivation is making money. Maybe I love my product and want to improve poverty or give jobs to my friends, but none of this is possible without making money. So we see that making money HAS to be my most immediate goal. Now, how am I going to compete in a competitive industry in 1906? I’ll do this same way businesses compete today…quality products, affordable prices, good service, entrepreneurial foresight in changing trends, expansion, etc. This has always been how businesses get ahead and stay ahead. The assumption surrounding the Progressive Era is that these meat businesses were not already regulating themselves, and that they were willing to cut corners to make more money. But was this true? Consider the recent example of Blue Bell. Let’s say the contamination of Blue Bell was an attempt to cut corners and increase profits (which I don’t think it was). What happened after word got out that their product was contaminated? They took a HUGE loss as factories closed and they were forced to spend a fortune in PR. Is this example any different than a meat plant in 1906? If there was verifiable evidence that rats and humans were literally mixed into the meat that was sold to customers, why would customers continue to buy from that company? Moreover, what is little known is that there were voluntary regulations imposed by the factories themselves, to ensure their meat was safe and of a sufficient quality. Some historians think “Why would the factories so readily accept federal regulations after 1906 if they were already regulating themselves?” But isn’t it obvious?…the taxpayers would now pay for it! So, essentially, what happened is that the government began to use tax dollars to ensure “safety” for a product that was already being regulated by the businesses themselves. 100 years later, is there any evidence or proof that the Meat Inspection Act was more effective in regulating the meat industry than they were themselves? If so, I’d love to hear about it.
It must be understood that businesses in the free market have an incentive to protect their product. This is a fact that flies in the face of the Progressive Era myth that the government was the only institution looking out for consumers. The free market rests on incentives and human action, as understood and advanced by Ludwig von Mises (Kristen says we can name our first boy Ludwig). He made it clear that people make direct, premeditated decisions in the market place. Businesses do the same thing. And yes…this is usually driven by the incentive of profits, which is a good thing! When I go to Wal Mart, I usually don’t buy the cheapest ground beef possible because, as a rational consumer, I am willing to spend a little more for a better product.
I showed my students a video over Theodore Roosevelt today from the History Channel, and one “historian” ended by saying “Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy should be remembered every time we eat a hamburger and feel safe knowing we’re not going to die.” What an idiot. The assumption here is that a meat company, and all businesses by association, would be willing to kill people with their product if it led to more profits. Firstly, as I’ve shown, this would lead to reduced profits. Secondly, businesses have an incentive to regulate their own products in order to stay competitive and make more money. Thirdly, consumers have to be smart about what they buy; if they are not, and choose to eat 100 chicken nuggets for breakfast every day, it’s not the taxpayers who should subsidize their poor choices and make sure they’re “safe.” Lastly, the Progressive Era, in reality, did not advance social and economic progress. It transformed the role of the federal government into one that attempts to look after all citizens and ensure their safety at the expense of the taxpayers. This transformation is embodied in the failing legacy of the Progressives, Prohibition. That worked well, right?
The moral of the story is that no one, not even the government, can ethically protect someone from themselves at the expense of someone else. In other words, I cannot justifiably steal from Neighbor A to make sure Neighbor B is making “safe” choices. Ron Paul said it best…
“The most basic principle to being a free American is the notion that we as individuals are responsible for our own lives and decisions. We do not have the right to rob our neighbors to make up for our mistakes, neither does our neighbor have any right to tell us how to live, so long as we aren’t infringing on their rights. Freedom to make bad decisions is inherent in the freedom to make good ones. If we are only free to make good decisions, we are not really free.”
This certainly does not mean that we cannot or should not care for each other. Jesus calls us to do this very thing. But it has to be a free decision. We have to choose to do good and to offer our own time, effort, and money in the pursuit of bettering our fellow man. The story from Matthew of the loaves and fishes would have been a lot different if Jesus had first robbed a local fisherman before feeding the crowd.
 Consider the fact that Amazon allows and even encourages customer reviews. No one is forcing them to do this.