Since its founding in 1865, The Nation has been a home for writers instigating, reporting on and arguing about struggles for social and economic justice. We have held fast to our “Nation Ideals”— from racial justice to feminism, from a fair economy to civil liberties, from environmental sustainability to peace and disarmament—throughout our 150-year history. During our anniversary year, TheNation.com will highlight one Nation Ideal every month or two. We’ll celebrate by asking prominent contemporary Nation voices to read and respond to important pieces from our archive. This month we are celebrating a fair economy for all.
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The past year or so has seen an increasingly urgent debate about economic inequality. But the term itself is often used imprecisely, as shorthand for a wider array of problems. It refers most obviously to disparities of income, but also to growing divides of economic security and opportunity and to the rise of new forms of concentrated private power. From debates over net neutrality to anxiety over too-big-to-fail financial institutions, the pathologies of the current economy are not just a reflection of impersonal “market forces” unequally distributing the fruits of progress and growth. Rather, they are the products of the particular forms of private power that increasingly shape access to vital goods, services, and opportunities.
In this moment of crisis and ferment in progressive economics, we can find clues for how to understand and address the problems of economic inequality and private power by looking back at a particular moment in American history not very dissimilar to our own. A century ago, during the Progressive Era (roughly from the 1880s to the 1920s), writers in The Nation were struggling with many of the same concerns we face today: a rapidly changing economy marked by widespread dislocation and insecurity, and the rise of mega-corporations and threatening new forms of concentrated corporate power, from big financiers to railroad barons to Standard Oil. Out of this period of upheaval emerged a distinctive tradition of progressive economics, primarily focused on a deep commitment to freedom and democracy. It is this ethos that we should recover today.
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One of the overriding concerns for early-20th-century thinkers was the problem of concentrated private power, exemplified by the dominance of railroad corporations and trusts. The problem was political as well as economic: the dominance of a few individuals over critical industries gave them a dangerous degree of control over the government. In effect, private concentrations of power represented a usurpation of popular sovereignty, shifting power from the people to the economic elite.
Amos Pinchot, a prominent New York lawyer and progressive reformer who had been a key adviser to former president and Progressive Party reformer Theodore Roosevelt, expressed precisely this concern in an essay in The Nation in 1923:
We have watched the balance of power gradually shift from the hands of the public into those of an industro-financial hierarchy composed of a few hundred persons, representing our trusts, railroads, banks, and insurance companies.… We cannot accept their control of the country as either inevitable or beneficial. To change this control, to relocate power, is the paramount problem of the people of the United States.