Despite all the recent talk of “grand bargains,” little attention has been paid to the unraveling of a truly grand bargain that has been at the center of public policy in the United States for more than a century.
That bargain — which emerged in stages between the 1890s and 1930s — established an institutional framework to balance the needs of the American people with the vast inequalities of wealth and power wrought by the triumph of industrial capitalism. It originated in the widespread apprehension that the rapidly growing power of robber barons, national corporations and banks (like J.P. Morgan’s) was undermining fundamental American values and threatening democracy.
In both debt plans, the wealthy win.
Such apprehensions were famously expressed in novelist Frank Norris’s characterization of the nation’s largest corporations — the railroads — as an “octopus” strangling farmers and small businesses. With a Christian rhetorical flourish, William Jennings Bryan denounced bankers’ insistence on a deflationary gold standard as an attempt to “crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” A more programmatic, and radical, stance was taken by American Federation of Labor convention delegates who in 1894 advocated nationalizing all major industries and financial corporations. Hundreds of socialists were elected to office between 1880 and 1920.
Indeed, a century ago many, if not most, Americans were convinced that capitalism had to be replaced with some form of “cooperative commonwealth” — or that large corporate enterprises should be broken up or strictly regulated to ensure competition, limit the concentration of power and prevent private interests from overwhelming the public good. In the presidential election of 1912, 75 percent of the vote went to candidates who called themselves “progressive” or “socialist.”
Such views, of course, were vehemently, sometimes violently, opposed by more conservative political forces. But the political pressure from anti-capitalists, anti-monopolists, populists, progressives, working-class activists and socialists led, over time, to a truly grand bargain.
The terms were straightforward if not systematically articulated. Capitalism would endure, as would almost all large corporations. Huge railroads, banks and other enterprises — with a few exceptions — would cease to be threatened with nationalization or breakup. Moreover, the state would service and promote private business.
In exchange, the federal government adopted a series of far-reaching reforms to shield and empower citizens, safeguarding society’s democratic character. First came the regulation of business and banking to protect consumers, limit the power of individual corporations and prevent anti-competitive practices. The principle underlying measures such as the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890), the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) and the Glass-Steagall Act (1933) — which insured bank deposits and separated investment from commercial banking — was that government was responsible for protecting society against the shortcomings of a market economy. The profit motive could not always be counted on to serve the public’s welfare.