Monopoly and Muckraking

Gary Gerstle talks about the journalist who brought down a business empire, when Ida Tarbell went after the power of John D Rockefeller and the Standard Oil Corporation at the start of the twentieth century. Could anyone do the same to Facebook or Amazon today?

Talking Points: 

America’s foundational myth is about rebelling against monopolies: a monopoly of power in the hands of the King. 

  • How does an anti-monopolistic society get dominated by monopolies?
  • Industrialization and the free economic environment after the Civil War created different conditions. 
  • The Supreme Court interpreted the 14th amendment to mean that corporations are individuals and therefore protected by the Bill of Rights.

Resistance to monopolies reached a peak during the first Gilded Age.

  • Some of the resistance was political, but some of it was journalistic.
  • Journalists known as ‘muckrakers’ sought to expose the practices that produced extraordinary power.
  • The reports of journalist Ida Tarbell ultimately led to the breakup of Standard Oil of Ohio.
  • Journalism set the tone for the progressive reform movement.

The election of 1912 was about what to do about the trusts/monopolies.

  • Debs wanted to nationalize them; Wilson wanted to break them up; Roosvevelt said regulate them; only Taft carried take a stand.
  • Roosevelt’s approach ultimately carried the day.

What can the past tell us about today? 

  • Warren is carrying forward the breakup agenda.
  • Previous anti-monopoly movements took a long time; don’t expect much too quickly.
  • But the sentiments haven’t gone away. And the forces that Warren and Sanders have unleashed will continue to percolate.

Mentioned in this Episode: 

Further Learning: 

And as ever, recommended reading curated by our friends at the LRB can be found here:


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