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The Triumph of Potted History

Here’s an e-mail to a junior in high-school:

Mr. Jason __________

Dear Jason:

Thanks for your kind e-mail.  Prof. Roberts and I do indeed enjoy blogging at Café Hayek.

Your history teacher is incorrect to insist that, as you relate his claim, “no serious historians doubt the free market caused monopoly in the late 1800’s and anti-trust laws were needed to bring profits and prices down to their right levels.”

I could give you a long list of serious economic historians who, having gathered a lot of evidence that shows your teacher’s presumptions about the economic facts of the 19th century to be questionable, actually do doubt that the American economy at that time was being monopolized by free-market forces.  But perhaps your teacher would, unjustly, dismiss these scholars as being too ideologically blinded to take seriously.  So I instead offer you here one very short quotation from a serious and well-respected historian who is most certainly no libertarian or free-market advocate: Professor Gabriel Kolko.  (Wikipedia describes him as “a Leftist and an anti-capitalist.”*)

On page 5 of his 1963 book, The Triumph of Conservatism, Prof. Kolko reports the following about late 19th-century and early 20th-century America: “Ironically, contrary to the consensus of historians, it was not the existence of monopoly which caused the federal government to intervene in the economy, but the lack of it.”**

I recommend Prof. Kolko’s book highly, both to you and (especially!) your history teacher.

Of course, Prof. Kolko, the economic historians alluded to above, and I could be wrong in our economic history.  But your teacher is definitely wrong to think that his own popular understanding of economic history is unquestionably correct.

Happy New Year to you and your family, and good luck to you in the second half of the school year!  Oh, if you’d like a list of those economic historians mentioned above, and their works on this matter, let me know.  I’ll assemble one and send it to you pronto.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030


** Gabriel Kolko, The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916 (New York: The Free Press, 1963).