No Minister

Bureaucracy vs. Robber Barrons

with 2 comments

“When propaganda is the goal, accuracy is the victim.”

I recently came across two articles from past years that I’ve had bookmarked and which I’ve enjoyed reading again over this summer.

First up is some humour that author J K Rowling may be treating more seriously in her ongoing fight with the Trans community, especially after getting her name removed from the Harry Potter movie franchise by Warner Brothers as they launch a 20th anniversary celebration of the first HP movie.

The humour comes from an essay written in 2006 for the Michigan Law Review, which analyses what Rowling is effectively saying in her HP books about bureaucracy, government and the media, Harry Potter and the Half-Crazed Bureaucracy:

The critique is even more devastating because the governmental actors and actions in the book look and feel so authentic and familiar. Cornelius Fudge, the original Minister of Magic, perfectly fits our notion of a bumbling politician just trying to hang onto his job. Delores Umbridge is the classic small-minded bureaucrat who only cares about rules, discipline, and her own power… The Ministry itself is made up of various sub-ministries with goofy names (e.g., The Goblin Liaison Office or the Ludicrous Patents Office) enforcing silly sounding regulations (e.g., The Decree for the Treatment of Non-Wizard Part-Humans or The Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery).

Rowling even eliminates the free press as a check on government power. The wizarding newspaper, The Daily Prophet, is depicted as a puppet to the whims of Ministry of Magic.

Sounds appropriate for our times. I don’t know how many of you have read the series, likely to your kids or even grandkids, or perhaps a guilty pleasure for yourself, but you may recognise some of this from the abstract.

I did not have to re-read the books to see all this, as it had jumped out at me when I read them originally, even if it went over the heads of my kids. I was hardly the only parent who speculated on what Rowling’s experience with government and bureaucrats had been in real life as she wrote her novels in poverty. Having said that it seems that Gen Z kids themselves continue to re-read the books now as they age into their twenties and thirties, where they likely also draw similar parallels:

it seems likely that we will see a continuing uptick in distrust of government and libertarianism as the Harry Potter generation reaches adulthood.

One can only hope. Which brings me to the next article, about a world almost completely at odds with the first, the Gilded Age of America, otherwise known as the time of The Robber Barrons.

More accurately The Myth of the ‘Robber Barons’. It turns out that it was created less at the time (despite cartoons such as the one above) than in the 1930’s, just when it was needed by the US Left, as described by historian Burton W. Folsom in his book about the subject.

It will surprise nobody to find that Far Lefters were behind it and that they were very ignorant about economics – and many other things. The main culprit was one Matthew Josephson, who quite literally wrote the best-selling book, The Robber Barons, after being inspired by Charles Beard, America’s foremost progressive historian, first at varsity and then years later during the Great Depression:

Josephson, the son of a Jewish banker, grew up in New York and graduated from Columbia University, where he was inspired in the classroom by Charles Beard, America’s foremost progressive historian—and a man sympathetic to socialism…“Oh! those respectable ones,” Beard said of America’s capitalists, “oh! their temples of respectability—how I detest them, how I would love to pull them all down!” Happily for Beard, Josephson was handy to do the job for him. Josephson dedicated The Robber Barons to Beard, the historian most responsible for the book’s contents.

Writing in the inspiring times of 1932 Josephson reached back fifty years in time to explain it all, but the following comments provide a clear idea of the quality of “analysis” he brought to the subject:

In a written interview for Pravda, the Soviet newspaper, Josephson said he enjoyed watching “the breakdown of our cult of business success and optimism.” He added, “The freedom of the U.S.S.R. from our cycles of insanity is the strongest argument in the world for the reconstruction of our society in a new form that is as highly centralized as Russia’s. . . .”

One is tempted to snigger but today we live with Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Occasional-Cortex, who believe the same shite about socialism and its Siamese Twin, giant centralised government.

He did little research and mainly used secondary sources that supported his Marxist viewpoint. As he had written in the New Republic, “Far from shunning propaganda, we must use it more nobly, more skillfully than our predecessors, and speak through it in the local language and slogans.” Thus he wrote The Robber Barons with dramatic stories, anecdotes, and innuendos that demeaned corporate America and made the case for massive government intervention.

Ah yes. As with today’s “journalists” the Narrative is everything and is best supported by dramatic stories. As Folsom points out in the article, that means there are lots of mistakes: “On page 14 alone, Josephson makes at least a dozen errors in his account of Vanderbilt and the steamships.” As Folsom says, “When propaganda is the goal, accuracy is the victim.”

But the main error – actually showing up on that page – is that Josephson never differentiated between market entrepreneurs like Vanderbilt, Hill, and Rockefeller and political entrepreneurs (i.e. government subsidy harvesters) like Collins, Villard, and Gould, even as he was honest enough to praise aspects of the former and lash the latter:

He quotes “one authority” on the railroads as saying, “The Federal government seems . . . to have assumed the major portion of the risk and the Associates seem to have derived the profits”—but Josephson never pursues the implication of that passage.

While the book hit the best-seller lists for six months Josephson was running around Russia praising bloody Stalin and his system. He missed the gulags, the farm collectivisations and all their horrors, especially in the Ukraine, and saw only the factories and other “glamorous” things:

He attended official dinners and even talked with select Russian writers and artists. He was ecstatic. The Soviet Union, Josephson said, “seemed like the hope of the world—the only large nation run by men of reason.” … Josephson also never realized that the Soviet factories he saw were often directly copied from Western capitalist factories—and were funded by Stalin’s confiscatory taxation. Instead, Josephson thought he had stumbled into a workers’ paradise, the logical result of central planning and superior leaders.

This book would go on to be more than just a best-seller: it had huge influence in the worlds of high schools, academia and journalism for decades:

Historian Thomas Brewer, who in 1970 edited The Robber Barons: Saints or Sinners? observed that the majority of writers “still adhere to the ‘robber baron’ interpretation.” Historian David Shi agrees: “For well over a generation, The Robber Barons remained the standard work in its field.” For many textbook writers, it still is. In the main study guide for the Advanced Placement U.S. history exam for 2015, the writers say:

America [1877-1900] looked to have entered a period of prosperity with a handful of families having amassed unprecedented wealth, but the affluence of the few was built on the poverty of many.

2015 FFS? It’s a wonder that Silicon Valley exists at all with this sort of high school education, though perhaps it wasn’t as bad when the likes of Zuckerburg, Gates, Bezos and Steve Jobs were passing through it, and of course Musk was educated in South Africa.

Folsom explains that this success, despite all the sloppy errors in the book, comes down to two reasons.

First, it was tailor-made for the Progressives of the 1930’s eager to blame the new generation of robber barons for the Great Depression. I always laugh at those Lefties who claim that Righties pined for President Herbert Hoover: it’s even in the opening song for All In The Family because of course it is. See how this cultural shit works? In fact:

Those harmful federal policies include the Federal Reserve’s untimely raising of interest rates, making it harder to borrow money; President Hoover’s blundering Farm Board; his signing of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, the highest in U.S. history; and his disastrous Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which dispensed massive corporate bailouts to political entrepreneurs. Finally, Hoover muzzled investment by repealing the Mellon tax cuts and promoting a huge tax hike.

Including income tax rates that went up to 70%, which FDR criticised, but which he cunningly kept after getting elected. Oh yeah, we Righties love that Herbert Hoover. Actually the admiration is for “Silent Cal” Coolidge, his predecessor, who could have run for office again in 1928 and would have handled all of the above very differently (of Hoover he said, “That man has offered me unsolicited advice for six years, all of it bad.”)

The second reason is that a bunch of Marxist historians who influenced a lot of the post-WWII historical profession, loved the book and made sure it was embedded in the curriculums of their students, starting with Richard Hofstadter:

“My fundamental reason for joining [the Communist Party],” Hofstadter said, “is that I don’t like capitalism and want to get rid of it.”

He still desired that after quitting the Party. He’s also the guy who wrote the nasty little polemic about the US Right-Wing, The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Great guys communists, whatever profession they are they’re still communists, with all the toxic nastiness and fanaticism involved.

Folsum’s book, The Myth of The Robber Barrons
Also, The Forgotten Man

Written by Tom Hunter

January 4, 2022 at 6:00 am

2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Great read Tom.
    I especially enjoyed the following quote: “It will surprise nobody to find that Far Lefters were behind it and that they were very ignorant about economics – and many other things.”
    They remain so, underlined by our current failed Finance Minister, Billy Bunter.
    Newsflash: Nine thousand businesses went under in October. Oh boy, what will the numbers be for the succeeding months. Crash anyone? Hold on. The GFC, version II, is just around the corner.

    Kloyd0306

    January 4, 2022 at 9:00 am

  2. Tom, don’t forget Charles Dickens ‘commentary’ [aligned with your early paragraphs above,] from ‘Little Dorrit’ both volumes. I am sure you will remember the Circumlocution dept ! Cheers. Bruce

    Bruce Millard

    January 4, 2022 at 10:38 am


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: