I have a historian’s quibble with Sabeel Rahman, but I could not agree more with his analysis of the information economy. While the Progressive Era offers ideas to emulate and develop, I would prefer the more expansive and democratic aims of Gilded Age antimonopoly reforms.
To a degree, antitrust laws and public utilities are only the residue of Gilded Age ambitions. They were what could be achieved after the courts forced Gilded Age reformers to surrender ground to conservatives and corporations in the 1890s. If we model our remedies on the Progressive Era, we start with ideas from which democratic possibilities had already been largely expunged. Move back a few decades and these possibilities reappear.
Antimonopolists thought employees should have a say in the conditions of working life.
Rahman ably outlines the problems that our current gilded age shares with the original. Now as then, we are less concerned with companies dominating a single industry and imposing monopoly pricing on consumers than with the broader power of common carriers to affect a range of industries and consumers. Like Gilded Age railroads, the corporations of the information economy operate in competitive environments. They are only monopolies in the more expansive Gilded Age sense that they control activities central to Americans’ quotidian lives as producers, consumers, and citizens. In Rahman’s language, they serve as platforms that producers and sellers cannot avoid.
Such companies can provide greater benefits than ordinary businesses, but they also pose greater dangers. Rahman wants to nudge monopoly concerns beyond a preoccupation with excessive prices. He, and we, could better articulate our unease with Amazon, Uber, Comcast, and the rest if we expanded the focus to include the Gilded Age.
Though the Gilded Age doesn’t offer off-the-shelf solutions, it does suggest goals for reform. Antimonopolist reformers thought of people as at once producers, consumers, and citizens. Most of us, after all, occupy all three roles. Antimonopolists had not yet ceded internal control of corporations to owners and managers; employees would have a say in the conditions of their working life as well as their civic life. Nor did antimonopolists think regulation of corporations could come only from outside; there had to be popular influence from within. And when regulation was in the hands of courts or commissions, reformers envisioned mechanisms to ensure that experts could not ignore popular influence.
Gilded Age reformers thought most creatively when considering common carriers—a critical category for Rahman. Common carriers had greater public obligations than ordinary businesses not only because so many other enterprises depended on them but also because they relied on public right of way, public infrastructure, public charters, and often public subsidies. Reformers thought private carriers could move goods and information, but they would use a regulated public infrastructure analogous to modern highways. Antimonopolists demanded greater transparency from common carriers than from ordinary businesses. That demand went unmet, but the information economy itself might allow us to fulfill it in our time. Ideally, such transparency would extend to government as well as private companies.
In terms of reform, our current gilded age is closest to the original in the mutual concern with discrimination. As current events in Indiana, Arkansas, Missouri, and elsewhere demonstrate, we think about discrimination largely in terms of race, gender, and sexual orientation, but Gilded Age antimonopolists thought more expansively. They feared private regulation of the economy because it gave common carriers the power to discriminate among customers.
James Hudson summarized the dangers of discrimination by common carriers in his 1886 Railways and the Republic. “The equality of all persons is denied by the discriminations of the corporations which the government has created,” he wrote. Wealth was “not distributed among all classes, according to their industry or prudence, but is concentrated among those who enjoy the favor of the railway power; and general independence and self respect are made impossible.” When such influences undercut “the establishment of a nation, of intelligent, self-respecting and self-governing freemen” the result was “little better than national suicide.”
The Progressive passion for expert governance through regulation or public ownership largely, but not entirely, abandoned more democratic antimonopolist reforms. Where Progressives were ultimately willing to measure well being by economic metrics of wages and prices, antimonopolists, while hardly rejecting these, wanted more. What we can take from them is not so much specific reforms as devotion to economic democracy and the public obligations of corporations. They wanted employees to be able to determine the conditions of their work through unions or other means. They wanted an economy that produced republican citizens and ensured a rough equality. These are, I think, concerns Rahman shares.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox
in your carpeted office you lay my life down / and say open up to that small room in my sternum.
We must reject the legal liberalism that attempts to cordon off constitutional questions from democratic politics.
The United States ranked first on health security; then came COVID-19. In place of technocratic hubris, we need robust new forms of democratic humility.
To generate local, inclusive prosperity, cities must think beyond tech accelerators and science parks and instead embrace a wider range of innovation strategies.