About 10 days back I flagged for a pick Ron Radosh’s obituary of Martin Sklar, a Marxist-inspired historian whose works on the rise of the regulatory state in the late 19th century were ironically popular with conservatives and libertarians. Funny thing about some Marxists; they often stumbled across the truth, but, to borrow Churchill’s line about Stanley Baldwin, dusted themselves off and carried on as though nothing had happened. Actually that’s not really accurate about Sklar, but I do enjoy pointing out to campus leftists how increasingly it is conservatives who will end up defending some Marxist analyses against the nihilist postmodernism of today’s left. It always causes great consternation, and I highly recommend this tactic to annoy the left, because it really gets under their skin.
Another useable figure in this genre, Gabriel Kolko, passed away earlier this week at age 81. Kolko never much recanted or refined his Marxism as Sklar did, and was chagrined to discover that his book about the Progressive Era, The Triumph of Conservatism: A Re-Interpretation of American History, 1900-1916, was Milton Friedman’s favorite book about Progressivism. But he essentially discovered on his own the rent-seeking aspect of public choice theory, noting how industry could capture regulatory agencies in ways that cartelized the market and suppressed new competition. Kolko was especially scornful of muckrakers like Sinclair Lewis. He went off the rails a bit in his last chapter in an orgy of Thorsten Veblen worship, but his concept of “political capitalism” is what we today call “crony capitalism.”
My pal Rob Bradley and Roger Donway, both libertarians, summarized Kolko thus:
Kolko rejected ipso facto the standard model that Progressive historians had propounded during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s: that the federal government’s economic interventions during the Gilded Age and thereafter resulted from high- minded reformers, both Populist and Progressive, who sought to curb the social ills of laissez-faire capitalism. According to Kolko’s version, such “progressive” reformers were actually political conservatives who worked with their business counterparts to create what today is called crony capitalism.
Kolko’s fundamental challenge to the dominant Progressive paradigm was coolly received in the academy. In 1976, he lamented: “With the unimportant exception of a few conservatives who ignored everything which undermined their case, no one paid much attention to my economic exposition.”
Conservatives? He meant libertarians. Although Kolko was a man of the left, Murray Rothbard embraced Kolko’s “political capitalism” as libertarianism’s standard model of American business history. Wrote Rothbard in 1965: “Despite the wave of mergers and trusts formed around the turn of the century, Kolko reveals, the forces of competition on the free market rapidly vitiated and dissolved these attempts at stabilizing and perpetuating the economic power of big business interests. It was precisely in reaction to their impending defeat at the hands of the competitive storms of the market that big business turned, increasingly after the 1900s, to the federal government for aid and protection.” In short, Rothbard declared that Kolko had shown that free markets were the enemy of big business, not its friend.
While Kolko’s work was poorly received on the left, he also reacted badly to the fondness of libertarians, writing once to Manny Klausner of Reason that he didn’t want to be included in a list of professors whose work libertarians should admire. (See copy of the note nearby.)
Jesse Walker has more on Kolko over at Reason.com.