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The Progressive Era and Its Effects on the United States: an Analysis of Howard Zinn's and Paul Johnson's Views

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Howard Zinn, Paul Johnson, and liberalists all have very different views of the Progressive era and its effects on the United States. Johnson, has a very conservative, republican take in which government should stay out and let the businesses, workers, and consumers work things out and make the economy work. Zinn takes on a very Marxist, view about rebellion and revolution will solve everything because business controls government and a full revolution is the only way to get anything done. Liberals take a view that the Progressive era was probably the greatest thing to man-kind and solved a lot of problems the Industrial Revolution caused. It is incredible just how different all three of these viewpoints are, even though they are discussing the same subject. All three views have drastically different takes on the Progressive/Populist Era. As usual, I tend to side with Johnson. In fact I think I side with Johnson more than ever on this particular topic. The Progressive Era was the falling point of laissez faire capitalism. Government grew tremendously and true pure capitalism died. The Progressive Era saw a lot of laws passed by the government regulating business and other things in order to control the economy and “help” the workers.

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While Zinn makes some valid arguments and you cannot dispute the facts of what he says, he tends to reach and pull at things from the past that support this revolution dream that he is hanging onto. Zinn hates the Progressive Era because government takes control and strikes begin to lessen. In his mind the only true way for any change to happen is for a full blown revolution and complete government overthrow. With the government giving the people what they want and cutting down big business, the people are being made happy and striking less. This brings America further and further from Zinn’s utopian revolutionary ideals. Zinn brings up many terrible working conditions and sounds hopeful that maybe a revolution will occur. He even brings up the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory incident as a point that with the current government laws there was no real inspection or punishment from the government “the laws said the factory doors had to open outward. But at the Triangle Company the doors opened in. ” 146 workers died, many of them jumping to their death because the business failed to follow the law. Zinn uses this as an example of how business is controlling government and how the businesses believe they are above the law. This is why when the Progressives see to many laws being passed to “better” workers and consumers, he does not believe anything will happen. He believes the anarchists wanting revolution and fighting for real change is the only way anything will actually get better. Basically Zinn is like a child waiting for the toy that his parents are never going to buy him, but instead they buy him a new toy that he does not think will work or make him happy. Zinn thinks that all the laws passed during the progressive era will lead to failure and more problems with the economy and America. Obviously I completely disagree with Zinn. I cannot stand him as an author. He is incredibly repetitious. He talks about strikes and rebellions over and over waiting for something to happen. When change occurs, he is not happy because the government stepped in and there was no revolution or government overthrow. It is never going to happen and Howard Zinn cannot accept that.

Liberals take on a completely different view of the Progressive Era than Zinn and Johnson. They believe the Progressive Era was great. The government got involved, helped regulate business and helped make many more lives better. Liberals support consumer protection and government involvement for the better of the people. For example, liberals definitely support government involvement in the meat packing industry, the eight hour work day, and child labor laws. Liberals believe that without government the regulations and laws that were placed into effect during this era would never have happened. This time was a big win for liberals and government because it expanded greatly with the passing of child labor laws, trusts being broken, and many other laws that shaped business and the economy today. Liberals believe that the Industrial Revolution threw off the natural balance of the economy and that the government was needed to restore and fix things. Government grew, passed regulations, and helped the people. Certain things like child labor laws were necessary, but I agree with Paul Johnson. There was too much government involvement in the Progressive Era.

Paul Johnson is against the idea of the progressive era. In fact he really does not have much to say. This is because this is the period that true “laissez faire” capitalism ends and the government starts taking control. There are some points of government control that Johnson believes in. He says that the most important “muckraker” is Ida Tarbell who investigated John D. Rockefeller’s monopoly on the oil industry. In fact, she led to the down fall of the Supreme Court breaking up the Standard Oil Trust. This shows that Johnson follows Adam Smith’s idea that trustbusting is important and that monopolies hinder pure competition in a society. While I do tend to agree with Paul Johnson and Adam Smith on the majority of things, I have mixed feeling with the government interfering and the whole idea of monopolies. I am all for competition and a free market economy. However, it is not fair to punish people like Rockefeller and Carnegie who work their whole lives to build their business and start from nothing. In my opinion, although a monopoly was created they earned it and deserve to keep it and their money. I am not an economics major but I believe eventually the economy and competition would find a way to work out, even if it is on a smaller scale. I am not really sure what view point this falls under, I just think that they worked hard and earned the right to have a monopoly, they were the ones to expand and better the industries. I do agree with Johnson on everything else about the progressive era though. The middle class was getting mad that business was succeeding and impacting the government and economy. They wanted change and voted people into office that would take control of the government. This was a period in which the government got extremely out of hand and passed a lot of laws and regulations trying to benefit consumers and workers but hurting businesses. The government should not have gotten involved as much as they had. Child labor laws are great, I am a firm believer in them. However, I do believe that eventually businesses would have controlled themselves and set their own rules and regulations whether it be because of strikes or morals. If the government had not gotten involved businesses, workers, and consumers, would have eventually figured things out. It may have taken longer, but the government would not be as big as it is now with all of these laws. I think the Progressive/Populist Era (Johnson says they are one in the same) was a deciding factor in whether capitalism and laissez faire would continue, and unfortunately, the economy has never been the same.

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