The Lessons of History & The Financial Crisis

I’ve been re-reading Ron Chernow’s excellent book – Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

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This is a wonderful book in every respect – but during this time of Financial Crisis it is also very illuminating to see the parallels between the period of 1870 – 1900 and the last 30 years or so.

The Industrial Revolution transformed the US from a largely rural agrarian society to an urban industrial society. In the process it forced us to adapt our culture, politics and laws to cope with this transformation. What most people have forgotten is that prior to the industrial revolution the US operated an almost entirely free market economy. Regulation was unknown, and regarded as an evil force. Sound familiar?

The result of this lack of regulation led to a series of economic disasters – boom/bust cycles, political corruption and mega-companies referred to as trusts (who often, but not always practiced monopolistic practices).

The industrial barons of this time were not evil men – as a matter of fact many of their greatest legacies are their charitable works, Carnegie, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Stanford set new standards for charitable works – as are Gates and Buffet today.

They simply sought out the most efficient means to make money given the environment they operated in.

Those who today advocate for extremely limited regulation (or no regulation at all); or for the lack of intervention by governments in business should read Chernow’s book. Contained within it’s pages you will find the world for which you advocate.

Please don’t misunderstand me – excessive regulation is as problematic as none. What is important to understand is that the market is not perfect – it is a contrivance of human beings, just as is government. Neither is perfect, neither can solve all our problems. The solution is in the balance we create between those forces and regulation is necessary to create that balance.

I give credit to Shel Isreal for prompting me to write this post with the following tweet:

I’m starting to tire of warning that US is killing free market & going socialist. No oversight or governance is as much anarchy as FM.

It seems to me we have forgotten the lessons of our past and are busily repeating them. Those lessons do not come from the great depression – but from the Industrial Revolution. It is not our reaction to the crisis – but our decisions which led to this (and more properly stated – this series of) crisis.

It is time we began working together to re-define the balance needed between a free, agile and prosperous market and the society (government) within which it operates.

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