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Roger Donway and Robert Bradley on Gabriel Kolko and Libertarianism

Roger Donway is at The Independent Institute, along with, among others, economist Robert Higgs and the unspeakable Anthony Gregory. On the other hand, Stephen Halbrook, the eminent Second-Amendment advocate, used to be there and maybe still is.

The two gentlemen do move in Objectivist circles, however. Here’s the first part of a short Atlas Society article introducing their paper.

In a new article, “Reconsidering Gabriel Kolko: A Half-Century Perspective,” Robert Bradley and Roger Donway explain why libertarians should not embrace the views of historian Gabriel Kolko.

. . .

September 16, 2013 — In 1963, Gabriel Kolko revolutionized the then-prevalent understanding of American business history with his book The Triumph of Conservatism. In it, he disputed the Progressive historians’ narrative of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, specifically, their assertions that the economic legislation passed between 1887 (the Interstate Commerce Act) and 1914 … had been enacted to restrain the power of the large new corporations…. Kolko argued instead that the legislation had actually been passed at the behest of the large new corporations, in order to protect them from a gale of competition that they could not otherwise withstand. ….

Kolko’s interpretation was eagerly embraced by many libertarians, following Murray Rothbard’s endorsement of it in 1965. Kolko, Rothbard said, had pulled down the two pillars of Progressivist history: that big business was the friend of free enterprise and that the Gilded Age was an era of laissez-faire capitalism. ….


  1. Lynne says:

    Progessives are worried about a book criticising crony capitalism Gabriel Kolko, a conservative historian, wrote half a century ago? That must have been some book to be still spooking them in 2013. Obviously, Kolko’s evidence isn’t quite as weak as they want us to think it is since several decades of progressive corporatism hasn’t managed to consign Kolko’s ideas into the dustbin of history.

    This final sentence in the article is what gives Bradley’s and Donway’s real game away.

    It is the job of the intelligentsia to ensure that the dominant ideas of an era are wholesome.

    Oh, really? And who, precisely, gets to chose what is wholesome and what is not? Clearly not a free marketeer or anyone of a conservative leaning.

    Lenin admirer, father of Fabianism and arch misanthropist, George Bernard Shaw, couldn’t have said it better. In fact the old, elitist bastard is probably giggling with glee in his grave right now.

    I’d be very amused if this article kicked off the Barbara Streisand effect since there are a lot of people who have never heard of Kolko, me included. And now my interest has been roused. I want to know what has the progressives running scared.

    An updated print run anyone?

  2. Paul Marks says:

    Gabriel Kolko was a dedicated socialist – a lot of free market people cited him because what he said seemed to be useful (attacking government regulations – as disguised corporate welfare).


    Always remember that the source is unreliable.

    Always remember that the source is unreliable.

    Always remember that the source is unreliable.

    Murray Rothbard did not care about that (he normally did not care about the source – as long as the info could be used for the libertarian cause), but Rothbard is not around any more.

    Indeed Rothbard’s own works (and every other free market person) are being used by collectivists to justify collectivism – the old tactics of quoting out of context, distorting, twisting and so on.

    The idea that some business enterprises benefit from government regulations hitting their rivals, has been twisted into the idea that big business enterprises WOULD NOT EXIST without government regulations and subsidies.

    That “the capitalist class” is the creation of the state.

    Total B.S. – but I suspect that (wherever his soul now is) Kolko is laughing.

    By the way – on the original idea……

    If anyone thinks that “Teddy” Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were motivated by a desire to help “big business” or “rich capitalists” – then I have a nice bridge to sell you.

    As usual – the Objectivists (and Julie of this parish) are more careful in avoiding B.S. than a lot of libertarians have been.

    Kolko was a socialist – not a conservative.

    Objectivists are not Progressives.

    T. Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were not motivated by a desire to help big business enterprises – and most big business enterprises were actually HURT by the policies of T. Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

    Barack Obama is not motivated by a desire to help “capitalists” either – and most large business enterprises are hurt (not helped) by his policies.

  3. Paul Marks says:

    By the way – Lynne is not at fault here.

    Without the background information it is impossible to know what is going on.

  4. Julie near Chicago says:

    I am at serious fault here. I should have said that Kolko was a socialist; in fact, I thought I had, but obviously I didn’t. Also, of course, that Objectivists and their true fellow-travellers are neither Progressives nor socialists nor Conservatives. (Personally I think they have their own blinds spots, but those don’t impinge on this discussion.)

    Yes, libertarians and Progressives alike have taken Kolko’s words to their bosoms. And the result is that The Masses *sarc*, even the genuine conservatives, have adopted the “Crony Capitalist” theme as the underlying reason why we must have Government keeping a sharp eye out (and, even for some “conservatives,” regulating the h*ll out of) business in general.

    Am I jumping to conclusions to imagine that Kolko’s theory provides a very important point of support for those who think one can be both leftist and libertarian (as we here understand the latter term)?

  5. Julie near Chicago says:

    Lynne, Paul is quite right in his remark to you. :>)

    And that’s exactly why forums like this one are so important, so that we can educate each other, and hopefully by bouncing ideas and “information” around get something that might actually approach the truth.

    I put “information” in quotes because so much of what purports to be information is really either pure fairy-tale or else so distorted as to imply the opposite of the truth. Personally I’ve gotten to the point of leaving the “trust” word out of “trust, but verify.”

    Paul, thank you — praise indeed, thank you. I try, but my reach sure does exceed my grasp. :>(

  6. Julie near Chicago says:

    One of my problems is misreading, as for instance registering “Start Street” when what was written was “State Street.” It is difficult, because sometimes I read a sentence that makes no sense over and over, sometimes even a day or two later, but it still says the same thing, or so it seems. Yet at some point much later, I see that I have read a word wrong, and now the sentence makes perfect sense.

    This is very tiresome, and I imagine it’s not unique to me, although I feel as though it’s one of my personal Achilles’ heels. But perhaps I’m not so unique as all that — famously, people generally are not very good at proofreading their own writing for errors of spelling or grammar.

    By way of an example, consider this quote from the original posting:

    … had been enacted to restrain the power of the large new corporations …

    It would be awfully easy to register retain instead of “restrain” in that quote, and it would change the meaning 180˚. Of course, it would also make an illogical mishmash out of the sentence, the paragraph, and the thesis of the article, but one solution to the logical problem would be to think that Donway & Bradley are actually upholding Kolko’s point.

  7. Yes there is a bit of a difference between “restrain” and “retain” (the second implies that there would be no big business without government) – and I am as word-blind as they come.

    And yes Julie you should have been clear from the start.

    We all suffer from assuming telepathy – from assuming that other people know our thoughts.

    However, people do not know our thoughts in our heads – this is why communication is needed.

    I am not a good communicator (I often assume the other person knows my thoughts) – but we must communicate. Not assume the other person knows the vital piece of information – has the bit of the jigsaw puzzle.

    And “Kolko was a socialist” is a rather important piece of information.

  8. By the way…..

    The article itself (the one written by the two Objectivists) is poorly written (I agree with all its conclusions – and I still would have sent the two authors back to write it again).

    “But it is written in the proper academic way Paul”.

    Yes it is – but that is what I mean by “poorly written”.

    For example when discussing rail it should first be explained why government intervention is not needed – indeed is harmful.

    Also words such as “feudal” should not be used without a clear definition of what they mean.

    Actually Americans seem to have a special problem with the word “feudal” – hardly any Americans (including Founding Fathers – for example John Adams uses the word “feudal” with terrible carelessness) seem to have a clue what the word actually means,

    Odd really as in the war of 1812 Americans were actually up against people who held land by feudal tenure – in Canada.

    People who held land (and could NOT have it taken away from themselves or their heirs) in return for their sworn oath to fight for the Crown in time of war.

    That is “feudalism”.

  9. Julie near Chicago says:

    Yes, Paul…knuckles duly rapped. :>(

    Although I will say, in my own defense, that I have also taken heat on some other boards for specifying things that people already knew. And one does not like to run the risk of insulting one’s audience.

    You’re right about “feudalism.” I have been noticing its misuse more and more on the boards over here.

  10. Lynne says:

    Julie and Paul – thanks for the added info. I stand by my comments on the last sentence in the article though. Such a sentiment is cast iron socialism. Nanny knows best is pure, authoritarian BS.


  11. Quite so Julie – one is damned if one does and damned if one does not.

    Lynne – why did they two writers not say it was their duty to find out whether a theory is TRUE (not whether it is “wholesome”) ?

    Because they can not write for toffee – that is why (nothing more sinister than that).

    No toffee and no supper either – just straight to bed for both of them.

  12. Julie near Chicago says:

    ;>) at you both….

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