Swiping at Industry From Atop the Stump

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BUSINESS bashing by politicians in America has a long history, including rhetoric far more inflammatory than the denunciations being directed at Wal-Mart this year by some Democrats, who sometimes sound as if they are running against the company instead of another politician.

A NEW CAMPAIGN Protesters against Wal-Mart in Illinois this summer objected to the health care coverage provided to workers.
Wal-Mart is under attack for paying too little, providing benefits that are too small and even exploiting illegal immigrants. Laws have been written with Wal-Mart in mind, and more are being proposed.

The company may not appreciate the honor, but its place in the political debate reflects its revolutionary effect on the American economy.

Previous business targets of politicians have similarly been both popular and reviled. The railroads enabled much of America to prosper, but to many people in the late 19th century they were viewed as villains.

They upset old economic relationships by making it possible to ship goods over much longer distances, thus introducing competition for local businesses and farms. At the same time, any given area was likely to be served by just one railroad, giving it monopoly pricing power over the farmers, whose produce became worthless if it could not be shipped to distant markets.

The railroads were lumped together in the public consciousness, but the Pennsylvania, as a major road linking New York to the Midwest, came in for much of the criticism.

The railroads in turn made possible giant industrial companies, and led to new fears of monopolies, culminating in the passage of antitrust acts, and their sometimes vigorous enforcement by President Theodore Roosevelt, who coined the term “malefactors of great wealth” and ran against them.

“There is not,” he thundered, “in the world a more ignoble character than the mere money-getting American, insensible to every duty, regardless of every principle, bent only on amassing a fortune, and putting his fortune only to the basest uses — whether these uses be to speculate in stocks and wreck railroads himself, or to allow his son to lead a life of foolish and expensive idleness and gross debauchery, or to purchase some scoundrel of high social position, foreign or native, for his daughter.”

By the time of the Great Depression, the Wall Street colossus, embodied by J. P. Morgan, became embroiled in the political arena. Franklin D. Roosevelt inveighed against the “economic royalists” and blamed “the ruthless manipulation of professional gamblers in the stock markets and in the corporate system.” In his 1933 inaugural address, he celebrated that “the money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization.”

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