Muckraker or Special Pleader?

In “A Brief History of Media Muckraking”, the Wall Street Journal’s Amanda Foreman traces the contributions of “reform-minded journalists from Ida Tarbell to [Bob] Woodward” and a few others who spilled newspaper ink writing about abuses of power by the private and the public sector.

Obviously a fan of the progress made during the Progressive Era (“the golden age for crusading journalism”), Ms. Foreman, like virtually everyone who shares that political view, gets some key facts wrong and misses the big picture when it comes to thinking about the origins of reformist spirit.

Foreman credits Ida Tarbell’s History of the Standard Oil Company (1904) and her earlier series of articles published in McClure’s magazine with helping push the federal government into initiating antitrust action against the Standard Oil “trust”, which ultimately led the U.S. Supreme Court to order the company’s dissolution in 1911. Here, Foreman mistakenly says that the dissolution order was issued under “the 1911 Sherman Anti-Trust Act” (the Sherman Act was passed and signed into law in 1890).

More seriously, Ms. Foreman does not mention that Ida Tarbell was far from being a disinterested observer of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.’s allegedly anticompetitive business practices. Ida’s brother William was treasurer of the Pure Oil Company, a major rival of Standard Oil; he supplied possibly biased information to his sister and helped vet her articles for McClure’s. Ida also nursed a longstanding grudge against the company, blaming Rockefeller for ruining her father’s business as a maker of the wooden barrels used early on to transport crude oil from the field to refineries. Replacing wooden barrels with railroad tanker cars and underground pipelines was one of Rockefeller’s many cost-cutting innovations, which drove down the prices of kerosene to final customers and ended the then-looming shortage of whale oil, but made wooden barrels obsolete.

Information about those and other personal axes Tarbell had to grind is readily accessible in Ron Chenow’s Titan, his monumental biography of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. — a volume I have relied on heavily in my own work, in collaboration with Michael Reksulak and others, on the origins and effects of the government’s case against Standard Oil (our most recent contribution to that literature is “Tarring the Trust”).

One interesting, still unexplained, consequence of Tarbell’s and the Justice Department’s antitrust attack on Standard Oil is that Rockefeller’s wealth tripled (to almost $1 billion) soon after the company was broken up. I hesitate to call this “crony capitalism”. It nevertheless is another example of how progressive ideas backfire, achieving results that were perhaps “unintended”, but the actual effects of the dissolution could have been, as George Stigler taught us long ago, the intended effects.

William F. Shughart II is a Distinguished Research Advisor and Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, the J. Fish Smith Professor in Public Choice at Utah State University, past President of the Public Choice Society as well as the Southern Economic Association, and editor of the Independent book, Taxing Choice.
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