Why the US Got 'Regulated'

WHAT is happening in Washington today would sound familiar to my grandfather, who was a great admirer of the first Roosevelt, Theodore, or to his father, who supported Grover Cleveland a generation before.

The battle in those days was between those who wanted full freedom for private enterprise and those who favored regulations and controls to curb abuses, which by that time had reached scandalous proportions.

From the Civil War down to the Cleveland administration, the United States had an almost entirely unregulated laissez faire economy, one in which almost anything goes. Public lands were overgrazed; national forests were decimated; Indians were abused, exploited, and robbed; vast monopolies bilked the public; stock fraud was common. The market was flooded with fake or dangerous drugs and contaminated food. Fortunes were made selling shoddy goods to the government.

Perhaps the worst abuse was the bribing of legislators. It was said, ''Congress is the best legislature that money could buy.''

By 1901, when Teddy Roosevelt became president, the unregulated economy was no longer socially or politically tolerable. Some reform had been achieved under Cleveland, but not until Roosevelt was a real attempt made to enforce antitrust laws.

The first real effort to domesticate and civilize the American economic system began under Cleveland and Roosevelt and continued under Woodrow Wilson. Much progress was made in curbing abuse of power, exploitation of natural resources, and just plain corruption. There was a serious relapse under Warren Harding, but reform revived under Franklin Roosevelt.

All the elements in present ''government intrusion'' into private enterprise today are the result of government rules and regulations introduced to correct past abuses. The people who ''want to get government off our backs'' today are those whose activities are restrained by these controls.

Anyone wanting to know just how bad things were during the last half of the previous century should read one of Upton Sinclair's novels. His account of the Chicago stockyards is particularly interesting.

A lot of Americans today resent having the federal government tell them that they cannot pollute air and water, cannot float fake stocks, cannot practice unfair competition in the marketplace, cannot sell assault guns to teenage gangs, cannot catch all the fish they want.

Much of the drive against federal regulations is obviously intended to permit activities that previous generations recognized as being contrary to the national interest. Why force the federal government to fund all regulatory programs? The obvious purpose is to reduce curbs and restraints on private enterprise.

A main target of the radical ''reformers'' is the pure food and drug laws. People who want to gain full freedom for the drug companies to sell at will should remember how fortunate the US is that those laws kept thalidomide out of this country.

The US economic system today is relatively civilized and honest. The consumer is perhaps not as fully protected against fraud or unfair exploitation as is the consumer in Sweden or the Netherlands or Switzerland. But we have come a long way from the days when Teddy Roosevelt crusaded against ''malefactors of great wealth.''

The unregulated private enterprise system was a marvelous way of developing a new country, but the American experience shows that in the long run, some regulation and control are necessary.

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