I've long noticed that many, if not most, of the leaders of the early twentieth century progressive movement came from the wealthier classes of Americans and others like Al Smith being a New York City Tammany Hall politician. An organization within the Democrat party not known for honest dealings to put it mildly.
The obvious question which should be asked is why would rich people be so concerned with the plight of the poor and working class? One cannot truly know what is in the minds and hearts of others but an indication may be found by observing their actions and the consequences of those actions. My own admittedly cursory examination of the subject shows some evidence that self-interest, detrimental, perhaps even intentionally so, to the interests of those for whom ostensibly this progressive enterprise was undertaken, was the true motivation. Others may have been motivated by promoting new, sciency-sounding crank economic and social theories like the efficiency movement that either did not work as advertised or caused unintended consequences.
Nevertheless, we may note the stated intentions and goals, but always in the end, must judge by the actions and results. We must be able to distinguish between words and deeds to understand intent and motivations and know who is really the boss and who is just the employee.
Recall the old adage that if something to too good to be true, it probably isn't so beware of those who promise to do good things in return for power and always look closely for the strings when discerning who the puppet is and who is the true villain.
It is natural for we humans to want to protect whatever power or wealth we have, no matter how great or even humble, and to ensure that power and wealth is transferred to our own genetic descendants. But the greater the wealth and power, the greater the drive to protect them from outsiders.
To the old money elite and ruling class, the industrial revolution in the light of a laissez-faire political and economic system brought a new breed of nouveau riche entrepreneurs who hailed from the lower classes into prominence that could topple the old guard from their thrones. The lower orders seeing this might forget their station and reach for the brass ring as well as a growing middle class with more potential threats from which to contend with. Not to mention new strains of socialism and anarchism imported from Europe that were starting to make trouble.
The old guard rulers were no fools. Knowing that wielding a naked iron fist to protect their interests by enforcing a social caste hierarchy could prove disastrous. Therefore a soothing velvet glove that the masses would find palatable and cooperate with had to be found to cover the iron fist. Even more to the point where the working and middle classes would eventually, voluntarily agree to remain within their respective classes. Then some means must be found of co-opting or managing the socialists making them into useful tools for the ruling class. What that velvet glove would be follows.
Further in detail:
My theory is that the progressive movement primarily operated by the old money ruling class establishment of the late 19th, early 20th century had as one of its goals to completely stifle all social mobility as a means of protecting their own wealth and power from potential challengers. Therefore, they rather cunningly couched their machinations in the honeyed tones of concern for the poor and workingman, appealing to their ignorance, vanity and envy by castigating those troublesome upstart nouveau riche whom they termed "Robber Barons" and then smeared them as the most odius of villains solely responsible for any all the problems of the poor and working class. But not to worry, the old money rich would come to the downtrodden's rescue.
Thus the ruling class connived the electorate into giving more power to the growing managerial government to redress the working man's grievances on his behalf. The poor, the ruling class promised, would benefit from the unfairly gained wealth of these Robber Barons which would be redistributed to the poor as some form of justice. Or at any rate simply taken away. Although many of these Robber Barons, really entrepreneurs, themselves who rose to success and wealth from humble beginnings is forgotten in the righteous mania to punish them for the sin of success and make examples of those who dare to buck the system by following the entrepreneurial example.
That successful entrepreneurs is proof that a classless, laissez-faire system where success for anyone is possible or at worst, there would be jobs available with the prospect of social mobility, competitively priced goods that are more affordable for the poor and an overall higher standard of living makes no never mind. For there is no appeal more powerful than an appeal to the most base of human instincts such as envy, greed and the mind numbing emotionalism of an evil to be vanquished, a war on poverty to be fought or existential threat to be destroyed. Why, these Robber Barons somehow amassed their ill gotten fortunes by plundering the poor when not trying to outright kill the poor by pollution, dangerous working conditions or shoddy products. Why, the modern progressive liberal thinks, who wouldn't want to kill their employees and customers? That would be obviously and absurdly counterproductive.This can only be liberal projection for whom violent fantasies are a not so guilty pleasure.
All this is not to say that those entrepreneurs labeled as Robber Barons were perfect angels, nor is all legislation regarding trusts, working conditions and pollution unnecessary. The State and the laws and their enforcement mechanisms are a necessary evil and is charged by the citizenry to act in their best collective interests. Otherwise a stable, healthy and prosperous society would not be possible.
But no system is perfect. Too much of a good thing can turn bad if the citizenry in a constitutionally limited republic or democratic society grow lethargic and do not use due diligence and common sense in exercising their rights and responsibilities as citizens. Power should be granted to leaders grudgingly, only as much as necessary for the problem at hand and after it is fully demonstrated to be absolutely necessary with the proviso that it can be taken back.
It is indisputable that nobody who ever got rich through licit free enterprise had ever made anyone else poor. Or that a potentially dangerous industrial work environment be shown as excessively hazardous, with only a few exceptions, with noticeably higher percentages of worker injury that fully excludes worker error must be noted.
For what motive management would have to want to murder their own employees or customers for that matter and explain why factory owners and management would knowingly poison the air that they themselves breathe and water they themselves drink as all of this makes no rational sense.
In the end analysis, according to the prevailing pop culture history, the sins of the Robber Barons were they got rich, they were mean and they were racists. The former two is the noise of cognitive dissonance and the latter is at best irrelevant and at worst complete nonsense. But all in all, it worked. This nostrum of homicidal maniac capitalists is still today unthinkingly accepted as irrefutable fact. The Robber Barons were held up as an unspeakable evil that must be shunned and thus discouraged any of the lower classes from following their example. The lesson taught was that it is more moral and good to remain a poor and powerless victim in your own social class after all.
Methods and results:
The lesson was the carrot of superior morality but a stick was still needed to reinforce it.
The income tax is a means by which the working class would find it difficult to accumulate or pass much of the wealth the accumulated to their heirs that would be capital enough to start a business that would potentially pose a threat to already established corporations who already exist with the approval of the political establishment. The income tax was sold and accepted as "making the rich pay their fair share". But consider that at the time of the passage and ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1913, the rich then were apparently not effective in stopping it despite their apparent wealth and presumptive power and today the already very rich wholeheartedly support the progressive income tax and that they not only pay their fair share but amazingly enough, they say they do not pay enough. This is even as they fight tax bills in court with IRS and refuse to instruct their accountants to limit deductions to increase their tax bill. It's the actions that count, not the words.
Excessive government regulations that create further barriers to the upstart requiring more capital to comply with regulations as well as the cost of lawyers and consultants to help navigate byzantine regulations. All of this was sold to the working man as necessary for his safety, to maintain some kind of unspecified fairness and to punish those mean capitalists for being dour misers.
However, the most potent method is the negative aura that surrounds all business people as mean, greedy capitalists who are always exploiting their workers for their dirty profits, polluting the planet, etc- so you don't want to be that guy. Being poor is much more praised and seen as more virtuous so it is better to stay in your respective socio-economic class, or else.
New Deal, Same Old Con:
It really makes no rational sense but it made some kind of emotional sense to the masses of workers who in the 1930's enthusiastically gave the political managerial ruling class all the power it craved (and more), even to their own detriment, for the vicarious pleasure of watching their New Deal rulers make a show of punishing the corporatists and heart-warming fireside chats that made the workers feel better or something or other.
But make a show was all it was. Behind the scenes, a new relationship between the growing managerial capitalism, banks (and even academia) and the growing managerial state was taking shape in the grim shadow of the second world war. Once having reached the top, the already successful were ready to kick the ladder down behind them and that suited the managerial state just fine as long as they were willing pay the piper (who called the tune) to be allowed to dance.
And the Beat Goes On...
For the corporations and banks, the obligatory political donations, paying prominent politicians exorbitant speaking fees and lobbyist gifts to buy influence with the political establishment are now simply the cost of doing business. Wisdom would suggest that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em and there's no point in fighting a battle you can never hope to win. Especially if you have no army of your own.
For the political managerial establishment, it is easier to control a handful of large corporations than hundreds of thousands of smaller businesses and as well line their pockets in the process. Therefore, it is in the managerial state's own interest to keep the business herd well culled and perhaps well abed with. All in all, it was a match made in heaven....sort of.
However, this relationship was and is largely kept from the plebs of working and middle classes. Corporations and banks were and still are made out to be a sort of Neo-Robber Barons but now serve as sock puppet villains to misdirect the public's attention away from who was really pulling the strings. But what corporation or bank complained? After all, it's better to be a sock puppet villain in managerial state hell with a few privileges and profits not enjoyed by the proles rather than a victim of unfettered competition in a free enterprise heaven. For example, today, Silicon Valley tech corporations, not only dutifully pay tribute to their political overlords for the usual perks and privileges, but receive federal tax dollars as virtually paid federal employees and carry out a censorship and de-platforming reign of terror on behalf of governments, of the United States and others. The tech companies do the dirty work and take the blame but they get to keep the money and monopolies in return. Phaemon's dog was right.
All the while all concerned pretend this be the actions of private business. Sorry folks, capitalism and all that, you know, and being a "free" country nothing your government can do (when the tech giants censor and de-platform gov't designated targets). Or, don't worry folks, we'll haul the scoundrels up before a congressional committee and really yell at them (when banks obey regulations and the CRA making sub-prime loans to stay in compliance). Even if you're set up by the managerial state to be the bad guy everybody hates, there's the compensation of limited competition, government contracts, golden parachutes, and receiving government bailouts for being "too big to fail" for all of which the managerial state pushes the blame off on their sock puppet villains- a small price to pay. Yes, Phaemon's dog was genius after all.
And the general public, ever on the scent for new Robber Baron rascals to hate just lap it up and never notice the sly, skillful hand of the managerial puppeteer at work.
Neo-Feudalism and Final Victory
Make no mistake, it really isn't a partnership of equals, it is, in fact, a feudal relationship of lord and tithe paying crony capitalist vassal. Whereas the vassal may conduct his own affairs to some degree and have influence in court, the lord exercises the real power and has the final say and the vassal is, in the end, obedient to his lord's command. The difference between power and influence is a significant distinction that should not be overlooked.
To demonstrate who in fact holds the whip hand, there are always the federal attack dogs of the Security and Exchange Commission with its vague insider trading laws for naughty Wall Streeters. The FBI, who could prosecute the recalcitrant miscreant for vague racketeering laws or lying about crimes the FBI cannot prove said miscreant committed along with sundry process crimes. If the federal government needs flimsy or even contrived evidence, it has plenty of phone records and e-mails to look in to create probable cause. If all else fails, there's always Congressman Swalwell's nukes. If the lord can giveth, then the lord can sure as hell taketh away or vaporize your ass.
It is truly then, better to be the sock puppet villain in the hell of negative public perception than to be cast into the void, financially ruined, end up doing time in the federal pen and thus figuratively share Palinurus' sad fate. Whereas Phaemon's dog always eats well even if he does sometime get rapped on the nose to keep the masses happy.
Lesson learned as now it is well known by all that the nail that sticks up will be hammered down by the velvet gloved iron fist of the ruling class and not only is there little recourse but that the masses will cheer as the nail is driven down. The ruling class might have had to let a few newcommers in, here and there, over the years, made accommodations with other global power brokers but overall, they succeeded in not only in cementing their hegemony but have succeeded in freezing almost all social mobility, diminishing the wages and living standards of the working class and reducing the size of the middle class. Mission accomplished...for now.