In 1888, at the height of the Gilded Age, a rather prominent American said some startling things. First he observes:
Our cities are the abiding places of wealth and luxury; our manufactories yield fortunes never dreamed of by the fathers of the Republic; our business men are madly striving in the race for riches, and immense aggregations of capital outrun the imagination in the magnitude of their undertakings.
But this did not mean all was well with America. The speaker goes on:
We view with pride and satisfaction this bright picture of our country’s growth and prosperity, while only a closer scrutiny develops a somber shading. Upon more careful inspection we find the wealth and luxury of our cities mingled with poverty and wretchedness and unremunerative toil.
Has this man forgotten, as many people do, that in market-based societies the growth of wealth, while inevitably uneven, is over time steady and general? That’s not relevant to what he has in mind: He wishes to assign blame for the poverty he observed:
We discover that the fortunes realized by our manufacturers are no longer solely the reward of sturdy industry and enlightened foresight, but that they result from the discriminating favor of the Government and are largely built upon undue exactions from the masses of our people. The gulf between employers and the employed is constantly widening, and classes are rapidly forming, one comprising the very rich and powerful, while in another are found the toiling poor.
As we view the achievements of aggregated capital, we discover the existence of trusts, combinations, and monopolies, while the citizen is struggling far in the rear or is trampled to death beneath an iron heel. Corporations, which should be the carefully restrained creatures of the law and the servants of the people, are fast becoming the people’s masters.
Rewards unrelated to effort! Undue exactions from the masses! Widening gulf between employers and employed! Rapidly forming classes! Rich and powerful versus the toiling poor!
We’ve heard this somewhere.
But he’s got more to say:
Under the . . . laws . . . the Government permits many millions more to be added to the cost of the living of our people and to be taken from our consumers, which unreasonably swell the profits of a small but powerful minority. . . .
[T]he Government, under pretext of an exercise of its taxing power, enters gratuitously into partnership with these favorites, to their advantage and to the injury of a vast majority of our people.
This is not equality before the law.