The stereotypical leftists cry, "We need to impose strong government regulations on the greedy capitalists, so they won't screw over the working class!" "Government is a meddling tyrant that will destroy the economy if they pass another regulation on capitalists," the stereotypical right-wingers reply. In the midst of these polarizing views, it's difficult to find a balanced piece of information that will help clarify what the role of government should be in business. Capitalism is still part of a fierce debate even after it outlasted communism in the Cold War and Communist China is slowly adopting our ways. So, how can we objectively judge which side is more accurate about communism? I suggest that we all go back to a time in American history when laissez faire capitalism mostly reigned: the period between the Civil War and World War 1 covered by the History Channel's series The Men Who Built America.
Each episode stars a different industrial titan in the same era. They come from a common background with the exception of J.P Morgan: the poor, working class boy with little parental support. I love how the episodes give us the personal history alongside their stunning accomplishments because you really start to empathize with these capitalists and understand the mindset that got them to where they are. Yet when you get to the next episode and see their competitor's perspective, you see the disturbing character flaws in that same person. In addition, the episodes also show the working class's perspective which gives you an idea of how these capitalists affected American society. Overall, the series does a great job of giving credit where it's due to the capitalists who raised standards of living and made the United States a superpower. At the same time, it is brutally honest about the moral pitfalls that the capitalists fall into and how they hurt the average American.
After watching this series, I gained a more nuanced perception of capitalism that will hopefully inoculate me from the radical claims of either political party. The industrial titans are truly admirable people. All of them constantly risked their livelihoods to pursue the next big thing even if they came from a rich background. If they don't constantly look out for innovations, they will easily get overtaken by competitors and lose everything they worked for, so the idea that capitalists have easier lives than their employees isn't true. At the same time, the working class do have justifiable grievances against these capitalists. Some of the most moving scenes were the ones where the working class people suffered. One worker in Carnegie's steel mills was burned alive in an explosion, and it was due to Carnegie allowing his co-partner lower standards of safety in order to increase profit margins. As for government, there were some positive effects of its involvement in industry. For example, the trial of John D. Rockefeller did break up the monopolies that formed during laissez faire capitalism and allow new entrepreneurs such as Henry Ford to break into industries that were controlled by cartels. However, don't expect government to properly punish wrongdoers. John D. Rockefeller was charged for bribing politicians and treating his workers unfairly. All of this is true, but he's really a scrape goat because many of the others who had done the same thing were never tried. In addition, he did lose his company Standard Oil, but he ended up richer than before by buying stock in the companies that formed from the breakup of Standard Oil. Still, government's ineffectiveness turned out to be a great thing because many of these retiring capitalists turned their competitive energy to philanthropy which resulted in many institutions that still benefit the public.
Based on what I have learned, I favor a minarchist government that is primarily focused on keeping companies transparent and enforcing standards of safety. I don't believe that government can create social programs that function as well as the individual philanthropists' efforts. Generally government social programs require taxation which decreases economic activity while philanthropy require consumer spending, especially by rich people, which increases economic activity. That's excluding other variables such as government debt and job creation, but philanthropy for the most part has more net economic benefit than government programs while achieving the same goals. Lastly, I find that the actual risk of government intervention is that it falls prey to crony capitalism. It takes a politician with an unusual amount of integrity such as Theodore Roosevelt to regulate industry heavily without succumbing to bribes. For now, it seems best to maintain the same separation between industry and state that is between state and religion.