Wealth of Nations book cover

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 1776

The size of the federal government and its role in capital markets have been debated since our independence from Britain was declared. At times, these debates have influenced election campaigns and votes in Congress on policy. The reality on the ground, however, is that the federal government has almost always had a hand in guiding the economy. Its roles and responsibilities have grown in response to opportunities to expand US markets and to address practices that were harmful to markets and the communities they served.

Concerns about the size of government and its intrusion on commerce date back to the founding of the country. They were most clearly articulated by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, which was published in 1776 just four months before the Declaration of Independence. Given the influence and, sometimes, dominance of Smith’s ideas, some might argue that his book was the more important of these documents.

It is worth noting that Smith’s ideas were more nuanced than the references we hear in sound bytes today. According to the Constitutional Rights Foundation (CRF), Smith believed that the wealth of a nation included not just the outputs of farm and factory but the labor that produced them. Likewise, he recognized that all people in the society needed to benefit from the free market system because no society can flourish when most of its people are “poor and miserable.” He also wrote that taxpayers should pay taxes “in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state.”

CRF notes that Smith wrote his book long before the full impact of the Industrial Revolution could be realized. As a result, he did not foresee the development of large corporate monopolies and the abuses they would wreak on labor and the shared resources of society.

These abuses and the tendency of corporate industry to eliminate competition led to a steady increase in the federal government’s role in the economy. Randall G. Holcombe, Professor of Economics at Florida State University, has observed, “By 1913 the federal government had been transformed into an organization not to protect rights, but, ostensibly, to further the nation’s economic well-being.”

That transformation began almost a hundred years earlier when the government established the Agriculture Division of the US Patent Office, but it accelerated in the late 1800s with the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission. At that time, Congress started to confront many of the societal harms caused by industrialization. The history of the growth of the federal government since that time is, in one sense, the story of how anti-competitive and abusive business practices damaged the free market and diminished large segments of society, and the solutions Congress implemented to provide an adequate – though often imperfect – response.

With enough of the population motivated to protest and engage the political system, time and again Congress has needed to use its powers to step in to protect the large segments of the population that were unprotected from unchecked corporate power.

The timeline includes only a sampling of the federal legislation and agencies established to address the problems of a growing nation in a rapidly transforming world.

  • Origins of USDA

    The US Department of Agriculture started as the Agriculture Division of the US Patent Office in 1839. It was established to address the diminishing productivity of America's farmland. The division researched and eventually produced seeds that were more resilient and easier to grow in harsh conditions.
  • Interstate Commerce Commission

    As they spread westward in the mid-1800s, railroads often acquired monopolies that led to abusive market practices, including discrimination, collusion, and rate shifting that negatively affected farmers in the west and businessmen in the east. These two groups eventually lobbied the federal government for help. The Interstate Commerce Commission became the first regulatory agency in the US and was a model for those that came later.
  • Sherman Antitrust Act

    The Sherman Antitrust Act was passed to end anti-competitive or monopolistic conduct by individuals or corporations. It was the first in a series of legislation passed over the next 24 years to address anti-competitive practices in business.
  • Income Tax (16th Amendment)

    By the late 19th century, the expanding role of the federal government necessitated a new and stable source of revenue. After several attempts, the permanent income tax was instituted with passage of the 16th Amendment to the Constitution.
  • Department of Labor

    The Department of Labor was created in response to the massive amount of economic and political power that large corporations had accumulated by the turn of the 20th century. This period of unchecked corporate wealth and power is known as the Gilded Age. Feeling that this power inherently threatened the rights and representation of workers, the American labor movement had repeatedly called for the voice of organized labor to be represented in the President’s executive Cabinet.
  • The Federal Reserve

    Repeated and dramatic economic panics in the preceding decades led to the creation of The Federal Reserve, designed to be a central authority equipped to manage and stabilize the national economy. In particular, the Panic of 1907 caused many to recognize the need for an independent and reliable organization to support greater economic stability.
  • Federal Trade Commission

    Despite passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890, anti-competitive activities persisted, including monopolistic mergers, price-fixing, bid rigging, and false and deceptive advertising. Creation of the FTC culminated a steady demand by the public and business for protection from the anti-competitive practices of a few large companies in several prominent industries.
  • Food and Drug Administration

    Congress created the Food and Drug Administration to prevent the sale and distribution of consumable products deemed so harmful as to be a public health hazard. These included foods processed in unsanitary conditions and substances sold as medicines or drugs that were either ineffective or actively dangerous.
  • Securities and Exchange Commission

    Decades of economic instability and mistrust in financial institutions came to a head during the Great Depression and resulted in the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
  • Federal Communications Commission

    As radio and telephone technologies spread across the economy, Congress created the Federal Communications Commissions (FCC) to manage the complexities of these new communications technologies.
  • Social Security Administration

    The Great Depression revealed many of the vulnerabilities created by the industrial revolution, particularly in regard to older workers. Congress created the Social Security Board to help elderly Americans obtain basic living expenses as their earning power declined with age.
  • Environmental Protection Agency

    The industrial age brought great advances in standard of living, but also produced downsides that Congress tried to address over decades. Finally, under President Nixon, Congress established the Environmental Protection Agency to consolidate an array of long-standing and new federal environmental responsibilities under one organization in order to more efficiently and effectively coordinate federal activity.
  • Federal Election Commission

    Creation of the Federal Election Commission culminated a history of efforts to limit the influence of money and power on elections.
  • Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

    The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) was established to protect consumers in the financial markets from unfair, deceptive, or abusive practices and to take action against companies that break the law.

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Related Problems: Climate Change
Progress: Green New Deal Pushed McConnell to Say ‘I Do’

Researched and written by George Linzer, Forrest Stewart

Published on November 5, 2019

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