See more of the story

Opinion editor's note: Star Tribune Opinion publishes a mix of national and local commentaries online and in print each day. To contribute, click here.


A free country will always have its share of "robber barons." But not all such barons, or robbers, are created equal.

The label was not meant as a compliment when it was first bestowed to the John D. Rockefellers and Andrew Carnegies of the late 19th century. And it's seldom been attached at all to today's Big Tech barons.

And yet today's masters of the economic universe are worse, even far worse, than their counterparts of long ago. Their impact has been to make this country less free.

All our barons, in all eras, have benefited from operating in a country grounded in political and economic freedom. But only our modern Big Tech barons have used their power to police individual thought with one click and produce herd-like thinking with another.

Wait a minute, you ask, the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates are robber barons on the order of Rockefeller and Carnegie? The short answer is yes. The longer answer is that today's tech barons are more powerful, more insidious and much more dangerous than the old school variety — though they are just as willing as any Rockefeller to crush competitors and just as committed as any Carnegie to controlling their workers.

More than that, they are also willing to do the bidding of America's enemies. Witness Apple's kowtowing to the request of the Chinese communist regime that it shut down communication among Hong Kong anti-regime protesters.

In this country the latter day robber barons seem far more interested in cooperating with one major political party than the other. Witness the Zuckerberg investment of multiple millions in the 2020 election, less to bolster American democracy than to assure a Democratic Party victory.

What to do, given the clout and predilections of our current robber barons? Ironically, maybe the best answer would be to reverse the course of action taken by the original Progressives in their attempt to rein in the original robber barons.

There is little doubt that those old time barons presented a serious challenge to America's founding constitutional order of limited government and divided powers. But the Progressive reform movement that rose in response has played its own role in further upending that original constitutional order.

Our first openly progressive president, Theodore Roosevelt, was convinced that something had to be done about the "wealthy criminal class." But despite his trustbusting reputation, TR's real emphasis was on building up the state rather than on breaking down the trusts.

Good Darwinian that he was, Republican Roosevelt assumed that evolution toward bigness, in business and government, was both inevitable and ultimately beneficial. In addition, he presumed that a progressive federal bureaucracy would always be staffed and run by politically disinterested experts. Progressive Democratic President Woodrow Wilson essentially agreed, thereby giving the progressive agenda a bipartisan sheen.

While this presidential pair did not deny that the Constitution of 1787 may have been a good starting point for a new country, they were both convinced that the time had come to move beyond that ancient document.

Well, given the power and reach of today's robber barons, coupled with the power and reach of a federal bureaucracy that often operates in tandem with them, the time may now have come to put that old Constitution to some newly vigorous use. While America's founders believed in a limited (Jeffersonian) sphere for government, they also endorsed the "energetic" (Hamiltonian) use of government.

If successfully applied, that constitutional energy could — and should — generate a great gradual reversal of the process that gave us an ever-expanding federal government in the first place.

Let's concede that both sets of robber barons have been innovators and builders, who made life better in many ways for many Americans. Nonetheless, the social costs that have accompanied our modern technological tools are no less real — and have become much more immediately apparent — than the economic and environmental costs imposed by the barons of long ago.

The societal contagions that have been unleashed by Big Tech have been especially damaging among the young.

Finally, the revelations that have come from Elon Musk's takeover of Twitter have exposed the underside of the Rooseveltian vision of a politically disinterested federal bureaucracy. Witness the now revealed collusion between the FBI and Twitter to define and condemn what together they decided was "disinformation," followed by Twitter acting to "deplatform" those deemed to be spreading it.

Only the Constitution that the original progressives disdained is equipped to halt this juggernaut. With political will, plus executive and judicial support, Congress could reassert itself as the first branch of government, whether by ceasing to surrender its authority to the executive branch bureaucracy or by some meaningful trustbusting of Big Tech.

Bureaucracy busting would also be wise. No longer remotely bipartisan, the federal bureaucracy has essentially become an arm of the Democratic Party. Scrapping the FBI and starting over would be a good step. Other bureaucracies should be scattered around the country. Disease-ridden with politics, the CDC could remain in Atlanta, so long as it is placed under strict quarantine. Eliminating the Department of Education and returning schooling decisions to the states and local school boards should also occur.

In sum, let's revitalize localism. The goal would not be to restore the 18th century, but to revive the spirit of America.

It would be deliciously ironic if such a revival and reversal was inspired by the excesses of a new cadre of robber barons, rather as the grasping for power and control by the Rockefellers and Carnegies inspired the overgrowth and distortion of modern government in the first place.

John C. "Chuck" Chalberg writes from Bloomington and has performed for many years as Theodore Roosevelt.