Social critics blaze trails to government oversight
By Phillip Kurata
October 16, 2007
In 1906, crusading author Upton Sinclair published the book The Jungle, which exposed the gruesome conditions in the meat-packing industry in Chicago. Describing how sausages were made, Sinclair writes,
"There would be meat that had tumbled out on the floor, in the dirt and sawdust, where the workers had tramped and spit uncounted billions of consumption germs. There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it. It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats. These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together."
President Theodore Roosevelt sent federal agents to Chicago in 1906 to find out if conditions were as bad as Sinclair had described them. They were a hundred times worse, the agents reported back. Within months, the U.S. Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act, the first federal actions to protect the U.S. consumer from unsafe food and fraudulent medicines. To this day, the sausages, steaks, pork chops and medications consumed by the U.S. public are protected by these laws.
Sinclair was one of a number of journalistic crusaders, branded as "muckrakers" by the first President Roosevelt. Their exposés of corruption and abuses led to legislative reforms that illustrate the self-correcting nature of U.S. democracy. Lincoln Steffens details municipal corruption in his book Shame of the Cities, which led to legislation that crippled the political machines dominating the major cities in the early 20th century. Ida Tarbell dissected the malfeasances of the Standard Oil Company, leading to the break up of that company and other monopolies. The publication of David Graham Phillip's Treason of the Senate created a public outcry that resulted in the direct election of senators.
The protection of citizens from the powerful and the privileged has been a recurring theme in the history of American democracy and capitalism. Economic freedoms have allowed enterprising people to accumulate wealth, but political freedoms have enabled reformers to reveal abuses and voters to thwart the formation of an oligarchy.
The Federal Trade Commission, established in 1914, has played a key role in keeping the marketplace free of deception and filled with competition. During the New Deal era of President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s, lawmakers at the federal, state and local levels created many regulatory agencies to defend the diffuse interests of citizens and consumers from the concentrated power of financial and industrial groups.
After recovery from World War II, reformist zeal reignited in the 1960s with the publication of Silent Spring by marine biologist Rachel Carson. Maligned at the time by chemical companies and politicians friendly to them, her book documented how the chemical DDT and other pesticides contaminated the food chain, killing wildlife and causing human illnesses. Toxic residues, for instance, were found in mothers' breast milk, fueling demands for environmental protection. By 1970, Carson's clarion call for action was enshrined into law with the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Since then, contamination levels of DDT, lead and cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls have declined sharply. In the era of global warming, awareness of the importance of the environment continues to grow.
At the same time that Carson was shining light on the abuses of the chemical pesticide industry, Ralph Nader made headlines with his 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed, which showed how carmakers neglected safety and focused on styling, comfort, speed and power.
In an effort to discredit Nader, the General Motors Corporation hired a detective to investigate Nader's politics, religion and sex life. When this was revealed, the president of General Motors was forced to apologize for the invasion of Nader's privacy before a Senate subcommittee and pay a $425,000 settlement. Nader used the money to establish more than two dozen public interest groups to monitor actions that run counter to the interests of citizens and consumers. He also has spearheaded landmark legislation such as the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the Consumer Products Safety Act.
Many of the protections that Americans take for granted today are the work of social crusaders who changed the way corporations do business and government bureaucracies protect the public. U.S. government agencies today welcome the public's input about the safety of the products people consume.
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