Does Rockefeller deserve to be called a "robber baron?" Why or why not?
The term "robber baron" was first applied to American industrialists in 1859. It was initially applied to Cornelius Vanderbilt and subsequently to such prominent figures as Andrew Carnegie, John Jacob Astor, J. P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller himself. Thus, on a simple historical level, Rockefeller is indeed considered one of the "robber barons."
If one wants to evaluate his business practices ethically, one should note that the nineteenth century was a period of great innovation and growth in manufacturing. It took many decades for ethical practices and worker protections to evolve in response to the disruptions of this new economy (just as we are now living through a period in which the new gig economy is going through a similar evolution). As with many of the other robber barons, Rockefeller combined a strong sense of religious morality and civic virtue with a belief in "social Darwinism" and ruthless business practices, many of which would now be illegal. It should be noted that his ruthlessness as a businessperson was balanced with great personal rectitude and charitable giving on a monumental scale.
Although he did pioneer many innovations in the oil industry, the heart of Standard Oil took advantage of government subsidies, evolved into a monopoly, and eventually used monopolistic power to put potential competitors out of business. Thus, rather than being an example of success due to open competition, his success was due in large part to rent-seeking. The United States Supreme Court broke up Rockefeller's Standard Oil company in 1911 on the grounds that it violated anti-trust laws.
The term “robber baron” is probably too harsh to properly apply to anyone. However, inasmuch as anyone deserves it, John D. Rockefeller does. The reason why he deserves it is because he was ruthless in his attempts to increase the market share held by his company in the oil business.
Rockefeller can be called a robber baron simply because he used his power to destroy other businesses. Rockefeller wanted his company to have as much of the market as possible. To achieve this, he pushed his company hard to reduce its costs. This involved tactics like pushing railroads to give him the lowest possible rates and ruthlessly searching for any way to improve the efficiency of his operation. Once he had accomplished his goal of reducing costs, he was able to outcompete the other companies and drive them out of business. As his company got bigger and bigger, he became more and more able to use its power to crush his competitors. For this reason, he deserves the name “robber baron.”
However, this is not to say that Rockefeller only did bad things. In a sense, his ruthlessness was good for consumers. It drove the price of oil down, thus saving people money. Rockefeller also used some of the money that he made for charitable purposes. He believed in the “Gospel of Wealth” and gave substantial amounts of money to charitable causes.
Thus, we can call Rockefeller a robber baron, but we should not imagine that his actions only had negative effects.