What should have been the role of the federal government in regulating the economy during the Gilded Age?

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While the Gilded Age is known for launching achievements from many of the world's most accomplished entrepreneurs, inventors and thinkers, the federal government of the United States has been criticized for its lack of regulatory influence during this area. In fact, the Gilded Age is recognized as an "all-time low" for presidential authority.

The President and Federal Authority

Throughout the Gilded Age, there was significant corruption at the Congressional and state levels of government, which in turn manifested in economic corruption. The federal government, led by the President of the United States, was criticized as being forgettable and impotent from the end of the Civil War to the end of the Gilded Age. President Andrew Johnson served as a focal point for the national dissatisfaction with federal authority during this time, avoiding impeachment by one Senate vote. The Grant Administration was rife with corruption and the Hayes Presidency began with accusations of election fraud, weakening federal authority even further. With the authority of the federal government compromised, it was unable to exert the same balancing power over the other branches of government and the economic sector that the American system of government normally facilitates.

Economic Regulation

The lack of federal authority in the Gilded Age contributed to an even greater lack of economic regulation. Factories that rose to success during the Civil War resulted in the Panic of 1893, during which the American economy came close to doubling in size. Economic competition intensified and a small minority rose to power and drove many of their competitors to bankruptcy. Critics of the federal government cited a lack of economic regulation that kept the most prominent industrialists from dominating the economy. It was believed that these “captains of industry” profited through often unfair tactics in an economy with few laws governing fair business practices.

Laissez-Faire Ideology and the Role of Federal Government in the Economy

By today's prevailing economic standards, the federal government during the Gilded Age should have imposed more regulation on businesses and industries. However, this is a matter of debate based on economic and political ideals such as capitalism, the free market and the degree of financial conservatism or liberalism the individual holds. In general, the federal government during the Gilded Age was considered pro-business, while many critics argued that it should have been more focused on protecting consumers. Many people wanted the Presidents during this time to show a greater willingness to control market conditions and place restrictions upon successful businesses to protect workers and other competitors. This lack of regulatory control came from the laissez-faire policy, which values minimal governmental intervention in the economic affairs of a country. Many Americans embraced laissez-faire economics during this time, while others argued that the federal government should have been more active in creating regulations to protect workers' rights, limit child labor, and prevent economic corruption.