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  • John Raskob's Conservative Vision of Financial Self-Management
  • David Farber (bio)


In the first third of the twentieth century, as the United States underwent far-reaching corporate reorganization, financial innovation, and social reform, a relatively small group of people wrestled publicly with big questions about economic equity, cultural values, and organizational form. Although a number of big businessmen and financial tycoons figured prominently in those debates, recent historiography often reads these men out of this era's intellectual and policy debates or treats them as narrow and narrowly self-interested economic actors, though in the last few years a new generation of historians of capitalism has begun to rethink the place of the businessman in American public life.1 Then, too, an older scholarly literature does chart the business communities' role in debating and forging early twentieth-century American political economy. This 1970s-era scholarship demonstrates the critical role "corporate liberals" played in influencing New Deal reforms and the ways in which "welfare capitalism" prefigured statist solutions to American economic insecurity and class conflict.2 Certainly, as this literature argues, some businessmen were "corporate liberals" who leaned toward New Deal reforms. Many, however, were not. They opposed the New Deal and insisted on different approaches to Americans' concerns about economic insecurity and relative material deprivations. They were the people who, as a few historians have recently shown, would spearhead the modern conservative movement.3

One of the most prominent and influential of these conservative businessmen was John J. Raskob. Raskob's answers to the political economy crises [End Page 1] of the interwar years would become central to the modern conservative political and economic order in the United States. Raskob rejected statist solutions to problems of economic insecurity and relative material deprivation. Statist solutions, he argued, produced character-destroying dependency, stifled innovation, and resulted in economic inefficiency (in the mid-1930s, these beliefs would lead him to found and organize the anti-New Deal organization, the American Liberty League). Likewise, he rejected labor union collective-bargaining approaches; unions, too, he argued, hurt economic productivity and promoted demoralizing class conflict rather than profitinducing workplace unity. Raskob offered a different path.

To borrow a phrase from a later generation of political conservatives, Raskob was an early advocate of an ownership society. He sought to link the fortunes of the masses to the productivity and profitability of corporate America. Specifically, Raskob believed that an intertwined system of widespread equity investment and easily available consumer credit would allow the great majority of Americans to prosper and reap the benefits of the capitalist system. Famously, Raskob declared at the very height of the Roaring Twenties that "everybody ought to be rich."4 He meant that if people had the opportunity and the tools to become their own independent financial managers, everybody could live the American dream.

Raskob was not the first to argue that financial self-management was fundamental to American life. Daniel Levy, in his pathbreaking work, Freaks of Fortune, demonstrates that in the nineteenth century Americans, wrestling with capitalist transformation, emphasized financial self-management as a way to manage the risk inherent in a market society. A range of elites, Levy argues, "developed a vision of freedom that linked the liberal idea of self-ownership to the personal assumption of 'risk.' In a democratic society, according to the new gospel, free and equal men must take, run, own, assume, bear, carry, and manage risk."5 While Raskob seriously underplayed the dangers of taking on the economic risks explicit in corporate stock-ownership and consumer debt, he did believe that Americans could successfully weather the vicissitudes of life under a capitalist system not by accepting a government-mandated safety net but by taking advantage of the tools of economic management that capitalism made possible. And Raskob, in the twentieth century, created some of those tools.

Raskob promoted his ideas through word and deed. He engineered employee stock-ownership plans at the two corporations in which he served as chief financial officer: DuPont and General Motors. And in 1929, as was [End Page 2] reported in almost every major newspaper in the United States, he planned to create the largest equity-based investment...


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