John D. Rockefeller and the Standard Oil Trust

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A close examination of Standard Oil Trust and the business practices of John D. Rockefeller provide a clear example of why government and/or legal intervention in business practices are essential to avoid what we now perceive as corruption. In many ways the success achieved by Rockefeller and his sly manipulation of the industry in conjunction with the once-booming railroad industry. When we consider the various spheres of power in business practices, it becomes even more obvious how dangerous a Standard Oil can be for multiple parties. Loopholes in state regulations allowed Rockefeller to keep his empire afloat as the reigning king of the oil industry. The kind of business practices exercised by Standard Oil Trust and its mastermind, John D. Rockefeller, would never be tolerated in today’s business environment. While Rockefeller’s underhanded business tactics were more tolerable in his day than in ours, this is simply because his oil empire was of the first huge monopolies among American entrepreneurs and precedents had not yet been set for business of this magnitude, which created America's first millionaires.

The cultural disparity between Rockefeller’s time and ours has much to do with the spirit of American entrepreneurism, which was one of the definitive characteristics of the American mindset. The fact that any business-savvy man could become a millionaire overnight was more admirable than it was frowned upon; this is because the culture of the time adhered to the notion of the American dream. Furthermore, men like Rockefeller were key in building the American economy and America itself. Many of these huge monopolies were responsible for aiding in the construction of our infrastructure, allowing for the Industrial Revolution at the turn of the twentieth century.

On the other hand, today’s society monopoly-like look back retrospectively and see the pit-falls of these kinds of business practices. Gross manipulation, monopolization, back door deals, poor treatment of workers, and no regard for the consumer were the ugly facts that allowed Rockefeller and Standard Oil to thrive. Today, we hold our corporations up to ethical standards and practices that had simply not yet monopoly-like at the time Rockefeller made his millions. A social contract, a kind of unwritten law between society and a corporation to act ethically, was something that was only in its infancy, as most people simply watched on with awe as Standard Oil grew. Standard Oil is a perfect case study in the dominance theory.

As time went on, it is not surprising that legal action had to Americans to address the manipulative and coercive business tactics of a monopoly-like Standard Oil. The company and its history of eventual government intervention illustrate the limits of business power that have become commonplace in today’s society. Many might find it hard to believe that Rockefeller, a devout Christian, could also be a so-called ruthless monopolist. The explanation here lies again in the cultural and social climate of his day where such success in business was admirable and inspiring to those with an American entrepreneurial spirit. It should also be noted that Rockefeller did not work alone. Whether or not Rockefeller himself ever acted unethically would differ by our own standards and those of his time. Rockefeller’s oil empire most likely would never have existed if both state and federal governments had tighter regulations on business, and it’s possible that it could have been detrimental to society as a whole if Rockefeller never achieved what he had. Of course, there were people who suffered because of the questionable business practices of Standard Oil; however, in many respects this kind of monumental economic growth aided others. It is nearly impossible to place Standard Oil in the context of today’s business environment, where it would never be able to exist. There was, of course, and an end to Standard Oil’s early backdoor deals with the implementation of the antitrust legislation known as the Sherman Antitrust Act. It was actually the dissolution of Standard Oil that propelled Rockefeller even further into the millionaires club, as he was a retired shareholder at the time.