Paul Krugman’s Nostalgia for Teddy Roosevelt’s New Nationalism

Paul Krugman managed to discover “America’s Taxation Tradition” in an unlikely spot – a fiery old political speech by an unsuccessful presidential candidate who called for a “graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes.” Dripping with irony, Krugman asks “Who this left-winger? Theodore Roosevelt, in his famous 1910 New Nationalism Speech.”

Readers are supposed to assume that because Roosevelt had been a Republican, his New Nationalism speech could not possibly have been remotely left of center. Yet the phrase “new nationalism” and the advocacy of an inheritance tax were both borrowed from Herbert Croly’s highly influential 1909 manifesto of the Progressive Era, The Promise of American Life.

As Christopher Lasch noted, “Theodore Roosevelt read The Promise, found it highly flattering to himself, publicly praised it, and used it as an argument for his ‘new nationalism.’ Croly did not so much influence Roosevelt as read into his career an intellectual coherence which Roosevelt then adopted as his own view of things.” Croly, who later launched The New Republic magazine, supported Roosevelt in the 1912 Presidential race and Robert La Follette’s Progressive Party campaign in 1924, before becoming disenchanted and (as Lasch put it) “flirting with socialism.”

In his 1909 book, Croly said, “In economic warfare … it is the business of the state to see that its own friends are victorious. It holds … a hand in the game.” The state, said Croly, must look out for “the national interest,” and help those to win “who are most capable of using their winnings for the benefit of society.” To the properly cynical, that sounds like an open invitation to crony capitalism and corruption, if not kleptocracy.

In the New Nationalism speech Roosevelt said, “We should permit [a fortune] to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community. This, I know, implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country …  No man should receive a dollar unless that dollar has been fairly earned. Every dollar received should represent a dollar’s worth of service rendered — not gambling in stocks, but service rendered” (Roosevelt gambled-away his own inheritance on a ranching venture, not stocks).

Not quite socialist in 1909, Croly tolerated, “preservation of the institution of private property in some form, [but only with] the … radical transformation of its existing nature and influence.” Similarly, Roosevelt allowed that he would prefer to stop short of government ownership of business (socialism), if government control (fascism) would suffice. “I do not wish to see the nation forced into the ownership of the railways,” said Roosevelt, “if it can possibly be avoided.”

In short, the Roosevelt/Croly New Nationalism certainly did lean in a “leftist” (statist and collectivist) direction with respect to state supremacy over private property.

As afterword, here is something I wrote in a 1995 anthology revisiting Croly’s The Promise of American Life:

Herbert Croly’s quaint 1909 vision of the merits of increased centralization was founded on the notion that ‘American state governments have been corrupt and inefficient largely because they have been organized for the benefit of corrupt and inefficient men.’ The federal government, by contrast, was apparently organized for the benefit of saints and angels. Still, Croly’s idea of ‘big government’ in Washington looks like a bargain by today’s standards. He reasoned that a much stronger federal government could be financed out of a graduated inheritance tax: ‘The tax at its highest level,’ Croly wrote, ‘could be placed without danger of evasion at as much as 20 percent.’ Some recent estimates suggest that Croly may have been correct about how high the estate tax could be pushed without losing money. In any case, if a 20 percent inheritance tax were the only federal tax we had to worry about, as Croly proposed, the states would have little difficulty in raising money for the services that are still almost entirely a state or local responsibility, such as police protection, public schools, and roads. (The federal government, by contrast, is almost entirely involved in taking money from some people and giving it to others).