Tag: Theodore Roosevelt

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).

Blame It On the Constitution

The New York Times treats us today to an op-ed by Prof. Sanford Levinson entitled “Our Imbecilic Constitution,” with the remedy recommended for such imbecility taking us well beyond reforming the document’s amendment provisions. The problem, you see, is that our government has become “dysfunctional” owing to “gridlock.” Like all good Progressives, Levinson is a government man: he sees problems for which no less than the federal government is the ready solution, but that’s unlikely under the strictures our “imbecilic” Constitution imposes on it.

Not surprisingly, therefore, he starts with a complaint about federalism: in the Senate, small states have power equal to that of large ones, which in turn implicates the Electoral College. The remedy for the problems Levinson believes can be traced to those checks on power is to unleash popular will through a more direct democracy. Thus he lauds Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, Progressives who “seriously questioned the adequacy of the Constitution.”

Theodore Roosevelt would have allowed Congress to override Supreme Court decisions invalidating federal laws, while Woodrow Wilson basically supported a parliamentary system and, as president, tried to act more as a prime minister than as an agent of Congress. The next few years saw the enactment of amendments establishing the legitimacy of the federal income tax, direct election of senators, Prohibition and women’s right to vote.

Never mind the merits of those accomplishments, Levinson next offers various state constitutions as models for what might be, starting with New York’s, its fifth such document. One hopes the Knickbockers get it right before too many more years pass, because if dysfunction be the touchstone of failure, the Empire State has come close to it.

Then again, Levinson offers this idea for fixing congressional gridlock:

We could permit each newly elected president to appoint 50 members of the House and 10 members of the Senate, all to serve four-year terms until the next presidential election. Presidents would be judged on actual programs, instead of hollow rhetoric.

“Programs:” We need to get things done. Isn’t that what government is for?

To be sure, there are problems today that cry out for solutions, yet most are not inherent in the human condition but rather are the result of government “programs.” After all, it’s entitlements, individual and corporate, that have given us our massive deficits and debt, to take only the largest and most conspicuous examples. That is the one thing that Levinson does not seem to appreciate.

As compared to the rest of the world, our Constitution has stood the test of time fairly well. The problems we now have did not arise from abiding by its limitations but just the opposite. The Progressives ignored those limits. It’s that behavior, on which the New Deal and the Great Society doubled down, that has brought us to this impasse, with the country immersed today in the politics of a zero-sum game. We don’t need a new Constitution. We need to return to the one we have.

Teddy Roosevelt Is No Model for a President

Cato senior fellow Jim Powell, author of Bully Boy: The Truth about Theodore Roosevelt’s Legacy, writes at Forbes.com today that TR is a bad model for President Obama:

Theodore Roosevelt was the man who, in 1906, encouraged progressives to promote a federal income tax after it was struck down by the Supreme Court and given up for dead.  He declared that “too much cannot be said against the men of great wealth.”  He vowed to “punish certain malefactors of great wealth.”

Perhaps TR’s view was rooted in an earlier era when the greatest fortunes were made by providing luxuries for kings, like fine furniture, tapestries, porcelains and works of silver, gold and jewels.  Since the rise of industrial capitalism, however, the greatest fortunes generally have been made by serving millions of ordinary people.  One thinks of the Wrigley chewing gum fortune, the Heinz pickle fortune, the Havemeyer sugar fortune, the Shields shaving cream fortune, the Colgate toothpaste fortune, the Ford automobile fortune and, more recently, the Jobs Apple fortune.  TR inherited money from his family’s glass-importing and banking businesses, and maybe his hostility to capitalist wealth was driven by guilt.

Like Obama, TR was a passionate believer in big government – actually the first president to promote it since the Civil War.  He said, “I believe in power…I did greatly broaden the use of executive power…The biggest matters I managed without consultation with anyone, for when a matter is of capital importance, it is well to have it handled by one man only …I don’t think that any harm comes from the concentration of power in one man’s hands.”

Also like Obama, TR was almost entirely focused on politics – personalities, speeches, publicity and so on.  He seemed to be concerned about an economic issue only when it became a big problem, particularly if it was big enough to affect the next election.  There wasn’t much evidence of long-term thinking beyond the next election.  Certainly there was no evident awareness of unintended consequences.

Much more here.

Whitewashing Progressivism

Damon Root points out that the Center for American Progress has a particularly one-sided view of “The Progressive Tradition in American Politics.” [.pdf]  To add to what Root is saying, my view is that American politics is essentially tribal warfare and an important factor in tribal warfare is the cohesion of the tribes.  One way to accomplish this is by romanticizing history to create a powerful identity with which the tribesmen want to associate themselves.  A political movement needs heroes, villains, narrative.  But CAP’s account of the Progressive movement’s history is remarkably one-sided.

When I ticked over to CAP’s “Progressive Tradition” document [.pdf], I looked to see whether they included Wilson’s 1916 reasoning that it was “in order to keep the white race or part of it strong to meet the yellow race – Japan, for instance, in alliance with Russia, dominating China – [that made it] wise to do nothing” with respect to the war in Europe.  They did not.  In fact, the authors select the passive voice for describing Wilson’s slapdash diplomacy that sucked America into the war: “In his second term, he became preoccupied with international affairs due to the U.S. entry into World War I.”  This phrasing makes it sound like “the U.S. entry” was an act of God, not an act of Wilson.  Moreover, if someone without any prior knowledge read the document they would be painfully unaware that the reason Wilson “became preoccupied with international affairs” was because he got us into a war.

George Creel

What about the Committee on Public Information, a government propaganda machine that made George Bush look like Glenn Greenwald?  The CPI worked in concert with (no kidding) the “Boy Spies of America” to root out insufficiently pro-war thinking.  CPI’s perhaps most metaphysical pronouncement was that U.S. entrance to the Great War was, in fact, “a Crusade not merely to re-win the tomb of Christ, but to bring back to earth the rule of right, the peace, goodwill to men and gentleness he taught.”  What about Roosevelt’s puffed-up belligerence, again foreshadowing Bush, in stating that “He who is not with us, absolutely and without reserve of any kind, is against us, and should be treated as an alien enemy”?  What about the Palmer Raids, named for ur-Progressive and Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, wherein the U.S. Government ransacked union halls and homes, snatched up prisoners and held them without access to counsel or courts, and engaged in mass, summary, and unilateral deportations?  Not a word.

As to the Red Scare more generally, the best the authors can do is to shrug that as Wilson’s “general intolerance of dissent during World I became exacerbated by fear of the 1917 Russian Revolution, he played a central role in promoting the Red Scare of 1917-20.  The Red Scare made domestic activism a target of both police suppression and nativist sentiment, producing an atmosphere hardly conducive to the cause of progressive reform.”  Is that supposed to be a denunciation?

In contrast to all this obfuscation and equivocation, poor Warren Harding comes in for a soaking for having produced “a sharp increase in racial violence and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, new restrictions on immigration, rises in protective tariffs, increases in economic concentration, and tax cuts for the rich.”

Imagine if a conservative group came out with a history of American conservative thought that expressly linked modern American conservatism to the political thought of, say, John C. Calhoun, with only mealy-mouthed “to be sure” language like that used by CAP with respect to Progressivism.  Lefties would be outraged, and rightly so.  Will CAP clear the air on the Progressive movement’s history of racism, imperialism, executive supremacism and contempt for civil liberties?  I bet I know the answer.