March 29, 2010

TR, Progressive

"At the time I became President I had grown to feel --antri deep intensity of conviction that governmental agencies must find their justification largely in the way in which they are used for the practical betterment of living and working conditions among the mass of the people. I felt that the fight was really for the abolition of privilege; and one of the first stages in the battle was necessarily to fight for the rights of he workingman. For this reason I felt most strongly that all that the government could do in the interest of labor should be done. The Federal Government can rarely act with the directness that the State governments act. It can, however, do a good deal." -- Theodore Roosevelt (autobiography)

Chew on that a moment, ThreeSourcers. I just finished President Theodore Roosevelt's autobiography. I recommend it highly and it is available free on Google Books (I have a SONY eReader that displays Google Books -- you could also read onscreen).

We had words once about TR. I had a pretty negative opinion based mostly on Gene Healy's The Cult of the Presidency and Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism. Reading through the presidents, I have tried, where I have a strong opinion, to read at least one book from the other side. So for TR I read his autobiography, William Roscoe Thayer's highly complimentary autobiography and I am partway through TR's "Through the Brazilian Wilderness."

It is impossible to not appreciate his patriotism, integrity, and the intensity of his personality. One can quickly see why Senator McCain and Governor Charlie Christ call themselves "Teddy Roosevelt Republicans." He truly looms larger than life: his Rushmore image.

He addresses accusations of executive overreach. He claims correctly that he represents the "Jackson-Lincoln" view of executive power. In a masterful, world class display of spin, he refers to objectors as the "Taft-Buchannan" view of Executive Power. Me = Lincoln, Jackson; Taft = Buchannan.

And yet -- for all my appreciation -- I see him not as much a continuation of Lincoln-Jackson but more as a precursor to Wilson-FDR-LBJ-Obama. He turns the Tenth Amendment on its ass like some rhino he has shot in his pajamas:

in such cases it is the duty of the President to act trppii tin theuiy llial he'is Llie steward of the people, aficHftatlhfe' proper aTT.itildeJtM>-4nm^to take is that haTfe bptinci"to"assume that he has the ]epa1 right to do whatever the needjTbf the people demand, unless the Constitution or the laws explicitlv torhirt him To do it

Google Books are scanned and occasionally wig out like this. It is rare that it is that bad. I did not want to cleanse it and change the actual quote -- but I think you all get the drift. He looks to the Constitution for a list of enumerated proscriptions -- and, not finding it, carries boldly on.

As you can imagine, much ink is devoted to trust-busting. The Sherman Antitrust act was turned over in US v EC Knight but President Roosevelt forced an almost identical case through a year later and got it overturned.

I'll even cede that TR and his administration may have been in the right on some of their forays against the right to contract. But he did not see what his philosophical heirs would do 100 years later. Clinton's DOJ's attack on Microsoft, the impedance on the Sirius-XM merger, &c.

The list goes on and on. Today you can add DuPont vs. Monsanto. In case you are wondering which one of the adjudicants is "the little guy," that would be DuPont. Poor fledgling child that it is, it requires gub'mint help to stop Monsanto's monopolistic practices. As Dave Berry would say, I am not making this up. The WSJ Ed Page points out that the Obama Administration is on the case:

In fact, DuPont holds a slight edge in soybean seed sales, and each company represents about one-quarter of the soybean seed market. Competition is strong in the seed industry, where Monsanto lost market share as a result of its decision to license its soybean technology to other seed producers.

But Ms. [Christine] Varney, the Justice antitrust chief, has her eye on bigger things. She once worked to organize farm workers and she has said that Justice's Iowa workshops were inspired by her concern that the Bush Administration had allowed too many mergers across the farm industry, creating a culture of Big Agriculture that is bad for America. Besides this litigation, the Justice Department recently filed suit in Wisconsin to prevent further "consolidation" in dairy processing. The livestock industry, which is dominated by a handful of major producers and was another hot topic at the Iowa workshops, could be next.


Had Mister Roosevelt left things to property rights and market forces, the ills he fought would have worked themselves out through unions, state regulations, and consumer preference. By creating a government panel for Ms. Varney and Ag Chief Tom Vilsak to sit on, this insane charade continues unabated,

Philosophy Posted by John Kranz at March 29, 2010 10:39 AM

Reading HB's great comment below and Ayn Rand's Fascist New Frontier I am tempted to add JFK to the list. National Review once provided a handy guide to the US presidents. If they are known by their initials, they are bad.

Posted by: jk at March 29, 2010 1:31 PM

In my younger days I fancied myself a "Teddy Roosevelt Republican" too. My reasons were, mostly: National Parks conservation and "speak softly and carry a big stick" (and be willing to use it.) Now, I know better.

Excellent post brother.

Posted by: johngalt at March 29, 2010 3:20 PM

Many thanks for the kind words, jg.

The SONY Reader has a "bookmark" button to mark relevant quotes for future retrieval. Reading the book and imagining this post I must have marked well over a dozen (a real dozen, not a CNN dozen) such quotes -- each more incriminating that the one before it. The introductory quote of this post summed them up. But should anyone think that I cherry-picked it, I can provide many similar and some worse.

Posted by: jk at March 29, 2010 5:42 PM

TR's Autobiography is a funny book. I enjoyed it my first read through, though I do not think it is the best thing that he has written. Most amusing to me was the chapter that deals with finance - biographers tell us that the one subject in the world that bored TR was economics, and that large bits of it went over his head. Perhaps understandably, TR had managed to convinced himself that it was the concentrated actions of the federal government that had saved the nation's economy from a death spiral after the banker's panic.

It is funny that you should write this post now, as I am about halfway through reading The Free citizen, a summons to service of the democratic ideal by Theodore Roosevelt; selections from his writings and stories from his record, a lengthy and annotated series of quotations and excerpts from TR's writings and speeches. It has been an interesting read, and has deepened my appreciation and understanding of the man. I think it can be safely said that most of his errors rest on two assumptions.

TR said in 1912:

All of us, you and I, all of us together, want to rule ourselves, and we don't wish to have any outsiders rule us. That is what free government means."

Consider the implications of this statement. For TR, any force that violated the autonomy of the honorable citizen was a threat to freedom. As he said in another speech he given a few years earlier:

The distinctive features of the American system are its guarantees of personal independence and individual freedom; that is, as far as possible, it guarantees to each man his right to live as he chooses and to regulate his own private affairs as he wishes, without being interfered with or tyrannized over by an individual, or by an oligarchic minority, or by a democratic majority.

Notice that he does not distinguish between the means by which these individuals, minorities, and majorities received their power to tyrannize - for TR, price setting cartels, lynch mobs, and despotic kings all are one and the same. They all impose restrictions on the autonomy and opportunity of the citizen, and thus all ought to be fought against with equal vigor.

Thus in many ways TR was very, very different from other progressives who followed after him. Unlike FDR (or Obama), TR never would sanction direct governmental control of the economy or support state sanctioned monopolies. This would be the establishment of undeserved privilege - the enemy of all those who thought that men should be given equal opportunity, not equality itself. This equal opportunity was the the 'square deal' TR was always taking about, and at its core was this vision of the citizen as an autonomous being whose only limits to success was his character. It makes sense then, that TR wanted to destroy those institutions that served (as he saw it) as artificial limits from above.

What TR missed was that these limits were fundamentally different from each other. Coercion was coercion, no matter its source. It never would have occurred to TR that the power of the corporations was unstable, that market forces and consumer preferences would eventually sort things out. Part of this is due Roosevelt's poor grasp of economics, as already mentioned. Part of it was also due to the tenor of the times, where the folks with the power of Morgan seemed untouchable. Most of all though, I think it was just TR's insistence on painting everything in black and white. The evils of the mob and the market were one and the same. Forgotten was that at the end of the day, the state is always the one with the biggest stick.

As for the tyranny TR himself brought to bear with his wielding of state power - this I think is sourced in one of TR's bigger mistakes: the conflation of the people and the federal government. More often than not, TR saw the two as one and the same - or rather, one as the subset of the other, the government being the arm of the people. The American people were, in TR's mind, a mass that could do no wrong - paragons of virtue and enterprise in a world that had little. When this world assaulted the freedom of self-made men (be it through of financial oligarchs or foreign intrigues), it was the government of the US, consecrated in her constitution, whose job it was to defend them. TR, I think, had a very hard time imaging the US government as a tyrannical force - how could an arm tyrannize the body? Only through inefficiency and corruption could the Republic pose a threat to the people as a whole.

We know, of course, that this is not true. I think this was less clear in 1900. His substantive civil service reforms and wars against the party machines (an under appreciated legacy whose importance cannot be discounted, I think) were meant to ensure that only the best of men could come to power. TR saw his own election as proof that the American people recognized who these men were. He had faith that the American people would continue bringing such men to power.

For this reason, I doubt that TR gave much thought to long term implications of his policies. His starting point was the opposite of the framer's. They labored to build institutions that could not be used for despotism even if the worst of men were elected to power. TR's policies were such as would fall into despotism unless the best of men were elected to power. TR's fault, I think, was the sincere expectation that this would never happen.

Posted by: T. Greer at March 31, 2010 8:57 AM

Quick note-

That "coercion is coercion" line should go right after "evils of market and mob are the same".

Hopefully it makes more sense that way. Bit confusing as it is now. ^_^

Posted by: T. Greer at March 31, 2010 9:04 AM

So he has a poor philosophical grounding, cannot grasp economics and cannot see the dangerous future uses of the Executive Power he claimed. "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln..."

I'll cede all of your points and still think him one of the worst and most dangerous presidents.

Additional reading has improved my appreciation for all of the 25 who preceded him. I had high expectations that I was misled by Misters Healy and Goldberg and would come to appreciate TR like my friends tg and sc (well, to some extent).

What I found was that he was far worse that I expected. As I mentioned, I bookmarked many quotes. He did not even believe in adversarial law; he was disappointed that an attorney would provide a vigorous defense of a position rather than all coming together to seek some intrinsic truth. I can imagine a high-school sophomore taking that position, but not a POTUS.

We can agree on "swell guy:" an appellation I would happily bestow on Presidents Carter, GHWB, and Franklin Pierce. But his philosophical mistakes have become serious flaws in our nation's government.

Posted by: jk at March 31, 2010 11:18 AM

So he has a poor philosophical grounding, cannot grasp economics and cannot see the dangerous future uses of the Executive Power he claimed

An unfair standard, I would say, on all three counts.

The idea of freedom as autonomy stretches back to the Roman's day (surely it was the main sense of the word before Locke came around), and plenty of America's founders subscribed to this type of classical Republicanism. This too, was the type of freedom most Southerners fought for during the civil war. (Anexcellent book for those interested in America's many kinds of freedom, Eric Foner's The Story of American Freedom). TR was part of a pretty grand tradition in placing autonomy front and center of his vision of freedom. It hardly deserves the label "poor philosophical grounding".

Not being keen on economics is bad, but TR is hardly unique in this. Jefferson was even worse - I am remember chuckling as I read Joesph Ellis' account (another good book, IMHO) of Jefferson's opposition to Hamilton's economic policies - one of the central problem was that Jefferson simply did not understand all of this Adam Smith stuff! Democratic opposition to the BOTUS followed similar patterns.

I take most issue, however, with the last bit. You have said it twice now, so I think it is fair game to hit - the reason you dislike Roosevelt not for any of his particular executive crusades, but with the direction his precedent has been received in the 100 years since TR's time. Forgive me for not thinking this is an unjust criticism of any statesmen. Can you tell me of a statesmen who was so far sighted as to plan his politics around the battles of those who would come 100 years hence? I can think of none. Would you apply such a standard to other Presidents and politicians in our history? Are you ready to condemn Jefferson for the civil war? James Monroe for Wounded Knee? TR's actions were hardly worse than those of Lincoln or Jackson. The only difference is that the folks who came after TR were ready to match his oversteps measure for measure. The difference was less in the man himself than in those who came after.

And this counts for all of those who have ruled in the 100 years since TR stalked the halls of Washington. Blaming TR for flaws in our government is simply shifting the blame. If there are flaws in our governance, the fault lies not with him, but we.

Posted by: T. Greer at April 2, 2010 4:20 AM | What do you think? [7]