Friday, May 23, 2008

Theodore Roosevelt on Government Regulation

Conservatives and libertarians have been frustrated by the lack of choice between the two parties. There is a belief that the Republican Party is a conservative party and that the Republican Congress of the mid 1990s and early 2000s failed to actualize the Republicans' true nature. Many conservatives argue that Republicans are a moderately conservative party and that Democrats are a moderately social democratic party and that a moderate conservatism is all that can be expected. However, there is a limited historical reason to believe that the Republican Party is a conservative or libertarian party even in a moderate sense. If not, then conservatives' recent disappointment with the Republican Congress is not a result of failure to deliver or deviation but a case of Republicans' returning to their true nature.

With respect to the Democrats, there is reason to believe that the Democratic Party is a moderate social democratic party and not a conservative or socialistic one, although there is a strong strain of socialism running through the membership. There have always been divisions within the Democratic Party. There was traditionally a southern Democratic Party which was very different from the northeastern urban Democratic Party. But those differences have evaporated as divisions about race have subsided. Today there is a significant presence of left-wing Democrats coupled with a more moderate social democratic element that is not so interested in aggressive redistribution of wealth. However, the differences within the Republican Party are greater than within the Democrats.

The notion that the Republican Party is a conservative one arises from the New Deal. Franklin D. Roosevelt and his associates applied the same tactics to the Republicans that Theodore Roosevelt applied to his opponents in the early 1900s, whom he called "reactionary" and "stool-pigeon progressives". The truth is that the current social democratic edifice of government regulation was largely formulated by Republicans, notably Theodore Roosevelt and his appointees such as Herbert Knox Smith, whom Roosevelt had appointed to head the Bureau of Corporations.

Progressivism was a Republican ideology. The one exception to this rule was Woodrow Wilson, who came to progressivism late and who emphasized individualism and small business interests to a greater degree than did the Republican progressives, especially Roosevelt and Taft. Although Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge were Republicans, they were not progressive. But they were not conservative in today's meaning either. Both were "home grown" in their "conservatism". Coolidge was from Vermont and his upbringing was in the tradition of home grown Yankee Americanism. He did not have a well-formulated ideology and he integrates a number of progressive ideas with conservative ones in his autobiography. Likewise, his predecessor, Harding, was an Ohio newspaper editor with limited philosophical and economic training. Harding was not adverse to progressivism any more than he was a proponent of limited government or Burkean conservatism. Harding and Coolidge, who had limited reform agendas in any direction, were elected because America had tired of progressivism, Wilson's idealism and World War I. Herbert Hoover, who was the third Republican elected in the 1920s, was, like Roosevelt and Wilson, an ideological progressive who advocated reform.

American politics since 1932 largely has been a battle between two ideologies: the ideology of progressivism and the ideology of New Deal social democracy. The Republicans were the party of progressivism, which emphasized efficiency and bureaucracy, while the Democrats' New Deal social democracy advocated application of Progressive principles to redistribution of wealth. (Claiming that the redistribution was from rich to poor, by abolishing restraint on the money supply Roosevelt accomplished a longer term redistribution from poor to rich. Post World War II inflation and today's stagnant real wages and wealth inequality follow directly from the abolition of restraint on the Federal Reserve Bank's ability to create money. Progressives like Wilson did not believe in Keynesian economics because it was not created until the 1930s and did not anticipate this aspect of Roosevelt's New Deal.)

The home-grown conservative element in the Republican Party from 1908 to 1964 was a fossil. The fossil-conservatives reacted to the New Deal in tandem with the non-New Deal progressives, who were the most visible element called "conservative". I suspect that many involved in the Liberty League that some big businessmen founded in the early 1930s to fight the New Deal were progressives, not traditional conservatives. I suspect that few if any of them believed in the ideas of Sumner, Cobden or EL Godkin. Rather, they, like the Republican Party more generally, were a statist movement that had been preempted by a different statist movement. Until Barry Goldwater reformulated the image of conservatism in the 1960s the Republican Party was dominated by progressives. By the 1980s these progressives were called "Rockefeller Republicans". Even Ronald Reagan carried forward many elements of their progressivism.

In June 1906 Roosevelt pushed through the Hepburn Act which gave the Interstate Commerce Commission the power to set just and reasonable railroad rates and to view railroads' financial records even if the railroads were privately held. Some have argued that the Hepburn Act led to the railroads' inability to compete with trucking in ensuing decades. As well, bestowing the power to federal agencies to set prices and manage corporations can easily be interpreted as the first step toward socialism. The public tired of Roosevelt's radicalism. No subsequent president except for his cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was as radical as Theodore Roosevelt.

In The Writings of Theodore Roosevelt* William H. Harbaugh edits a series of Roosevelt's speeches and articles. Here is an excerpt from Roosevelt's 1906 Annual Message to Congress which Harbaugh entitles "For More Thorough-Going Regulation". This Progressive motif has not disappeared from elements within the Republican Party to this day (p. 93):

"The present Congress has taken long strides in the direction of securing proper supervision and control by the National Government over corporations engaged in interstate business--and the enormous majority of corporations of any size are engaged in interstate business. The passage of the railway-rate bill...of the pure-food bill, and the provision for increasing and rendering more effective national control over the beef-packing industry, mark an important advance in the proper direction. In the short session it will perhaps be difficult to do much further along this line; and it may be best to wait until the laws have been in operation for a number of months before endeavoring to increase their scope, because only operation will show with exactness their merits and their shortcomings and thus give opportunity to define what further remedial legislation is needed. Yet in my judgment it will in the end be advisable in connection with the packing-house-inspection law to provide for putting a date on the label and for charging the cost of inspection to the packers. All three laws have already justified their enactment...

"In enacting and enforcing such legislation as this Congress already has to its credit, we are working on a coherent plan, with the steady endeavor to secure the needed reform by the joint action of the moderate men, the plain men who do not wish anything hysterical or dangerous, but who do intended to deal in resolute common-sense fashion with the real and great evils of the present system. The reactionaries and violent extremists show symptoms of joining hands against us. Both assert, for instance, that if logical we should go to government ownership of railroads and the like...As a matter of fact our position is as remote from that of the Bourbon** reactionary as from that of the impracticable or sinister visionary...

"...What we need is not vainly to try to prevent all combination, but to secure such rigorous and adequate control and supervision of the combinations as to prevent their injuring the public, or existing in such form as inevitably to threaten injury--for the mere fact that a combination has secured practically complete control of a necessary of life would under any circumstances show that such combination was to be presumed to be adverse to the public interest. It is unfortunate that our present laws should forbid all combinations,instead of sharply discriminating between those combinations which do good and those combinations which do evil."

Theodore Roosevelt established the state regulatory edifice that both the Democrats and Republicans support. With the big-government tradition that Roosevelt bequeathed to the Republican Party, it is incorrect to call the Republicans a conservative or libertarian party.

*Theodore Roosevelt. The Writings of Theodore Roosevelt. Edited by William H. Harbaugh. Indianpolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1967.
**The Bourbon Democrats were a 19th century Democratic Party faction who supported free trade, the gold standard and laissez faire policies.

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