NYTimes.com Article: For T.R., Government Was the Solution
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Thought folks on the list might like to see this--Kathleen Dalton
For T.R., Government Was the Solution
July 14, 2002
By KATHLEEN DALTON
PRESIDENT Bush went to Wall Street on a mission last week.
He wanted to reassure a skittish financial community
worried that cascading stories of malfeasance by big
business will further undermine public confidence. Mr. Bush
recently talked of looking for inspiration in another
president who led the nation in an era of corporate
wrongdoing: Theodore Roosevelt. But Mr. Bush might not
realize that Roosevelt was far more radical than any
Republican of today. In fact, Roosevelt advocated a
restructuring of government-business relations more radical
than most Democrats now seek.
While President Bush has proposed relatively minor reforms
- like hiring additional S.E.C. regulators - these look
tame when compared to Roosevelt's calls for a fundamental
government intervention in the economy. He wanted national
incorporation to make sure no corporation stayed in
business if it violated the law repeatedly. He called for
strict regulation of the stock market and a stronger
Federal Trade Commission. He said he would like nothing
better than to force companies to open their books to
federal investigators and to make executives personally
liable for jail when their corporations broke the law. The
government should act like a referee, throwing cheaters out
of the game to ensure fair play.
Roosevelt famously railed against the "malefactors of great
wealth." He expressed moral outrage over the human
consequences of business abuses and stirred empathy for the
average person who lost a job. But Mr. Bush possesses the
sensibilities of a free market age, when political leaders
of left and right have worked to remove the regulatory
shackles once placed on business. His mantras have been
privatization, lower taxes and shrinking the scope of the
federal government. Government was not a referee for all
the people, but a problem in itself.
In contrast, Roosevelt was a rich man who cared little
about money. He was disgusted by the effete sons of the
Gilded Age elite. He disdained unbridled capitalism's way
of abusing its workers. When Samuel L. Gompers and Jacob
Riis took Roosevelt to see conditions in factories, coal
mines and tenements, he came to believe that profits gained
from exploitation were dirty money. He disliked the moral
effect robber barons had on the country he loved.
Roosevelt also sought radical change because his was an era
when the public lived in fear of the new businesses known
as trusts. Trusts regularly used intimidation and violence
to push competitors out of business or create monopolies.
They held employees at gunpoint, sent children to work in
unsafe factories, bought state legislators (sometimes for
less than $50,000 each) and earned the title "robber
barons" by behaving like arrogant feudal lords. For much of
Roosevelt's presidency, he fought a Congress that thwarted
most of his efforts to put "the hand of the government" on
lawless corporations, but he never gave up hope that the
government could solve the problem.
After he left office, Roosevelt moved to the left, holding
views unthinkable for today's Republican Party and even for
most Democrats. No major party candidate running for office
today talks as powerfully about "distributive justice," as
Roosevelt did in his 1912 presidential race. As the Bull
Moose candidate, he talked about using government policies
to discourage extremes of wealth and poverty.
ROOSEVELT wanted to use taxes to reduce "swollen fortunes"
via a system of "heavily progressive" national inheritance,
corporate and income tax. Tax justice, he insisted, would
cut millionaires down to size and diminish their ability to
use their wealth to buy off lawmakers. To protect the
poorer half of the population from falling into poverty,
Roosevelt defended the minimum wage, health and
unemployment insurance, and the use of collective
In 1918, soon before he died, Roosevelt said he wanted to
find a way for workers to share in the profits and the
stock of their employers. Economic equality would be hard
to attain, but Roosevelt asserted that political democracy
would have no meaning without government intervention to
cushion the poor and tame the excesses of the rich.
For Roosevelt, the highest form of patriotism was "social
justice," - making the American system redistribute wealth
in order for all its citizens to have a decent life.
Perhaps President Bush should look more carefully at his
choice of role model.
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