Skip to comments.The Progressive Legacy: Part II (Thomas Sowell)
Posted on 02/13/2012 1:22:09 PM PST by jazusamo
"Often wrong but never in doubt" is a phrase that summarizes much of what was done by Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, the two giants of the Progressive era, a century ago.
Their legacy is very much alive today, both in their mindset including government picking winners and losers in the economy and interventionism in foreign countries as well as specific institutions created during the Progressive era, such as the income tax and the Federal Reserve System.
Like so many Progressives today, Theodore Roosevelt felt no need to study economics before intervening in the economy. He said of "economic issues" that "I am not deeply interested in them, my problems are moral problems." For example, he found it "unfair" that railroads charged different rates to different shippers, reaching the moral conclusion that these rates were discriminatory and should be forbidden "in every shape and form."
It never seemed to occur to TR that there could be valid economic reasons for the railroads to charge the Standard Oil Company lower rates for shipping their oil. At a time when others shipped their oil in barrels, Standard Oil shipped theirs in tank cars which required a lot less work by the railroads than loading and unloading the same amount of oil in barrels.
Theodore Roosevelt was also morally offended by the fact that Standard Oil created "enormous fortunes" for its owners "at the expense of business rivals." How a business can offer consumers lower prices without taking customers away from businesses that charge higher prices is a mystery still unsolved to the present day, when the very same arguments are used against Wal-Mart.
The same preoccupation with being "fair" to high-cost producers who were losing customers to low-cost producers has turned anti-trust law on its head, for generations after the Progressive era. Although anti-trust laws and policies have been rationalized as ways of keeping monopolies from raising prices to consumers, the actual thrust of anti-trust activity has more often been against businesses that charged lower prices than their competitors.
Theodore Roosevelt's anti-trust attacks on low-price businesses in his time were echoed in later "fail trade" laws, and in attacks against "unfair" competition by the Federal Trade Commission, another agency spawned in the Progressive era.
Woodrow Wilson's Progressivism was very much in the same mindset. Government intervention in the economy was justified on grounds that "society is the senior partner in all business."
The rhetorical transformation of government into "society" is a verbal sleight-of-hand trick that endures to this day. So is the notion that money earned in the form of profits requires politicians' benediction to be legitimate, while money earned under other names apparently does not.
Thus Woodrow Wilson declared: "If private profits are to be legitimized, private fortunes made honorable, these great forces which play upon the modern field must, both individually and collectively, be accommodated to a common purpose."
And just who will decide what this common purpose is and how it is to be achieved? "Politics," according to Wilson, "has to deal with and harmonize" these various forces.
In other words, the government politicians, bureaucrats and judges are to intervene, second-guess and pick winners and losers, in a complex economic process of which they are often uninformed, if not misinformed, and a process in which they pay no price for being wrong, regardless of how high a price will be paid by the economy.
If this headstrong, busybody approach seems familiar because it is similar to what is happening today, that is because it is based on fundamentally the same vision, the same presumptions of superior wisdom, and the same kind of lofty rhetoric we hear today about "fairness." Wilson even used the phrase "social justice."
Woodrow Wilson also won a Nobel Prize for peace, like the current president and it was just as undeserved. Wilson's "war to end wars" in fact set the stage for an even bigger, bloodier and more devastating Second World War.
But, then as now, those with noble-sounding rhetoric are seldom judged by what consequences actually follow.
I’ve read both parts of Dr. Sowell’s articles on Progressivism today. He just keeps extending the hitting streak, taking the cover off the ball and sending it over the fences. What a treasure of the mind!!
Please, God, reserve a Senior Advisor or Cabinet position for this man in a Republican administration in 2012. Amen.
Amen to that, AW.
I doubt Dr. Sowell would take a Cabinet position but he would be an outstanding Senior Advisor to the President.
No. What is needed is a Republican president who reads Tom Sowell’s books and understands them. Which Republican would that be?
I’m currently reading “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” by Edmund Morris. It is an excellent read.
TR was a whack-job. A fascinating person to read about, though. The book is exceptionally well written.
As always, Sowell nails it with this piece. Progressives are scary.
The rhetorical transformation of government into "society" is a verbal sleight-of-hand trick that endures to this day.
"Society" sounds so much nicer than government. When LBJ ran for election in 1964, nobody should have had any illusions that what LBJ was in charge of was not "society" but government. That didn't stop him from promising a "Great Society," tho, did it?
By Thomas PaineSOME writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.
Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamities is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer! Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him out of two evils to choose the least. Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.
You're absolutely right. I was young and about to get married, politics was not my number one agenda but will never forget LBJ's "Great Society."
Even being inexperienced in politics I knew LBJ was a crook and his great society was a scam that would cost hard working Americans.