Restoring the constitution: Teddy Roosevelt & the progressive ideal



The irreplaceable Jonah Goldberg (Teddy & The Right) on Teddy Roosevelt:

Conservatives have a weird relationship with Teddy Roosevelt. I think part  of it has to do with the fantastic first installment of Edmund Morris’ TR biography, which came out during the Reagan years. It was so well-received that the White House agreed to work with Morris on the Reagan biography that didn’t turn out nearly as well. Part of it is that the warrior Teddy, unlike the priest Woodrow Wilson, tapped into (and helped create) the meritocratic nationalist American tradition in a way that is attractive to the right. Another reason is that TR, regardless of his political views, was just a really impressive guy. He was a Great Man in the historic sense, with a biography and intellect very similar to Winston Churchill’s (even though they didn’t like each other much personally, as I understand it). He belongs on Rushmore, deserves our admiration as a man, did important and sometimes necessary things as president and warrants continued study.

But he wasn’t a conservative.

Jonah’s last line is a link to a very insightful (and timely) Wall Street Journal article by Ronald J. Pestritto, in which Mr. Pestritto confesses to a bit of puzzlement:

We know that Barack Obama and his allies identify themselves as “progressives,” and that they aim to implement the big-government liberalism that originated in America’s Progressive Era and was consummated in the New Deal. What remains a mystery is why some conservatives want to claim this progressive identity as their own—particularly as it was manifested by Theodore Roosevelt.

Pestritto believes that Progressivism conflicts with the Constitution:

Progressives of both parties, including Roosevelt, were the original big-government liberals. They understood full well that the greatest obstacle to their schemes of social justice and equality of material condition was the U.S. Constitution as it was originally written and understood: as creating a national government of limited, enumerated powers that was dedicated to securing the individual natural rights of its citizens, especially liberty of contract and private property.

It was the Republican TR, who insisted in his 1910 speech on the “New Nationalism” that there was a “general right of the community to regulate” the earning of income and use of private property “to whatever degree the public welfare may require it.” He was at one here with Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who had in 1885 condemned Americans’ respect for their Constitution as “blind worship,” and suggested that his countrymen dedicate themselves to the Declaration of Independence by leaving out its “preface” — i.e., the part of it that establishes the protection of equal natural rights as the permanent task of government.

In his “Autobiography,” Roosevelt wrote that he “declined to adopt the view that what was imperatively necessary for the nation could not be done by the President unless he could find some specific authorization to do it.” The national government, in TR’s view, was not one of enumerated powers but of general powers, and the purpose of the Constitution was merely to state the narrow exceptions to that rule.

This is a view of government directly opposed by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 84. Hamilton explains there that the fundamental difference between a republican constitution and a monarchic one is that the latter reserves some liberty for the people by stating specific exceptions to the assumed general power of the crown, whereas the former assumes from the beginning that the power of the people is the general rule, and the power of the government the exception.

I think this is a foundational issue in our discussions about the Constitution: Are the powers of government, as described in the Constitution, general or enumerated? It seems to me that most of the growth of activist government—and along with it, breathtaking growth in the revenue needs of government and resulting tax burden on businesses and individuals—cannot be squared in any way with the Constitution unless one takes Roosevelt’s view that the powers are general and the exceptions enumerated.

Max Boot believes all this is an over-reaction. That Pestritto is guilty of cherry-picking a single speech from which to criticize TR. Boot points to TR’s robust foreign policy as inspiration for today’s conservatives. This is a perspective I’m more comfortable with than are my paleocon and libertarian friends, who find this kind of interventionist and—to their minds, bullying—world view simply abhorrent. Not to mention definitionally unconservative.

But what I find howlingly out-of-touch is this bit from Boot, referring to an earlier article he’d written on TR and Conservatism (emphasis mine):

One of the major points I tried to make was that, while at times his rhetoric was incendiary (and the New Nationalism speech is evidence of that), Roosevelt’s actions when in office were actually pretty restrained. And even his post-presidential proposals for the growth of government were pretty limited by comparison with what we have today. In many ways, TR anticipated his cousin’s New Deal. Given that all but the most extreme libertarians have come to terms with the New Deal and considerable post-New Deal expansion of government (e.g., Medicare and Medicaid), it hardly makes sense to denounce TR as some kind of lefty for anticipating the kind of reforms that would make our capitalist system more stable and durable.

All but the most extreme libertarians? This is definitely the first time I’ve ever found myself aligned with “extreme libertarians”!

Jonathan Adler evidently feels the same way. Posting on the subject yesterday, on The Corner, Adler will have none of it:

Max Boot’s argument that conservatives should embrace TR despite his progressivism because his proposals to increase government “were pretty limited by comparison with what we have today” and “that all but the most extreme libertarians have come to terms with the New Deal” is nonsensical. TR’s economic vision was arguably the most socialistic of any American president, ever, and it is those parts of the New Deal that even moderate conservatives continue to condemn (or that failed) that had the most in common with TR’s progressivism. The remnants of the New Deal that most conservatives have come to accept (albeit reluctantly) comprise the social safety net and an alphabet soup of agencies.

TR believed that government ownership of key resources, such as timberland, was necessary to ensure an economically viable natural resource base. Private ownership, he believed, would leave the American economy without wood, whereas government planners would maintain the national timber supply. No one makes such ridiculous claims today, nor does anyone seriously defend farm programs and the like on economic grounds. Further, TR’s favorite regulatory agency – the Interstate Commerce Commission, was abolished in 1995.

Looking at another aspect of TR’s economic vision for which he is particularly well known – “trustbusting” – TR is even harder to defend as a “conservative.” TR’s populist vision of antitrust has been completely repudiated, and not just by conservatives. Antitrust law today is focused on maximizing consumer welfare, not exorcising the economy of evil “trusts.” Courts have completely rejected the TR approach, in favor of that first articulated by then-Judge William Howard Taft and elaborated by the likes of Richard Posner and Robert Bork.

I understand (although do not sympathize with) Boot’s desire to embrace TR for his foreign policy vision, but we should not pretend there was much of anything about TR’s domestic policy views that could be considered “conservative.”

None of this, to my mind, is a merely academic subject. I believe that the Progressive view is profoundly and tragically wrong and that the results of our failure to learn—and to learn from—history, and to keep faith with the founding vision and principles defined in the Constitution, have planted the seeds of our national destruction. We are ignorant of the very essence of what America is and what it means to be an American. We are in need of national revival. In practical terms, we are in need of a national education.

Pestritto provides the key:

Looking ahead, conservatives hardly need to look back to progressives for inspiration. If there is a desire to “conserve” or restore something about our political tradition that has been lost with the rise of modern liberalism, how about the American founding as a model? It is with the founders that we can find the patriotic promotion of America as an exceptionally great nation — a notion that attracts some conservatives to TR.

The difference is that, with the founders as a model, we get the idea of American greatness, but without the progressives’ assault on the very enduring principles that justify America’s claim to greatness in the first place.


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