Asked recently by the New York Times to name a conservative model, John McCain cited Theodore Roosevelt.
Teddy, of course, had no shortage of virtues. Conservatism, alas, wasn’t one of them.
It’s one thing for a conservative to admire T. R.’s style and gallantry, the charge up San Juan Hill, the rounding up of crooks in the Badlands. It’s something else for a conservative to identify Roosevelt as a fellow reformer, as Sen. McCain did in the Times
interview. Far from allaying conservative fears, McCain can only add to them by trying to make a conservative of a man who, largely for reasons of expediency, embraced a host of dubious reforms, and who ended his public career by embracing the Progressive dream of a state strong enough to command
the industry and commerce of the nation.
True, as a young man T. R. resisted the Progressive agenda. In the New York State Assembly he opposed attempts to monkey with the free flow of goods and services, and he voted down a minimum-wage bill. But he was eager to advance himself, and he soon discovered which way the winds were blowing.
As president he proposed the progressive taxation of incomes and estates, to the dismay of classical liberals who argued that laws should not discriminate against particular classes of people, even rich ones.
The Hepburn Act of 1906, for which he worked lustily, strengthened the Interstate Commerce Commission’s grip on the railways — a step that led eventually to the dilapidation of the railroads and to Amtrak.
As for the 1906 Food and Drug Act, which established the FDA, its principal beneficiaries (so Milton and Rose Friedman contend in Free to Choose) were the meat-packers, who were glad to have taxpayer-subsidized help in ensuring the quality of their cattle.
Roosevelt’s dance with the command economy culminated in his “New Nationalism” manifesto. In the suitably visionary precincts of the John Brown Cemetery in Osawatomie, Kansas, on a hot day in August 1910, the ex-president mounted the tripod and lamented, in lugubrious and apocalyptic tones, the “absence of effective state” in America. He called for a paternalist form of government that would “control the mighty commercial forces” of the Republic.
Two years later, having failed to wrest the Republican party from Taft, Roosevelt ran for president as the candidate of his own Progressive party. Though he out-polled Taft, he lost to Woodrow Wilson.
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Teddy and his fellow Progressives were on a wild-goose chase. They failed to see what was really wrong with America’s system of political economy in their day, its lack of an effective anti-monopoly regime. Although the Sherman Act had been on the books since 1890, antitrust law was in its infancy. Roosevelt’s own approach to monopoly was emotional and neurotic. He acted as though he were on safari in Africa, trying to bag big game like the Northern Securities Company for purposes of psychological catharsis. There was nothing, in his predatory technique, of the professional coolness and method of Taft, who during a shorter spell of executive power brought nearly twice as many antitrust suits, and without nearly as much ranting and raving.
Roosevelt made up for his want of inspirational principle by striking out in all sorts of irrelevant directions. His tax proposals were designed to bring the “criminal rich” and “malefactors of great wealth” into line. But wealth per se (which in a free society is merely an account of useful activity) was not the problem. The problem was wealth derived from monopoly.