The absence of effective State, and, especially, national, restraint upon unfair money-getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power. The prime need to is to change the conditions which enable these men to accumulate power which it is not for the general welfare that they should hold or exercise. We grudge no man a fortune which represents his own power and sagacity, when exercised with entire regard to the welfare of his fellows. Again, comrades over there, take the lesson from your own experience. Not only did you not grudge, but you gloried in the promotion of the great generals who gained their promotion by leading their army to victory. So it is with us. We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used. It is not even enough that it should have been gained without doing damage to the community. We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community. This, I know, implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had, but I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary.
There are a lot of problems with this, and I’d be surprised if you still think the quote is harmless. If the portion in the Milbank column were merely an expression of personal opinion, I could agree with your take. But T.R. saw the State (hopefully with himself at the helm) as the arbiter of what did and did not represent a “benefit” to the community. That this is a deeply statist mindset seems pretty obvious to me, not least because T.R. admits that he thinks this standard should usher in a new era of greater state power and “governmental interference with social and economic conditions.”
You ask: “Isn’t part of the argument for tolerating concentrations of wealth in a free-market society that in one people can amass fortunes only by bringing benefits to the community?”
And I would respond, yes it is. But another part of the argument is that the state (usually) isn’t better at allocating wealth than the market is. And another part of the argument is that your wealth is your wealth, no matter how concentrated it is. The state may take its share based on the reasonable needs of the government to serve its functions and duties, it cannot and should not take more than that just because you have “too much wealth.”
But you know all of this.
As for all the readers who have been weighing in on T.R., let me just give my short take. T.R. was a better, saner, man as president than he was after he left the oval office and went much further to the left. He abandoned trust-busting in favor of corporatism and became a thoroughgoing Crolyite. He was always a more admirable, decent, and heroic man than Woodrow Wilson, but T.R. worship is nonetheless fraught with peril for conservatives.