Thomas Sowell on "The Progressive Legacy", a lengthy but still succinct summary of the devastation "Progressivism" has wreaked on this country.
Although Barack Obama is the
first black President of the United States, he is by no means unique,
except for his complexion. He follows in the footsteps of other
presidents with a similar vision, the vision at the heart of the
Progressive movement that flourished a hundred years ago.
Many of the trends, problems and disasters of our time are a
legacy of that era. We can only imagine how many future generations
will be paying the price -- and not just in money -- for the bright
ideas and clever rhetoric of our current administration.
The two giants of the Progressive era -- Theodore Roosevelt and
Woodrow Wilson -- clashed a century ago, in the three-way election of
1912. With the Republican vote split between William Howard Taft and
Theodore Roosevelt's newly created Progressive Party, Woodrow Wilson
was elected president, so that the Democrats' version of
Progressivism became dominant for eight years.
What Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had in common, and what
attracts some of today's Republicans and Democrats, respectively, who
claim to be following in their footsteps, was a vision of an expanded
role of the federal government in the economy and a reduced role for
the Constitution of the United States.
Like other Progressives, Theodore Roosevelt was a critic and foe
of big business. In this he was not inhibited by any knowledge of
economics, and his own business ventures lost money.
Rhetoric was TR's strong suit. He denounced "the mighty
industrial overlords" and "the tyranny of mere wealth."
Just what specifically this "tyranny" consisted of was
not spelled out. This was indeed an era of the rise of businesses
to unprecedented size in industry after industry -- and of prices
falling rapidly, as a result of economies of scale that cut
production costs and allowed larger profits to be made from lower
prices that attracted more customers.
It was easy to stir up hysteria over a rapidly changing economic
landscape and the rise of new businessmen like John D. Rockefeller to
wealth and prominence. They were called "robber barons,"
but those who put this label on them failed to specify just who they
Like other Progressives, TR wanted an income tax to siphon off
some of the earnings of the rich. Since the Constitution of the
United States forbade such a tax, to the Progressives that simply
meant that the Constitution should be changed.
After the 16th Amendment was passed, a very low income-tax rate
was levied, as an entering wedge for rates that rapidly escalated up
to 73 percent on the highest incomes during the Woodrow Wilson
One of the criticisms of the Constitution by the Progressives, and
one still heard today, is that the Constitution is so hard to amend
that judges have to loosen its restrictions on the power of the
federal government by judicial reinterpretations. Judicial
activism is one of the enduring legacies of the Progressive era.
In reality, the Constitution was amended four times in eight years
during the Progressive era. But facts carried no more weight with
crusading Progressives then than they do today.
Theodore Roosevelt interpreted the Constitution to mean that the
President of the United States could exercise any powers not
explicitly forbidden to him. This stood the 10th Amendment on its
head, for that Amendment explicitly gave the federal government only
the powers specifically spelled out, and reserved all other powers to
the states or to the people.
Woodrow Wilson attacked the Constitution in his writings as an
academic before he became president. Once in power, his
administration so restricted freedom of speech that this led to
landmark Supreme Court decisions restoring that fundamental right.
Whatever the vision or rhetoric of the Progressive era, its
practice was a never-ending expansion of the arbitrary powers of the
federal government. The problems they created so discredited
Progressives that they started calling themselves "liberals"
-- and after they discredited themselves again, they went back to
calling themselves "Progressives," now that people no
longer remembered how Progressives had discredited themselves before.
Barack Obama's rhetoric of "change" is in fact a
restoration of discredited ideas that originated a hundred years ago.
Editor's note: This is Part II in a series.
"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 "fair 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
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.
Editor's note: This is Part III in a series.
The same presumptions of superior wisdom and virtue behind the
interventionism of Progressive Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and
Woodrow Wilson in the domestic economy also led them to be
interventionists in other countries.
Theodore Roosevelt was so determined that the United States should
intervene against Spain's suppression of an uprising in Cuba that he
quit his post as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to organize his own
private military force — called "Rough Riders" — to
fight in what became the Spanish-American war.
The spark that set off this war was an explosion that destroyed an
American battleship anchored in Havana harbor. There was no proof
that Spain had anything to do with it, and a study decades later
suggested that the explosion originated inside the ship itself.
But Roosevelt and others were hot for intervention before the
explosion, which simply gave them the excuse they needed to go to war
against Spain, seizing Puerto Rico and the Philippines.
Although it was a Republican administration that did this,
Democrat Woodrow Wilson justified it. Progressive principles of
imposing superior wisdom and virtue on others were invoked.
Wilson saw the indigenous peoples brought under American control
as beneficiaries of progress. He said, "they are children
and we are men in these deep matters of government and justice."
If that sounds racist, it is perfectly consistent with
President Wilson's policies at home. The Wilson administration
introduced racial segregation in Washington government agencies where
it did not exist when Wilson took office.
Woodrow Wilson also invited various dignitaries to the White
House to watch a showing of the film The Birth of a
Nation, which glorified the Ku Klux Klan — and which
All of this was consistent with the Progressive era in general,
when supposedly "scientific" theories of racial superiority
and inferiority were at their zenith. Theodore Roosevelt was the
exception, rather than the rule, among Progressives when he did not
agree with these theories.
Consistent with President Wilson's belief in racial superiority
as a basis for intervening in other countries, he launched military
interventions in various Latin American countries, before his
intervention in the First World War.
Woodrow Wilson was also a precursor of later Progressives in
assuming that the overthrow of an autocratic and despotic government
means an advance toward democracy. In 1917, President Wilson spoke
of "heartening things that have been happening within the last
few weeks in Russia."
What was "heartening" to Wilson was the overthrow of the
czars. What it led to in fact was the rise of a totalitarian
tyranny that killed more political prisoners in a year than the czars
had killed in more than 90 years.
Although Wilson proclaimed that the First World War was being
fought because "The world must be made safe for democracy,"
in reality the overthrow of autocratic rule in Germany and Italy also
led to totalitarian regimes that were far worse. Those today who
assume that the overthrow of authoritarian governments in Egypt and
Libya is a movement toward democracy are following in Wilson's
The ultimate hubris of Woodrow Wilson was in promoting the carving
up of whole empires after the First World War, in the name of "the
self-determination of peoples." But, in reality, it was not the
peoples who did the carving but Wilson, French Premier Georges
Clemenceau and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Walter
Lippmann saw what a reckless undertaking this was. He said, "We
are feeding on maps, talking of populations as if they were abstract
lumps." He was struck by the ignorance of those who were
reshaping whole nations and the lives of millions of people.
He said of this nation-building effort: "When you consider
what a mystery the East Side of New York is to the West Side, the
business of arranging the world to the satisfaction of the people in
it may be seen in something like its true proportions."
But Progressives, especially intellectuals, are the least
likely to suspect that they are in fact ignorant of the things they
are intervening in, whether back in the Progressive era or today.
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