A special issue of Time magazine celebrates the historic career of Theodore Roosevelt and the implications of his presidency for the development of American society. In the phony familiarity of our times, where you call people by their first names when you have never even met them, the cover story in this issue is titled "Teddy."
Theodore Roosevelt was indeed a landmark figure in the development of American politics and government, but in a very different sense from the way he is portrayed in Time magazine. In fact, the way that Theodore Roosevelt has been celebrated by many in the media and among the intelligentsia tells us more about them than about the first President Roosevelt.
It also tells us something about what has gone wrong with American society.
Aside from questions of flamboyant style and rhetoric, what did Theodore Roosevelt actually accomplish that would justify putting him on Mount Rushmore, alongside Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln?
According to Time magazine, TR believed that "government had the right to moderate the excesses of free enterprise." Just what were these excesses? According to Time, "poverty, child labor, dreadful factory conditions."
All these things were attributed to the growth of industrial capitalism — without the slightest evidence that any of them was better before the growth of industrial capitalism. Nothing is easier than to imagine some ideal past or future society or to imagine that the net result of government intervention is bound to be a plus.
Theodore Roosevelt’s own ideas went no deeper than Time magazine’s today or of much of the intelligentsia in the years in between. Maybe that is why TR has been lionized. Both his thinking and his lack of thinking was so much like that of later "progressives."
Among the things that have endeared TR to later generations of "progressives" has been "the breakup of monopolies" cited by Time magazine. Just what specifically caused particular companies to be called "monopolies"? What specifically did they do? Who specifically did the "robber barons" actually rob?
Such questions remain as unanswered today as in Theodore Roosevelt’s time. Indeed, they remain unasked among many of the intelligentsia and in the media.
Monopolies are much harder to find in the real world than in the world of political rhetoric. Monopolies raise prices but, in the big industries supposedly dominated by monopolies — oil, steel, railroads — prices were falling for years before Theodore Roosevelt entered the White House and started saving the country from "monopoly."
The average price of steel rails fell from $68 to $32 before TR became president. Standard Oil, the most hated of the "monopolies," had in fact innumerable competitors and its oil prices were not only lower than those of most of its competitors, but was also falling over the years. It was much the same story in other industries called "monopolies."
The anti-trust laws which Theodore Roosevelt so fiercely applied did not protect consumers from high prices. They protected high-cost producers from being driven out of business by lower cost producers. That has largely remained true in the many years since TR was president.
The long list of low-price businesses targeted by anti-trust laws range from Sears department stores and the A&P grocery chain in the 20th century to Microsoft today, prosecuted not for raising the price of Windows but for including new features without raising prices. Much of the rhetoric of anti-trust remains the opposite of the reality.
Jim Powell’s soon to be published book, "Bully Boy," goes in detail into the specifics of President Theodore Roosevelt’s many crusades and their often disastrous consequences. But who cares about consequences these days?
TR was a "progressive" and denounced "malefactors of great wealth." What more could the intelligentsia and the media want?