The Magazine

Undoing Osawatomie

A GOP opportunity to reverse TR’s mistake.

Dec 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 14 • By JOSHUA D. HAWLEY
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Rather than try to reform America’s emerging brand of industrial capitalism, however, Roosevelt advocated a turn to government. “Real democracy,” he said, would never come until Americans supported “more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had.” He called for a bevy of new federal laws to curb the influence of the “enormously wealthy and economically powerful men” whose “swollen fortunes” he said threatened the country. Among his proposals: a progressive income tax, steep inheritance taxes, federal licensing of all interstate corporations, social insurance for the injured and elderly, and limits on businesses’ campaign contributions. Roosevelt called his program a “new nationalism,” but nationalistic statism would have been more accurate.

A century later, Barack Obama is still sounding these themes, with much the same language. But there is no boldness to this program now. It is pure standpattism. The progressive agenda Roosevelt adumbrated on the Kansas plains has been tried over the last century​—​and how​—​from the corporatist policies of Woodrow Wilson’s administration to the hyperactive government-by-agency that was the New Deal, before finally reaching its full flowering with the Great Society programs of the 1960s. Following Roosevelt’s lead, liberals have advocated government as the guarantor of equality, as the principal agent of national improvement, and indeed, as the source of shared national identity.

The experiment has not gone well. Many of the basic ills Roosevelt identified in 1910 plague the country today, a testament to progressivism’s failure. Since the 1960s, the prospects of working-class laborers have steadily declined. Inequality has worsened. America’s cities are still places of shocking poverty and crime; thanks to the decay of the two-parent family, the failure of government schools, and the lack of decent working-class jobs, whole generations have found themselves trapped in economic and social squalor. Meanwhile, the lavish entitlement system the progressive model recommended has brought the country to the brink of financial ruin.

Obama does not have a viable alternative to offer. That is the sorry fact that has been true of Obama from the first, though resolutely ignored by the national media​—​his agenda is utterly, boringly, inexcusably familiar. To the present crisis of unemployment, the worsening condition of less-skilled workers, the problems of poverty and educational failure, Obama offers one solution: more government. Recovery will come with “productive investments,” he said in Osawatomie, meaning more federal spending. And such “investments” are to be funded “by asking everybody to do their fair share”​—​that is, by raising taxes yet again. This will not do.

Conservatives must find a better way. The place to start is by correcting the error Theodore Roosevelt made in Osawatomie. Roosevelt was not wrong to insist on an economy where each laborer has the opportunity to “show the best that is in him,” and America does not have that economy now.

The solution is not paternalist government, however, but the sort of prudent, structural market reform Roosevelt might have advocated in 1910 had he not been enticed by the false promise of statism. America’s market economy must be broadened to include more individuals in productive work. The goal of government policy should be to foster an environment where every worker can support himself by the work of his own hands, not depend on government payments or social welfare services.

This will require a concerted effort to expand the number and quality of jobs for low-skilled workers. Getting the economy growing again would be a good first start, which means fundamental tax reform that closes out the secret spending of loopholes and deductions in favor of lower marginal rates. But it is just as important to see that economic growth reaches those most in need. Tax incentives for businesses that hire low-skilled workers are one means to this end; converting the Earned Income Tax Credit into a full-fledged wage subsidy is another. In the longer run, the primary and secondary schools in which Americans are educated and prepared for the world must be overhauled. Private associations should be permitted to run state-funded schools, and every parent should have the right to spend her tax dollars on the school that is best for her child.

A century ago, progressives embraced the federal government as the answer to the vexing challenges that marked the industrial age. That route has proved a road to nowhere, and the same challenges remain. Conservatives should lead where Roosevelt did not, toward a broader, more inclusive market economy capable of supporting our great self-government.

Joshua D. Hawley, a law professor at the University of Missouri, is the author of Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness.

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