All Commentary
Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Theodore Roosevelt, Big-Government Man

Theodore Roosevelt has been known as “the Good Roosevelt,” “the Republican Roosevelt,” and “the conservative Roosevelt,” as distinguished from his fifth cousin Franklin, who’s credited with ushering in modern American big government.

Yet promoters of big government have long recognized TR as one of their own.

Biographer Frank Freidel wrote that “While at Groton [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] first fell under the spell of his remote cousin Theodore Roosevelt. . . . Theodore Roosevelt believed in using to the utmost the constitutional power of the president. . . . This strong use of government was for the most part appealing to Franklin.” During the Great Depression, FDR promoted “a program emphasizing national planning in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt.” Freidel noted that “in words reminiscent of Theodore Roosevelt, FDR declared ‘the duty rests upon the Government to restrict incomes by very high taxes.’”

Historian Eric F. Goldman said that Lyndon Johnson, who simultaneously launched huge domestic entitlement spending programs and escalated the undeclared Vietnam War, admired “the hyperactive White House of Theodore Roosevelt.” LBJ reportedly remarked, “Whenever I pictured Teddy Roosevelt, I saw him running or riding, always moving, his fists clenched, his eyes glaring, speaking out.”

Richard M. Nixon, who dramatically expanded federal regulation of the economy, liked Theodore Roosevelt “because of his great dynamic drive and ability to mobilize a young country.”

In recent years, influential Republicans like Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove, and John McCain have gushed with admiration for TR.

For starters, TR reinterpreted the Constitution to permit a vast expansion of executive power. “Congress, he felt, must obey the president,” noted biographer Henry Pringle. Roosevelt wanted the Supreme Court to obey him too. TR ushered in the practice of ruling by executive order, bypassing the congressional process. From Lincoln to TR’s predecessor William McKinley, there were 158 executive orders. TR, during his seven years in office, issued 1,007. He ranks third, behind fellow “progressives” Woodrow Wilson (1,791) and Franklin Roosevelt (3,723) in that category.

Unintended Consequences of Foreign Wars

Theodore Roosevelt, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, believed that “we should regard with contempt and loathing the Americans . . . crying on behalf of peace, peace, when there ought not to be peace.” He warned against “the Menace of Peace.”

When, in 1892, there was a dispute with Chile, he urged an invasion. As a lieutenant-colonel with his Rough Riders, on a ship bound for Cuba, he wrote Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge: “You must get Manila and Hawaii; you must prevent any talk of peace until we get Puerto Rico and the Philippines as well as secure the independence of Cuba.”

TR relished the prospect of war with Canada. In 1895, he wrote Lodge: “I don’t care whether our sea coast cities are bombarded or not, we would take Canada.” In a letter to his brother-in-law Will Cowles, Roosevelt said that the U.S. army would “have to employ a lot of men just as green as I am for the conquest of Canada.”

As president, Roosevelt reversed the traditional U. S. foreign policy of refraining from intervention in the affairs of other nations. Intervention had been the exception, but he began to make it the rule.

TR promoted a big navy not to defend the country from a specific threat—since there wasn’t any threat—but to be a tool for an expansionist foreign policy. “The primary concern of Roosevelt and his fellow-expansionists,” observed historian Howard K. Beale, “was power and prestige and the naval strength that would bring power and prestige.”

TR’s most controversial intervention involved the seizure of the Isthmus of Panama, which had belonged to Colombia. He resolved to build a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans so the U.S. navy could be more easily mobilized in either ocean. Historian David McCullough observed that “Roosevelt’s haste, his refusal—his inability—to see the Colombian position on the treaty as anything other than a ‘holdup,’ were tragically mistaken and inexcusable.” Is it prudent to have a U.S. president who seizes foreign territory when convenient?

TR’s other interventions—in Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua—were small by later standards, aimed mainly at helping European investors collect debts from deadbeat Latin American dictators so that European governments wouldn’t establish a military presence in the Western Hemisphere. But his aggressive advocacy of intervention undoubtedly made his successors feel more comfortable about entering foreign wars, which have killed Americans when the United States wasn’t under attack, triggered nationalist reactions that supported dictators, and multiplied the number of foreign enemies, complicating efforts to maintain our national security.

TR’s “Conservation” Subsidies

Roosevelt backed schemes that helped western-state politicians gain more clout. State-subsidized irrigation projects before TR aimed at attracting farmers who would try to grow crops in western deserts, but all these projects lost money. Roosevelt thought this experience didn’t apply to him, and in the name of “reclamation” he decided that the federal government should promote desert farming.

Hence the Reclamation Act of 1902. Every western senator and congressman scrambled to get on board for a subsidized reclamation project. Nevada Senator Francis Newlands, for example, was particularly anxious about his state’s declining population. To secure political backing, reclamation projects had to be spread around, and many locations didn’t make any sense. They guaranteed losses.

TR’s subsidized reclamation brought widespread financial ruin. Farmers who had no prior experience with irrigation overwatered their crops, their irrigation systems became clogged with silt, and they obligated themselves to pay for more acreage than they could handle. Many farmers quit, taxpayers were socked to cover the losses, and desert populations declined.

And despite TR’s reputation as a foe of private monopolies, he approved unfair government practices that squeezed out private dam builders and helped the Bureau of Reclamation gain a dam-building monopoly. The Bureau of Reclamation became a vast federal bureaucracy with some 600 dams and reservoirs in 17 western states.

It led to waste on a colossal scale. More water has been lost due to evaporation from reservoirs in hot deserts than has been needed for human consumption in major western cities. It has been estimated that every year perhaps a million acre-feet of water—enough to supply Los Angeles—are lost, seeping into Lake Powell’s canyon walls and evaporating in the desert sun.

Big-Government Bungling

Theodore Roosevelt challenged the prevailing American view that land-use decisions are best made by private individuals who have a stake in improving the value of their property. He throttled the privatization of land that had been going on for more than a century. In 1905 TR transferred millions of acres of government land from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Agriculture and established the U. S. Forest Service to manage it.

It’s because he substantially limited privatization that today national forests account for about 20 percent of the land in the 11 westernmost states of the lower 48. Altogether, the federal government controls about a third of the land in the United States.

The rationale for “national forests” was that America supposedly faced a “timber famine.” Gifford Pinchot, first head of the Forest Service, warned that America would run out of timber within 20 years. TR claimed that selfish private individuals were squandering America’s resources and only public-spirited federal bureaucrats could be counted on to manage them. Despite Pinchot’s claims about “scientific” forestry, the “timber famine” never happened.

Nor did Pinchot actually conserve much. Cattlemen overgrazed their herds on national forest lands precisely because it was common property. In effect, nobody owned it. If one person’s herds didn’t eat all the grass, somebody else’s herds would get it, so the incentive was to consume as much as possible. Similarly, nobody had an incentive to maintain the value of common property because the benefits might go to someone else.

TR enforced the “best” conservation policies throughout the country. Fire was considered bad for forests, so the Forest Service fought fires everywhere, and Smokey the Bear became famous. By suppressing fire for decades, deadwood built up and trees grew more densely. Moreover, Forest Service officials, in their alleged wisdom, ordered less logging, which accelerated the buildup of combustibles in national forests. Increasingly, instead of having many smaller fires to deal with, they faced huge conflagrations, which are harder to fight and more destructive.

Roosevelt used federal power to establish five national parks as well as 51 wildlife refuges and 150 national forests, yet they all seem to have suffered from inadequate maintenance at one time or another. For example, since TR thought parks were for big game, park rangers slaughtered wolves, cougars, and other predators. Soaring elk populations consumed so much vegetation that beavers disappeared. Park rangers closed garbage dumps where bears feasted, and as a result starving bears raided campgrounds. They were slaughtered, too. Parks have been polluted by poorly maintained sewage systems because their gate receipts went to Washington and they had difficulty competing with bigger government programs for funding. Hope Babcock, former general counsel of the National Audubon Society, lamented TR’s legacy: “Few would assert that the historical institutional paradigm for managing the nation’s public lands has protected the natural resource values of those lands.”

“Trust-Busting” That Suppressed Competition

The rationale for antitrust laws and TR’s “trust busting” was the idea that, left alone, a free market tends to develop monopolies and government intervention is required to maintain competition. There was more than a little hypocrisy in this since TR supported high tariffs, which helped politically connected business interests by suppressing competition and in the process ripped off American consumers far more than any monopoly. In fact, it had been said that the “tariff is the mother of the trusts.”

Nevertheless, Roosevelt demonized businessmen as “malefactors of great wealth,” a phrase later used by his cousin during his anti-business crusades. TR’s attorney general, Philander Knox, filed lawsuits to break up private companies, starting in 1902 with Northern Securities (a railroad holding company). The most famous antitrust lawsuits resulted in the breakup of American Tobacco Company and the Standard Oil Company in 1911, after Roosevelt left office.

Yet for more than two decades output had been expanding and prices had been falling in the American economy—the opposite of what one would expect with a lot of monopolies. Despite Roosevelt’s allegations about railroad monopolies (which were largely built with government subsidies), in the previous half-century railroad mileage in the United States had expanded more than 250-fold to 258,784 miles, and railroad rates were falling. Cheaper railroad rates undermined local monopolies by giving people the choice of buying economically priced goods from far away. Regardless, TR signed the Hepburn and Elkins acts, which strengthened the Interstate Commerce Commission’s power to control competition by regulating railroad rates.

Historian Gabriel Kolko observed, “The dominant tendency in the American economy at the beginning of this [twentieth] century was toward growing competition. Competition was unacceptable to many key business and financial interests, and the merger movement was to a large extent a reflection of voluntary, unsuccessful business efforts to bring irresistible competitive trends under control.” (Kolko went on to establish that the progressive “reforms of the early twentieth century were backed by big business as a way to restrain competition and protect market share.”)

Mounting evidence shows that monopolies are rare in free markets, as changing consumer tastes, changing business conditions, new technologies, and new competitors both foreign and domestic (when free) relentlessly challenge established companies. With very few exceptions, monopolies have persisted only when government has enforced barriers to entry that prevent new or old companies from competing in a market. Licenses, monopoly franchises, and trade restrictions are among the most common government-enforced barriers to entry.

Alarmed at the increasing size of major industrial corporations (which were often helped by tariffs and other kinds of privileges), many people didn’t seem to realize that markets were expanding even faster—corporations were increasingly serving national and international markets. John D. Rockefeller earned his fortune refining kerosene from western Pennsylvania oil, but rivals discovered oil fields in Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, and California as well as overseas. New products like Thomas Edison’s electric lights attracted customers away from kerosene lamps, and Henry Ford’s cheap Model T cars needed gasoline, a petroleum product that enabled new oil companies to establish themselves. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil thrived because it was a low-cost competitor, investing in cost-cutting technology, yet so intense was the competition that its market share declined. There would have been more competition had TR focused on lowering tariffs and repealing corporate privileges, and refrained from attacking big discounters like Standard Oil.

It’s past time to evaluate Theodore Roosevelt and other progressives not according to their personalities and speeches, but according to their actions and consequences.

  • Jim Powell, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is an expert in the history of liberty. He has lectured in England, Germany, Japan, Argentina and Brazil as well as at Harvard, Stanford and other universities across the United States. He has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Esquire, Audacity/American Heritage and other publications, and is author of six books.