The Goal Is Freedom: Progressive Illiberalism

by Sheldon Richman

Sheldon Richman is the editor of The Freeman and In brief. TGIF appears Fridays.

The Progressive movement, which dominated the American scene in the years from the turn of the century to United State entrance in World War I, was not primarily a liberal movement, writes Arthur A. Ekirch Jr. in his magisterial work The Decline of American Liberalism. [I]n contrast to former American efforts at reform, progressivism was based on a new philosophy, partly borrowed from Europe, which emphasized collective action through the instrumentality of government. (For previous my articles about important Ekirch's book, see this and this.)

Ekirch sees progressivism as an extension of the concentration of power in Washington, D.C., that had taken place since the Civil War. The embodiment of that centralization was Theodore Roosevelt, champion of the fateful war against Spain, who became president in 1901 after William McKinley was assassinated. Roosevelt as president exemplified to a superlative degree the nationalistic side of progressivism, Ekirch writes. An enthusiastic believer in a strong centralized government, under firm executive leadership, Roosevelt was a patrician reformer who frankly preferred the principles of Alexander Hamilton to those of Thomas Jefferson. While he embraced the elitist's noblesse oblige toward people of lower station, he had only the greatest scorn for the kind of middle-class individualism and liberalism that emphasized minding one's own business both at home and abroad. In foreign affairs Roosevelt, despite a range of interests that was world-wide, was not fundamentally an internationalist in either thought or action. His major policies seldom rose above narrowly nationalistic considerations, and his venturesome diplomacy incited widespread animosity against the Unites States. (It's worth mentioning that Roosevelt is the hero of Karl Rove and John McCain.) As Ekirch suggests, H.L. Mencken did not exaggerate when he likened TR to Frederick the Great and the Kaiser. He was, Ekirch writes, the leader of both progressive and imperialist forces in the United States.

More than anyone else, he was responsible for Dewey's fleet being stationed at Hong Kong ready for its fateful dash to the Philippines – a voyage that did so much to launch the United States upon the course of imperialism. In domestic affairs, Roosevelt understood the radical temper of the nineties and the intensity of the public revolt against the monopolistic practices of big business. Determined therefore to avert the danger of an agrarian return to Jeffersonian liberalism or of a socialistic expropriation of private property, Roosevelt by a judicious mixture of trustbusting and benevolent regulation helped to safeguard American big business.

Ekirch draws attention to the fact that government intervention was the source of big-business expansion, a point overlooked by most historians: Thus, tariffs and government subsidies continued to be an important factor in preventing foreign competition with American business. President Henry O. Havermeyer of the American Sugar Refining Company claimed with some exaggeration that 'The mother of all trusts is the customs tariff bill.' Perceptively, Ekirch adds, Also vital to big business was Unites States patent law, with its provisions granting exclusive rights to an inventor for seventeen years; this enabled companies to buy up and hoard patents, using such control to maintain a monopoly. In identifying tariffs and patents as agents of monopoly, Ekirch echoed an earlier individualist critic of government interference with the free market, Benjamin Tucker (1854-1939), editor of Liberty magazine. (On the case against ideas being property, see Roderick Long's article here. A bibliography of articles with links is here.)

For Ekirch there was bitter irony in the fact that government regulation was the greatest single factor in the decline of the very liberal economy that it sought to preserve and protect. Moreover, the progressive type of legislation, instead of encouraging democracy or competitive capitalism, in some ways perhaps, only made the whole economic system more difficult to operate.

Roosevelt is newly idolized these days in part because he is seen as a pioneering conservationist. But Ekirch shows that TR's interest in the environment was closely related to his jingoism: [T]he conservation movement … was in itself largely a nationalistic device popularized with much fanfare and publicity by Roosevelt and his friend Gifford Pinchot, chief of the United States Forest Service. After a century in which rapid exploitation of the resources of the West was encouraged in every way, the United States suddenly faced the prospect of potential exhaustion at a time when it was actively engaging in international rivalry with the other great powers of the world. Imperialism, with overseas markets and colonies was one means of building up the nation's military might, but generally overlooked was the way in which conservation was also intimately related to economic preparedness in the event that the nation might be plunged into a major war.

Approach to Big Business

The Progressive Era was decisive in regard to government's approach to big business. A lack of appreciation of how government stimulated — and distorted — the growth of enterprise kept most people from seeing the proper remedy for the country's economic ills. The range of choices was limited to two: 1) aggressive government action to break up concentrations of wealth and 2) regulation of ever-larger corporations. Missing from the menu was laissez faire: [D]espite growing popular resentment over the favored position of big business, most Americans in the final analysis preferred to avoid a radical effort to solve their problems. Certainly, there were few who dared to propose what might have been the most drastic of reforms — the removal of all government aid to economic enterprise. Instead, the panacea for the hard times of the nineties, as it was again to be the attempted remedy in the 1930's, was a tightening of the bonds that tied politics to economic life (emphasis added). Advocates of this course could find examples in Bismarckian Germany and the England envisioned by the Fabians.

The Progressives had no problem with big business. Indeed, the corporate elite could be found within their ranks, and many business leaders supported Roosevelt's nationalistic progressivism in the 1912 presidential campaign. They assuredly were not for laissez faire. Rather, they thought big business must be paralleled by a consolidation of regulatory powers in a centralized national government. Thus they favored replacing antitrust law with a national incorporation act, which would establish a corporate regulatory commission similar to the Interstate Commerce Commission. (Small business favored antitrust enforcement. No one called for laissez faire.)

Progressive policies embodied an underlying philosophy repugnant to Jeffersonianism. As Ekirch describes this philosophy, Society in the future would have to be based more and more on an explicit subordination of the individual to a collectivist, or nationalized, political and social order. This change, generally explained as one of progress and reform, was of course also highly important in building up nationalistic sentiment. At the same time, the rising authority and prestige of the state served to weaken the vestiges of internationalism and cosmopolitanism and to intensify the growing imperialistic rivalries. In their statist cause the progressives, who were now appropriating the name liberal, enlisted Social Darwinism, economic determinism, and relativism. According to this outlook, the old Jeffersonian truths were no longer truths. A new day called for new principles.

If Ekirch's work can be said to shine in one particular area, it is in understanding of the connection between domestic policy and foreign affairs. Historians, who make too rigid a distinction between foreign and domestic policy, he writes, have overlooked this intimate relationship between the aggressive foreign policy of the progressives and their emphasis on nationalism in home affairs. …[I]n such instances as the progressives' increasing acceptance of compulsory military training and of the white man's burden, there were obvious reminders of the paternalism of much of their economic reform legislation. Imperialism, according to a recent student of American foreign policy [R.E. Osgood], was a revolt against many of the values of traditional liberalism.

In the progressive milieu, who defended liberalism? Ekirch writes: [D]efense of liberalism was left in the hands of a dwindling minority of its traditional adherents, aided by a strange mixture of libertarians, which included radical socialists as well as old-fashioned conservatives. In the presidential election of 1912, Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom seemed to promise a return to older ways. Wilson criticized Roosevelt's platform and defended the limitation of governmental power. But, Ekirch concludes, the New Freedom was destined to suffer its own contradictions, and it was also cut short perhaps by American entrance into World War I. By the conclusion of that crusade, the confusion and rout of the liberals would be all but complete.

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