Thomas Sowell

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."

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

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