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March 5, 2010

True Progressivism: A Lesson from Teddy Roosevelt


I've noticed in the health care debate that liberals are constantly digging up Teddy Roosevelt stating that he "first called for health care reform more than 100 years ago."  I thought that while we can finally all agree that this Republican was a great progressive President, we ought to look at everything he did and analyze the cost of his accomplishments.  Further, we ought to compare Teddy's spending habits with other great (or considered great) progressive Presidents.  Since Woodrow Wilson was only 4 years removed from Teddy, we’ll take a look at him too.

Now, before liberals cry foul, I did remove all 1918-20 defense spending to account for the expensiveness of World War I.  I also removed an equal amount of that money from the revenue side to not make it look like we ran bloated surpluses during that period.  The First World War was an extraordinary event that Woodrow Wilson could not necessarily be judged from a fiscal point of view.

Before we look at the numbers, let's look at the accomplishments of each President.

Teddy Roosevelt redefined capitalism and permanently made America a more competitive country by breaking up monopolies.  While the existence of monopolies may be seen by some as the by-product of an unfettered free market, monopolies actually create an environment that is totally opposite of the purpose of the free market. 

The free market's ideal goal is to have a perfectly competitive market where consumers have the freedom to choose their producers and individuals have the freedom to produce whatever they want (as long as they have the capital to produce it).  Monopolies distort free markets with high prices, no competition, and no choice.  Monopolies aren't free markets, they are a form of cronyism.

In addition to redefining the free market, TR put the US on the global map for foreign policy leadership by stepping in to help negotiate the end of a war between Russia and Japan.  He won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.  On the foreign policy front, he also encouraged the independence of Panama from Columbia so the US could construct the Panama Canal.  This canal would lead to great efficiencies in trade and military traffic for all Western hemisphere countries.  Roosevelt set aside 125 million acres of forest for conservation and took the first steps to increase food quality of Americans by laying the foundation for the Food and Drug Administration.

Teddy's other accomplishments included authorizing federal irrigation projects,
 settling the Anthracite Coal Strike, creating the Department of Commerce and Labor, the establishment of several national monuments, increasing the authority of the Interstate Commerce Commission, establishment of trade with Dominican Republic, sending troops to Cuba, Honduras, and the voyage of the Great White Fleet to market the US's new navy.

So, how much did all this progressivism cost?  As we can see, TR never had an extreme increase in spending and had no noticeably large deficits.

Teddy Roosevelt spent $5.18 billion and took in $5.26 billion for an $84 million surplus across eight years.

Looks like Teddy did a good job with the resources he had.  Now, let's fast forward four years to the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. 

People should understand that Wilson was President for 5 years before the start of World War I and since we removed defense spending from 1918-20 from his analysis, we can get a more fair assessment of Wilson's federal budget abilities. 

Under President Wilson, an amendment was passed to allow for the direct of US senators, the Underwood-Simmons tariff act (reducing tariffs) was passed, the Federal Reserve was created, the Smith-Lever Act was passed to provide money for farmers and college students, the Federal Trade Commission was established, TR’s anti-trust policies were strengthened, the transcontinental phone line was installed, military operations occurred in Mexico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republican.

In addition to this President Wilson bolstered the standing army in 1916, established a federal banking system for farmers, purchased the Dutch West Indies, established the National Park Service, mandated shorter work days for railroad workers, passed the Espionage Act which punished public criticism of the military or the government (later strengthened by the Sedition Act), passed prohibition, and the suffrage of women.

Now, how much did this cost?

Woodrow Wilson spent $28.1 billion on just under $25 billion in revenues during his tenure, for a deficit of $3.1 billion.  The amount President Wilson spent on World War I (removed from the analysis) was $19.5 billion.

To put both administrations together and insert the one term of President Taft in between, we get the following federal fiscal comparison.

Now, I’m not arguing that Republicans can do more with less than Democrats or with any comparisons.  My point is that a President can make a difference without paying extensive amounts of money.  TR increased spending by 5% per year on average during his term in office.  In comparison, Woodrow Wilson’s spending increased five-fold between 1913 and 1921 or about 66% per year (not including the massive spending during World War I).

The bottom line is that if a liberal is going to talk about how great Teddy Roosevelt was, and that we have to spend all this money to create jobs, energy, promote education, etc, make sure you rebut with the fact that Teddy accomplished all of the above mentioned goals without being fiscally irresponsible.


Anonymous said...

"make sure you rebut with the fact that Teddy accomplished all of the above mentioned goals without being fiscally irresponsible."

Unlike Ronald Reagan. Or GWB.

Jeremy said...

Probably unlike anyone since Teddy. We have become dependant on a growing federal government. One that grows quicker than the economy. Does that make you feel better? It makes me unsettled.

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