11th Grade: Power and Markets in the Progressive Era

The week before break we wrapped up our look at Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressive Era.

How did he begin the ‘modern’ presidency?

1. America’s rising power (I think China today is in the position America was 100-120 years ago) meant that they had a role on the world stage.  Foreign policy is the purview of the executive, not the legislative branch.  Inevitably then, the power of the presidency increased as our power relative to the rest of the world increased.

2. A united America would now think of themselves as ‘Americans’ instead of ‘Virginians,’ for example.  In a sense, all the people elect the president, at least in a way that ‘the people’ do not elect senators from Maine.  The formation of a nation would again, put focus inevitably on the presidency.  Along with this, the ‘nationalization’ of industry would lead to a more national focus for media outlets.  National news and national figures would take precedence over local ones.

 There are many across the political spectrum who believe that presidential power needs to be curtailed and is out of line with the founders vision for a dominant legislature.  Truly, there have been very few weak presidents since Roosevelt’s time in office. But those who want to curb executive power need to realize that presidential power takes place in a broad political, economic, and social context.  To add to these factors, Roosevelt had an expansive view of executive power.  For him, if the Constitution did not forbid it, he could do it.  Roosevelt also believed in the government not so much as a threat to people, but as an extension of them.  Government was the people’s steward, the sword point of the arm of the ‘people.’  This attitude led to a couple of groundbreaking actions taken:
  • Roosevelt believed in the establishment of national parks.  Part of this was personal, as Roosevelt’s experience in the west transformed him.  But part of it stemmed from his belief that the land did not belong to individuals, so much as to the nation at large.  Land then, could be used only as it referred to the public at large (he did of course believe in private ownership as well).  Having land set aside for the public fit right in with this vision. . .
  • As did his vision of corporate power and regulation.   The economics of the Industrial Revolution concentrated enormous resources in the hands of a few.  Are economic monopolies consistent with an American view of liberty?  Well, that depends.  If you see liberty as freedom from outside constraint, then there could be nothing inherently wrong with monopolies, provided they were honestly obtained.  But Roosevelt saw monopolies as a threat to liberty.  Monopolies limited the people’s ability to chose, and opened up the possibility that they could be exploited.  Besides, monopolies eliminated competition.  As the students are reading for homework, Roosevelt believed that only a ‘Strenuous Life’ could make us great.  Monopolies could lead to laziness, and in the end, national decline.

These issues raise important questions of constitutional interpretation.  Does the Constitution proscribe a certain attitude towards federal power?  What is the truest meaning of ‘liberty?’  How should we balance individual liberty with the rights of others?  I enjoyed our discussions on these questions, and we related them to the recent controversies surrounding the new body scans at airports.

This also led to a broader discussion of capitalism itself.  Many ‘classical’ economists look with fondness back to the pre-Roosevelt era as the heyday of a more pure capitalism.  This provided an opportunity to consider capitalism itself.   I wanted to place special focus.  I wanted us to consider the following:
1. Does capitalism share common ancestry with Darwinism?  Both rose to prominence at about the same time.  Both stress that it is through competition that we progress.  Both shed few tears over those whom competition eliminates.  Both, curiously enough, have a certain fatalism to them in their purest form, one of class strife, the other of the invisible hand of the market.  Fatalism, no matter the form it takes, is usually a sign of exhaustion or boredom, whether in the individual or the civilization.  C.S. Lewis argued in ‘Mere Christianity’ that a fully Christian economic system would resemble socialism or communism in some key ways (see his ‘Social Morality’ chapter in that book if you are curious).  Taking a different rout. a Christian defense of certain key free market principles can be found here.
Others would counter that while the free market of the Industrial Revolution had its problems and inequalities, surely the end result proved beneficial?  The western world saw unprecedented economic growth and the rise of a truly broad based middle class that is still the foundation of modern democracies.  When all was said and done, standards of living increased, and more people had access to more goods than ever before.
But that still begs the question: Does the free market promote Darwinism?  Or,  as Milton Friedman has argued, is it one of the best indirect promoters of personal freedom?  Or is it, as Philip Bobbitt and Guido Calabresi argued in their book ‘Tragic Choices,’ a method whereby society sometimes avoids hard decisions and puts them in the hands of ‘the market?’
2. If there are links between Darwinism and capitalism, what does that do to our interpretation of capitalism?  Do we affirm it in full, believing that Darwin may have latched onto a truth about existence?  Or does the market need regulated, or ‘softened’ to inject more community oriented values?
3. What might the doctrine of the Trinity have to do with this question?  With God we have community (1 God) and individuality (3 Persons) cohering in their fullness simultaneously.  We, however, are finite, and so we cannot experience both individuality and community in their fullness simultaneously.  Being made in the image of God, we desire and need both.  Might much of our political debates, both then and now, be helpfully viewed through this prism?  How should a society’s economic structure reflect both individual and community values?  Where should the emphasis lie?
Finally, towards the end of the week we looked at some aspects of Progressive Era culture.  Each society has its values and cannot help but give expression to those values, consciously or otherwise.  Here is an image of the city of Chicago ca. 1900
The plan of the city bears all the hallmarks of the Progressive Era.  The design is effecient, ‘scientific,’ and rational.  The design allows the city to be easily navigable to outsiders, reflecting the increasing sense of national over local identity.  Other cities would follow Chicago in their design, and thus cities could be like chain restaurants, more or less the same wherever one went.  Here is an image of St. Louis from about the same time:
Naturally this efficiency of design helped the flow of goods to and from other cities.  The links between cities and regions of the country grew easier to forge and thus became stronger.  To get a sense of the difference and meaning behind the change, here is an image of Philadelphia ca. 1750:
Granted, it’s not as if Philadelphia had no order to it, but the sense of standardization is less.