10 June 2011

Scapegoating government for economic failure: from Teddy Roosevelt to today

On September 5, 1903, the President of the United States wrote a letter to magazine editor Lyman Abbott noting that those newspapers and magazines "who seem at present to be the recognized exponents of that portion of the capitalistic class which objects to any kind of supervision or control, no matter how limited, over the great corporations and great controllers of corporations, have entered upon a systematic campaign, not merely against me, which is not important, but against the principles for which I stand."

To be specific, Theodore Roosevelt was referring to newspaper articles, usually on the financial pages, that blamed Roosevelt's policies and actions for "the financial stringency in Wall Street." His decision to pursue antitrust litigation against the Northern Securities Company and his creation of a Department of Commerce with a Bureau of Corporations, were said to have negatively impacted markets -- perhaps by contributing to the "uncertainty" so often blamed by market apologists a century later on the policies of one of Roosevelt's successors. Roosevelt himself wasn't buying this for a second.

Of course this is a preposterous falsehood. A promoters', speculators' and overcapitalizers' panic -- it is this which we have seen. But any disturbance in the business world, no matter how purely due to the excesses of speculators, is sure to effect great numbers of other people, and when these feel the pinch it is invariable a relief to them to have somebody or something concrete on which to lay the blame; and there are plenty of businessmen, wealthy, venturous and unscrupulous,...who find it for their advantage to encourage this feeling, as what they most wish is absolute and unfettered freedom to act without regard to law.

As long as politics interferes with their money making, businesspeople will blame politics when they don't make as much as they'd like, no matter what the actual reason. As long as politics exists, some businesspeople, not to mention some of their sympathizers, will blame it for interfering with business whether it does so in a quantifiably significant way or not. As long as there is a state, dogmatic libertarians, for instance, can say that economic failures don't reflect on their free-market faith, since they can always claim that politics prevents the Market from operating as it should ideally. Politics and government itself serve as scapegoats that exempt capitalists and entrepreneurs from their proper share of blame for national economic decline. The champions of business's independence from politics actually assume its complete dependence, if we take their assertions on face value. They seem to argue that business can function properly only if government policies are just right from the business perspective, but also that it can only fail because of government interference. That's easier than admitting that their brilliant business plans failed, that their models were wrong, or that they weren't competitive enough.

Roosevelt didn't see himself as a radical. In the same letter to Abbott, whose magazine he'd join as a contributing editor after his presidency, he pointed out how evenhanded he considered himself to have been in dealing with capital and labor. He pointed out how his decision to run the Government Printing Office as an open shop incensed organized labor, and how he didn't hesitate to call out the troops against striking workers when they became "lawless." He saw his job as balancing the interests of capital and labor to achieve the national interest instead of taking one side against the other. He told Abbott that he was as ready to put down "crimes of violence" by labor as he was to put down "crimes of greed and cunning" by business. For his trouble, he found himself attacked by "those labor unions who demand that tyranny shall be connived at by the Government, if it is the tyranny of labor unions," and by "those great corporations who demand that lawbreaking shall be condoned by the executive, if the lawbreaker is so wealthy that his welfare can be said to be essential to the general business welfare." In other words, "too big to fail" was already a familiar concept a century ago, to Roosevelt's chagrin.

The beleaguered President also suspected that it was precisely because he wasn't a radical, but was a practical, pragmatic reformer, that he was subject to so many attacks.

The Standard Oil and similar corporations have never really been frightened by any of the demagogic assaults upon them; they do not mind...empty threats about nationalizing them; and they laugh at the populists and professional labor agitators; but they have been aroused to intense hostility by having put upon the statute books a measure which does mean that a practical step in advance has been taken in reference to their supervision and regulation.

The only difference a century has made, as far as I can tell, is that the corporations and their ideological acolytes now don't hesitate to portray the Rooseveltian reformers as radicals. Then as now, the real radicals in America remain powerless. Talk radio doesn't report with alarm the latest pronouncements of the local communist or socialist parties. Instead, they claim that Democratic hacks and liberal academicians are socialists or communists who hate capitalism if not liberty itself. In a way, this pretense makes sense, since reactionaries might well fear whoever's more likely to be effective than whoever's most extreme. But Roosevelt himself thought their attitude unwise. He felt that the reactionaries failed to realize that reformers like him stood between them and revolution. As he asked another journalist, "Do they not realize that they are putting a very heavy burden on us who stand against socialism; against anarchic disorder?" They probably didn't, but more likely saw a slippery slope to socialism, and their successors still view Roosevelt with hostility. While he saw state "supervision and regulation" as an alternative to socialism, his opponents eventually equated it with socialism itself, which they identify primarily with the state rather than the working class. As far as the reactionaries were concerned, the effect was the same; they were less free, and anything that went wrong with the economy thus became government's fault. For all I know, some people today may blame Roosevelt himself for present-day business failures. It'd make as much sense as some things I do hear.

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