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Sunday, July 1, 2012

The "Unnatural Alliance" (Part Two)

(Note: This is the second segment in a three part series introducing readers to the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt.  The first segment acknowledged the intricate dilemma in balancing the need for change against preserving the benefits of the status quo.  T.R. believed under the concept of "noblesse oblige" that citizens of wealth, power and privilege were balanced by public responsibilities to help those who lack such privilege or are less fortunate...)

What was the great issue that motivated Theodore Roosevelt --- which remains unresolved even today?  Why was a business entity's conduct more important than its class or size?  Was labor merely an economic problem, absent a moral component?

As a member of what he called the “governing class” of practical politicians, T.R. frankly admitted that he was engaged in a “campaign against privilege” that was “fundamentally an ethical movement.”  He targeted stock gamblers “making large sales of what men do not possess,” writers who “act as the representatives of predatory wealth” and “men of wealth, who find in the purchased politician the most efficient instrument of corruption.”  He reserved his strongest warnings for these multimillionaires.

T.R.’s early 20th century policies sought to make ordinary citizens aware of what he considered the most ominous of the great fundamental questions before us.  The great issue was to reform the “unnatural alliance of politics and corporations” to enthrone privilege.

In this manner, he broadened the scope of the offensive conduct to be regulated.  His policies also flatly rejected the idea of “too big to fail,” which we read about all too often in the news today.  What was required was control and regulation in clear and unmistakable terms, drawing the line neither on class nor size, but the conduct and illegal business practices of business monopolies.  It did not matter that the business was large or small, the individual rich or poor, or a factory owner vs. a union leader.  The distinction was to be sharply drawn in moral judgment between those that do well vs. those that do ill.

T.R. understood that capitalists, as a product of human nature, desired free competition.  But, they desired it only insofar as free competition was necessary to wipe out their competitors.  The means employed were often all too questionable.  In the most “successful” situations, capitalists created business monopolies.  The scope and conduct of the entities they controlled were often in restraint of trade and, consequently, not always in the best interests of the public at large.  This, in particular, was where active government oversight and regulation were necessary:

These new conditions make it necessary to shackle cunning as in the past we have shackled force.  The vast individual and corporate fortunes, the vast combinations of capital, which have marked the development of our industrial system, create new conditions, and necessitate a change form the old attitude of the State and Nation toward the rules regulating the acquisition and untrammeled business use of property.

Likewise, T.R. recognized another anomaly which had developed, a crass inequality in the bargaining relation between the employer and the individual employee standing alone.  The great business organizations, which employed tens of thousands, could easily dispense with any single worker.

But what was the recourse of that worker?  He could not dispense with his job.  His wife and children would starve, if he did not have one.  The worker’s value, his labor, was a perishable commodity.  The labor of today, if not sold today, was lost forever.  But the labor was also part of a living, breathing human being.  Those who gave earnest thought to the matter saw that the labor problem was not only an economic, but also a moral, a human problem.

(The third and final segment of our series introducing readers to the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt concludes with a call for a balancing act between the big businesses and the labor of individual workers in the quest for profits.)

-Michael D'Angelo

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