(Editor’s note: This is the second and concluding segment in a two part series. The first segment introduced readers to traditional notions of conservatism.)
Does change mean destruction? What happens when there is no change? …
Against the traditional definition of the term “conservative,” Theodore Roosevelt, however, identified what he referred to as the “true conservative:”
The true friend of property, the true conservative, is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth; who insists that the creature of man’s making shall be the servant and not the master of the man who made it. The citizens of the
must effectively control
the mighty commercial forces which they have called into being. United States
There can be no effective control of corporations while their political activity remains.
We must have complete and effective publicity (disclosure) of corporate affairs, so that the people may know beyond peradventure whether the corporations obey the law and whether their management entitles them to the confidence of the public. It is necessary that laws should be passed to prohibit the use of corporate funds directly or indirectly for political purposes; it is still more necessary that such laws should be thoroughly enforced. Corporate expenditures for political purposes, and especially such expenditures by public-service corporations, have supplied one of the principal sources of corruption on our political affairs.
In the first decade of the 20th century, a time when 1% of families possessed 7/8 of all wealth, the reform agenda of T.R.’s Republican Party called for efficient government run by competent, able people with a need for expanded government action. The ground-breaking work of Ida Tarbell, “muckraking” progressive journalist, provided the impetus to take on and ultimately succeed in breaking up the gargantuan oil monopoly, Rockefeller’s Standard Oil.
Utilizing a previously toothless, obscure federal law known as the 1891 Sherman Anti-Trust Act, T.R.’s administration rejected the previous Republican policy of laissez-faire and passive, limited government. Henceforth, and for the very first time, the government would reject the principles of Social Darwinism and recognize labor (i.e.: the ordinary citizen) as a necessary ingredient, if not equal partner, in its struggle with entrenched businesses (i.e.: ranging from finance to railroads to steel to coal mines). It was then labeled as the “triumph of conservatism.”
T.R.’s program of reform exemplified an activist government to combat the various ills plaguing society as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Noteworthy legislative achievements on behalf of the ordinary citizen included the enactment of workers’ compensation, child labor and compulsory education laws, as well as laws to ameliorate excessively long shifts and unsafe work conditions.
In short, T.R. used his presidency to make laws to protect people “on the make” as opposed to those “already made,” in the attempt at “making an Old Party Progressive.” It was in line with the Jackson-Lincoln view of the presidency: to act when it is your duty to act as the steward of the people, unless explicitly forbidden by the US Constitution. His program would inspire much of the social agenda of the future New Deal a generation later.
Conservatives, said T.R., “are taught to believe that change means destruction. They are wrong. ... Life means change; where there is no change, death comes.”
If I could ask but one thing of my fellow countrymen, my request would be that, whenever they go in for reform, they remember the two sides, and that they always exact justice from one side as much as from the other.
But we must be ready to face temporary disaster, whether or not brought on by those who will war against us to the knife. Those who oppose reform will do well to remember that ruin in its worst form is inevitable if our national life brings us nothing better than swollen fortunes for the few and the triumph in both politics and business of a sordid and selfish materialism.
These are strong words to ponder, as wealth disparity and concentration in the hands of the few are again acute problems in the second decade of the 21st century. But amid society’s growing unrest, there is an enlightened path to follow. Thanks in no small part to Theodore Roosevelt.