(Editors note: This is the third segment in a continuing series featuring the clash between reason and matters of the spirit which defy rigid limitations of scientific calculation. The previous segment - Part Two - identifies Theodore Roosevelt’s political transformation as one which neatly highlights this distinction.)
What is the essence of any struggle for healthy liberty and human betterment? How can we measure the central condition of progress?
Try as he will, Theodore Roosevelt is unable to deny the spiritual qualities inherent in all materialistic pursuits, from science to business to politics. With the ink barely dry on his 1908 Special Message to Congress, by 1910 T.R. boldly envisions a New Nationalism. Some label his words “Communistic,” “Socialistic” and “Anarchistic” in various quarters. Others hail “the greatest oration ever given on American soil.”
T.R. reflects that there have been “two great crises in our country’s history: first, when it was formed, and then, again, when it was perpetuated … .” The third great crisis is upon us, the struggle “to achieve in large measure equality of opportunity.”
In every wise struggle for human betterment one of the main objects, and often the only object, has been to achieve in large measure equality of opportunity. In the struggle for this great end, nations rise from barbarism to civilization, and through it people press forward from one stage of enlightenment to the next. One of the chief factors in progress is the destruction of special privilege. The essence of any struggle for healthy liberty has always been, and must always be, to take from some one man or class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned by service to his or their fellows. …
At many stages in the advance of humanity, this conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess is the central condition of progress. In our day it appears as the struggle of freeman to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will. At every stage, and under all circumstances, the essence of the struggle is to equalize opportunity, destroy privilege, and give to the life and citizenship of every individual the highest possible value both to himself and to the commonwealth. That is nothing new.
New Nationalism envisions “practical equality of opportunity for all citizens” as the socially desirable result. This will permit every man to
have a fair chance to make of himself all that lies in him; to reach the highest point to which his capacities, unassisted by special privilege of his own and unhampered by the special privilege of others, can carry him, and to get for himself and his family substantially what he has earned. Second, equality of opportunity means that the commonwealth will get from every citizen the highest service of which he is capable. No man who carries the burden of the special privileges of another can give to the commonwealth that service to which it is fairly entitled.
Its central tenet is government protection of property rights, the traditional approach. But New Nationalism elevates human welfare, the second critical component, to a higher priority and the critical measure of any presidential administration.
T.R. insists that only a powerful federal government can regulate the economy and guarantee social justice, to protect the laboring men, women and children from exploitation. He supports graduated income and inheritance taxes, a social security system, a national health service, a federal securities commission and the direct election of US senators. The platform also supports the democratic principles of initiative, referendum and recall as means for the people to exert more direct control over government. In short, it is a platform which inspires much of the social agenda of the future New Deal a generation later:
The man who wrongly holds that every human right is secondary to his profit must now give way to the advocate of human welfare, who rightly maintains that every man holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require it.
New Nationalism further admits “the right to regulate the terms and conditions of labor, which is the chief element of wealth, directly in the interest of the common good.” Wages must be “more than sufficient” to cover the cost of living and hours “short enough” to permit the worker the “time and energy to … help in carrying the general load.”
Moreover, New Nationalism prohibits the use of corporate funds directly or indirectly for political purposes and strictly regulates political lobbyists which is to be “thoroughly enforced.” Sentiments of this nature will tend to put the political world on notice, if not take it by storm.
(Editor’s note: To be continued. Part Four in the series arrives at the heart of T.R.’s political transformation to spiritual icon …)