- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 11, 2006

A special issue of Time magazine celebrates the historic career of Theodore Roosevelt and the implications of his presidency for the development of American society. In the phony familiarity of our times, where you call people by their first names when you have never even met them, the cover story in this issue is titled “Teddy.”

Theodore Roosevelt was indeed a landmark figure in American politics and government, but in a very different sense from how he is portrayed in Time magazine. In fact, the way that Theodore Roosevelt has been celebrated by many in the media and among the intelligentsia tells us more about them than about the first President Roosevelt. It also tells us something about what has gone wrong with American society.

Aside from flamboyant style and rhetoric, what did Theodore Roosevelt actually accomplish that would justify carving his image on Mount Rushmore, alongside those of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln?

According to Time magazine, TR believed “government had the right to moderate the excesses of free enterprise.” Just what were these excesses? According to Time, “poverty, child labor, dreadful factory conditions.” All these things were attributed to the growth of industrial capitalism — without the slightest evidence any of them was better before the growth of industrial capitalism. Nothing is easier than to imagine some ideal past or future society or that the net result of government intervention is bound to be a plus.

Theodore Roosevelt’s own ideas went no deeper than Time magazine’s today or of much of the intelligentsia in the years in between. Maybe that is why he has been lionized. Both his thinking and his lack of thinking was so much like that of later “progressives.”

Among the things that have endeared TR to later generations of “progressives” has been “the breakup of monopolies” cited by Time magazine. Just what specifically caused particular companies to be called “monopolies”? What specifically did they do? Who specifically did the “robber barons” actually rob? Such questions remain as unanswered today as in Theodore Roosevelt’s time. Indeed, they remain unasked among many of the intelligentsia and in the media.

Monopolies are much harder to find in the real world than in political rhetoric. Monopolies raise prices but, in the big industries supposedly monopoly-dominated — oil, steel, railroads — prices were falling for years before Theodore Roosevelt entered the White House and started saving the country from “monopoly.”

The average price of steel rails fell from $68 to $32 before TR became president. Standard Oil, the most hated of the “monopolies,” had in fact innumerable competitors and its oil prices were not only lower than those of most of its competitors, but was also falling over the years. It was much the same story in other industries called “monopolies.”

The antitrust laws Theodore Roosevelt so fiercely applied did not protect consumers from high prices. They protected high-cost producers from being driven out of business by lower-cost producers. That has largely remained true in the many years since TR was president.

The long list of low-price businesses targeted by antitrust laws range from Sears department stores and the A&P; grocery chain in the 20th century to Microsoft today, prosecuted not for raising the price of Windows but for including new features without raising prices. Much of the rhetoric of antitrust remains the opposite of the reality.

Jim Powell’s soon-to-be-published book, “Bully Boy,” goes in detail into the specifics of President Theodore Roosevelt’s many crusades and their often disastrous consequences. But who cares about consequences these days?

TR was a “progressive” and denounced “malefactors of great wealth.” What more could the intelligentsia and the media want?

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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