Last Tuesday, US President Barack Obama delivered a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, echoing Theodore Roosevelt’s 1910 sermon in the same town. Roosevelt’s speech, which Robert S. La Forte called “a milestone along the road to the modern all-powerful state,” arraigned the “overdivision of governmental powers” and called for a “New Nationalism.” The president’s symbolism in choosing Osawatomie as venue offers clues about his particular brand of political philosophy.
The Progressive Era’s nationalism treated the state as the true and ultimate social organism, very literally (to many Progressives of the time) the spiritual embodiment of collective will. In practice, however, the “general welfare” wrought by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson departed starkly from the buoyant “square deal” rhetoric used to promote it.
The magnification of the total, inescapable state, always advanced as a victory for “the common man,” never failed to further consolidate power and wealth in a well-connected elite. Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism,” so favorably invoked by President Obama’s speech, was rooted firmly in a jingoistic sense of American Exceptionalism that, among other things, treated empire as the country’s birthright.
The domestic complement to the Progressives’ “big stick” foreign policy was a federal government fixated on managing and manipulating social life, on a hierarchical society in which government czars would make the important decisions. Within the economic life of the country, that hardly meant the curtailment of Big Business prerogatives, though that’s just the claim President Obama very assuredly prosecuted in Kansas.
Instead, it was the powerful business lobbies, secure in their bonds to the nation’s Capitol, that most benefited from “New Nationalism.” As argued by law professor Butler Shaffer in his book In Restraint of Trade, “[R]esearch has revealed the dominant influence of commercial and industrial interests in shaping and directing government regulatory policies in order to advance such business interests.” The contrary mythology peddled by both parties and by stooge mainstream academics flies in the face of virtually everything we know about the transformation to an industrial economy and to today’s corporate paradigm.
Those “few giant monopolies” cast as the villains of last week’s Osawatomie speech are the result not of any legitimately free market, but of the kind of throttled economy favored by Republicans and Democrats alike. And that kind of economy is a direct successor to the one created by the so-called reforms of the turn of the last century.
The president is right that “the free market only works when there are rules of the road that ensure competition is fair and open and honest.” The problem with his argument is that the employing class has never, ever sought to be “left alone” or to live beyond the state’s regulatory reaches.
Commercial power appeals to the state at every turn, pleading for new ways to stifle and destroy competition by adding costs and outlawing independent subsistence and self-employment. A widening wealth gap and growth of business dominance have always attended the aggrandizement of the central state.
Market anarchists contend that the best way to counteract the high prices and low wages cited by the president is to allow real competition — the freed market — in contrast to the legally-enforced monopolies that prevail today.
The state, rather than a protector of law and order, is and always has been the keeper of privilege, allowing a small ruling class to delineate the boundaries within which it will tolerate “competition.” Doing away with the state would allow a richer, fairer social order to emerge, giving way to true progress and prosperity.