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The Hero’s Hero

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We can judge a person by his heroes. John McCain would no doubt agree. Revealingly, the hero McCain most often invokes is Theodore Roosevelt.

Roosevelt, a Progressive Republican, was a key figure in America’s passage from a Jeffersonian republic to a Hamiltonian despotism. He embodied the late-19th- and early-20th-century vision in which the citizen is subordinated to a powerful centralized American bureaucracy.

Progressivism has a benign reputation for striving to protect the individual from concentrations of power. Nothing could be further from the truth. As the late historian Arthur Ekirch Jr. wrote, “Progressivism, as it flourished in Washington at the turn of the century, was an outgrowth of post-Civil War trends in the direction of a greater concentration and centralization of political and economic power in the Federal government.”

Ekirch pointed out that Roosevelt exhibited a German-style nationalism and statism reminiscent of the authoritarian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, founder of the modern welfare state. Nationalism in this sense doesn’t mean mere love of one’s country. It denotes the state’s vaunting aggressiveness that, should the occasion arise, translates into imperialism and war. Roosevelt was entirely at home with the idea. As assistant naval secretary (1895-1897) and as president (1901-1909) he favored a navy big enough to project American power around the world (“manifest destiny”); he was responsible for the stationing of Adm. George Dewey’s fleet at Hong Kong, where it was poised to take the Philippines during America’s first big imperialist adventure, against Spain in 1898. It was such policies that led historian Richard Hofstadter to call Roosevelt a “herald of modern American militarism and imperialism.” Ekirch was more blunt: “he never really outgrew his adolescent love of war.”

What motivated Roosevelt was a belief that bourgeois America was too preoccupied with the private life. When government is small and limited to keeping the civil peace, individuals are free to flourish economically and spiritually. For Roosevelt and his ilk mere private success is unworthy of a great nation. He aspired to something grander – and he meant to drag his fellow Americans along whether they liked it not. Of Roosevelt, H.L. Mencken wrote, “In all his career no one ever heard him make an argument for the rights of the citizen; his eloquence was always expended in expounding the duties of the citizen.” Today the neoconservative magazine The Weekly Standard, which thumps regularly for McCain, admiringly calls this outlook “national greatness conservatism.”

Observe the similarities between Roosevelt and McCain. The Arizona senator was a boisterous cheerleader for the war of aggression against Serbia, a nation that had not threatened the United States. His only complaint was that President Clinton had ruled out the use of ground troops, a measure that would have cost many lives. He supports beefing up the military budget.

Progressives like Roosevelt saw foreign and domestic policy as cut from the same cloth. Both aimed at bulking up government and steering society in a preconceived direction. Mencken wrote that Roosevelt “believed in strong centralization…. He didn’t believe in democracy; he believed simply in government…. He was for a paternalism of the true Bismarckian pattern, almost of the Napoleonic pattern – a paternalism concerning itself with all things.” Interestingly, Napoleon was a boyhood hero of McCain’s.

Roosevelt of course was known as the “trustbuster” because of his antitrust suits against big businesses. McCain, while claiming to believe in free enterprise, has a soft spot for Roosevelt in this regard: “I have studied the speeches of Teddy Roosevelt and I understand the importance of these issues for the common man, who can get shafted by these big companies.” (He hasn’t made up his mind about the Microsoft case.)

McCain, like TR before him, displays a woeful ignorance of the market economy. Big companies, as long as they can’t persuade government to grant them subsidies or restrictions on their competitors (like tariffs), cannot shaft consumers, who are always free to spend their money elsewhere. From the start, antitrust law has been used in behalf of unsuccessful competitors to attack efficient companies that served consumers well.

The hero railed against the “tyranny of mere wealth” and gave America the tyranny of statism. There is every reason to expect the hero-worshiper would do the same.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.