Powell, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, has made a name for himself writing provocative studies of presidents (FDR's Folly and Wilson's War). In this biased, unpersuasive account, Powell argues that virtually every plank of Teddy Roosevelt's Progressive agenda ' including trust-busting, regulation of food and drugs, and the income tax (which Powell describes as "blood money") was a disaster. He sees Roosevelt as a dangerous tyrant who sought to expand the power of the executive office in order to promote his own interests. Powell's libertarian politics color almost every page of this study. To wit, his critique of Roosevelt's conservationism: "By establishing federal control over so much U.S. land, he defied the prevailing American view that land use decisions were best made by private individuals who had a stake in improving the value of their property." Powell also turns his guns on muckraking reporter Jacob Riis, remembered for his journalistic expos ' s of urban poverty. Powell says that instead of unmasking poverty, Riis should have asked "whether the poor were better off" in his day than they had been in the past, then approvingly quotes Thomas Hobbes's description of life as "poor, nasty, brutish, and short." This is irresponsible revisionism at its worst.
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August 28, 2004
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Excerpt from Bully Boy by Jim Powell
CHAPTER ONE: WHY DID ROOSEVELT BELIEVE MORE GOVERNMENT POWER WOULD SOLVE PEOPLE'S PROBLEMS?
Theodore Roosevelt believed that if only politicians had enough power, they could solve the world's problems. Heralding the era of big government, he urged "far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country." Although Abraham Lincoln dramatically expanded the power of the federal government during wartime, the peacetime expansion of federal power began with Theodore Roosevelt. Disregarding the dismal history of arbitrary and oppressive government, he declared, "I think [the presidency] should be a very powerful office, and I think the President should be a very strong man who uses without hesitation every power the position yields." At another point he said, "I believe in a strong executive. I believe in power."
Where did these beliefs originate? The defining event of Theodore Roosevelt's life was the American Civil War. It showed how a powerful federal government could forge people into a single nation. As the Harvard-educated poet and critic James Russell Lowell wrote, "every man feels himself a part, sensitive and sympathetic, of a vast organism."
During the war, federal spending expanded by a factor of 20. Even after postwar military cutbacks, the U.S. army remained about 50 percent larger than it had been before the war. Postwar federal spending was four or five times higher than before the war, and spending never returned to prewar levels. War debts forced the federal government and state governments to scramble for tax revenues. Rather than pay off its debts, the federal government spent substantial sums to finance pensions for Civil War veterans and schemes such as a transcontinental railroad.
During the postwar years, many Americans looked to government for solutions to their problems. In 1865, Illinois governor Richard Yates remarked that "The war . . . has tended, more than any other event in the history of our country, to militate against the Jeffersonian idea, that 'the best government is that which governs least.' The war has not only, of necessity, given more power to, but has led to a more intimate provision of the government over every material interest of society."