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Limitation of Governmental Power

Theodore Roosevelt, Address at the Coliseum, San Francisco, Sept. 14, 1912


In one of his campaign speeches Mr. Wilson made a sweeping assault on the Progressive platform and programme and defined his own position as to social and industrial justice. According to the stenographic report of his speech, Mr. Wilson stated that there is no hope for social reform through the platform of the Progressive party, saying: "In the very form itself is supplied the demonstration that it is not a serviceable instrument. They do propose to serve civilization and humanity but they cannot serve civilization and humanity with that kind of government.... The history of liberty is a history of the limitation of governmental power, not the increase of it."

And he then continues to uphold what he calls "representative" government and "representative" assemblies as against the platform that we propose, and also to uphold the Democratic proposals for dealing with labor and the trusts as against the Progressive proposals.

Mr. Wilson is fond of asserting his platonic devotion to the purposes of the Progressive party. But such platonic devotion is utterly worthless from a practical standpoint, because he antagonizes the only means by which those purposes can be made effective. It is idle to profess devotion to Progressive principles and at the same time to antagonize the only methods by which they can be realized in actual fact.

They key to Mr. Wilson's position is found in the statement I have just quoted, when he says that "The history of liberty is a history of the limitation of governmental power, not the increase of it."

This is a bit of outworn academic doctrine which was kept in the schoolroom and the professorial study for a generation after it had been abandoned by all who had experience of actual life. It is simply the laissez-faire doctrine of the English political economists three-quarters of a century ago. It can be applied with profit, if anywhere at all, only in a primitive community under primitive conditions, in a community such as the United States at the end of the eighteenth century, a community before the days of Fulton, Morse and Edison. To apply it now in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century, with its highly organized industries, with its railways, telegraphs, and telephones, means literally and absolutely to refuse to make a single effort to better any one of our social or industrial conditions.

Moreover, Mr. Wilson is absolutely in error in his statement, from the historical standpoint.

So long as governmental power existed exclusively for the king and not at all for the people, then the history of liberty was a history of the limitation of governmental power. But now the governmental power rests in the people, and the kings who enjoy privilege are the kings of the financial and industrial world; and what they clamor for is the limitation of governmental power, and what the people sorely need is the extension of governmental power.

If Mr. Wilson's statement means nothing, then he ought not to have made it.

If it means anything, it means that every law for the promotion of social and industrial justice which has been put upon the statute-books ought to be repealed, and every law proposed should be abandoned, for without exception every such law represents an increase of governmental power. Does Mr. Wilson mean to repeal the interstate commerce commission law? If not, does he deny that it represents a great increase of governmental power over the railroads ? Let him take whichever horn of the dilemma he chooses. Either his statement ii not in accordance with the facts or else he is bound if it is in accordance with the facts as he sees them, to include in his programme the repeal of the Interstate Commerce Commission Act.

Again, every Progressive State in the Union has passed laws for factory inspection; every such law means an increase of governmental power. Is Mr. Wilson in favor of repealing those laws? If he is not, then what does he mean by saying that the history of liberty is the history of the limitation of governmental power?

The fact is that his statement is a mere bit of professorial rhetoric, which has not one particle of foundation in the facts of the present day.

Again, we propose to limit the hours of working girls to eight hours a day; we propose to limit the hours of working men in continuous industries to eight hours a day, and to give them one day's rest a week. Both of these proposals represent an increase in the exercise of governmental power, an extension of governmental power. Does Mr. Wilson mean that he is against this extension? If not, then his sentence which I have just quoted and which represents the key-note of his speech, means nothing whatever.

In other words, Mr. Wilson's promise is either a promise that is not to be kept or else it means the undoing of every particle of social and industrial advance we have made and the refusal to go forward along the lines of industrial and social progress.

He stands for a policy which necessarily means, if that policy is honestly put into effect, that he must be against every single progressive measure, for every progressive measure means an extension, instead of a limitation, of governmental control.

We propose to do away with occupational disease. Is he against this proposition? He must be if he believes in limitation of government control.

We propose a workman's compensation act. Is he against this proposition ? He must be if he sincerely means that he is in favor of the limitation of governmental control.

We propose to regulate the conditions of work in factories, the conditions of life in tenement-houses, the conditions of life and work in construction camps every one of these proposals means an extension of governmental control. Is he against them ?

Either he is against his own principle or he is against these reforms. He can choose either horn of the dilemma he wishes; but one or the he must choose.

He has definitely committed himself to the use of the taxing power only for the purpose of raising revenue. In that case he is against its use to put out of existence the poisonous - match industry. He is against its use for the purpose of preventing opium coming into this country. He is against its use for preventing wildcat banking. In short, he is against its use in every case where we now use it to tax out of existence dangers and abuses.

The trouble with Mr. Wilson is that he is following an outworn philosophy and that the history of which he is thinking is the history of absolute monarchies and Oriental despotisms. He is thinking of government as embodied in an absolute king or in an oligarchy or aristocracy. He is not thinking of our government, which is a government by the people themselves.

The only way in which our people can increase their power over the big corporation that does wrong, the only way in which they can protect the working man in his conditions of work and life, the only way in which the people can prevent children working in industry or secure women an eight-hour day in industry, or secure compensation for men killed or crippled in industry, is by extending, instead of limiting, the powers of government.

There is no analogy whatever from the standpoint of real liberty, and of real popular need, between the limitations imposed by the people on the power of an irresponsible monarch or a dominant aristocracy, and the limitations sought to be imposed by big financiers, by big corporation lawyers, and by well-meaning students of a dead-and-gone system of political economy on the power of the people to right social wrongs and limit social abuses, and to secure for the humble what, unless there is an extension of the powers of government, the arrogant and the powerful will certainly take from the humble.

If Mr. Wilson really believes what he has said, then Mr. Wilson has no idea of our government in its actual working. He is not thinking of modern American history or of present day American needs. He is thinking of Magna Carta, which limited the power of the English king, because his power over the people had before been absolute. He is thinking of the Bill of Rights, which limited the power of the governing class in the interest of the people, who could not control that governing class.

Our proposal is to increase the power of the people themselves and to make the people in reality the governing class. Therefore Mr. Wilson's proposal is really to limit the power of the people and thereby to leave unchecked the colossal embodied privileges of the present day.

Now, you can adopt one philosophy or the other. You can adopt the philosophy of laissez-faire, of the limitation of governmental power, and turn the industrial life of this country into a chaotic scramble of selfish interests, each bent on plundering the other and all bent on oppressing the wage-worker. This is precisely and exactly what Mr. Wilson's proposal means; and it can mean nothing else. Under such limitations of governmental power as he praises, every railroad must be left unchecked, every great industrial concern can do as it chooses with its employees and with the general public; women must be permitted to work as many hours a day as their taskmasters bid them; great corporations must be left unshackled to put down wages to a starvation limit and to raise the price of their products as high as monopolistic control will permit.

The reverse policy means an extension, instead of a limitation, of governmental power; and for that extension, we Progressives stand.

We propose to handle the colossal industrial concerns engaged in interstate business as we are handling the great railways engaged in interstate business; and we propose to go forward in the control of both, doing justice to each but exacting justice from each; and we propose to work for justice to the farmer and the wage-worker in the same fashion.

Let me give you a concrete instance of what Mr. Wilson's policy, if applied, means as compared with ours. The Stanley Committee, the Democratic committee of the Democratic House of Representatives, has practically applied its interpretation of the Democratic platform about trusts, which is substantially the Republican platform, the Wilson-Taft platform. Some time previously under governmental suit the Standard Oil Trust was dissolved. Under the decree of the court the Standard Oil Company was split up into a lot of smaller companies, precisely as the Stanley Report proposes that similar trusts shall be split up. What has been the actual result? All the companies are still under the same control, or at least working in such close alliance that the effect is precisely the same. The price of the stock has gone up over one hundred per cent, so that Mr. Rockefeller and his associates have actually seen their fortunes doubled by the policy which Mr. Wilson advocates and which Mr. Taft defends. At the same time the price of oil to the consumer has gone up by leaps and bounds. No wonder that Wall Street's prayer now is: "Oh, Merciful Providence, give us another dissolution."

In short, the Taft-Wilson plan has actually resulted in enormously benefiting Mr. Rockefeller and his associates and in causing serious damage to all consumers.

The Progressive proposal is the direct reverse of all this. If we had our way. there would be an administrative body to deal radically and thoroughly with such a case as that of the Standard Oil Company. We would make any split-up of the company that was necessary real and not nominal. We would step in in such a case as this where the value of the stock was going up in such enormous proportion and forbid any increase of the price of the product. We would examine thoroughly and searchingly the books of the company and put a stop to every type of rebate and to every practice which would result in the swindling either of investors or competitors or wage-workers or of the general public.

Our plan—the plan to which Mr. Archbold of the Standard Oil Trust so feelingly objects as "Abyssinian treatment"— would result in preventing any increase of cost to the consumer and in exercising the kind of radical control over the corporation itself, which would prevent the stock-gambling antics which result in enormous profits to those on the inside, to those who, in the parlance of the street, know that "there is a melon to be cut."

Now, I have stated as fairly as I know how what Mr. Wilson's plan is, if his words mean anything, and what our plan is. And I ask every working man, every farmer, every professional and business man, to say for themselves which is best.

The people of the United States have but one instrument which they can efficiently use against the colossal combinations of business—and that instrument is the government of the United States (and of course in the several States the governments of the States where they can be utilized). Mr. Wilson's proposal is that the people of the United States shall throw away this, the one great instrument, the one great weapon they have with which to secure themselves against wrong. He proposes to limit the governmental action of the people and therefore to leave unlimited and unchecked the action of the great corporations whose enormous power constitutes so serious a problem in modern industrial life. Remember that it is absolutely impossible to limit the power of these great corporations whose enormous power constitutes so serious a problem in modern industrial life except by extending the power of the government. All that these great corporations ask is that the power of the government shall be limited. No wonder they are supporting Mr. Wilson, for he is advocating for them what they hardly dare venture to advocate for themselves. These great corporations rarely want anything from the government except to be let alone and to be permitted to work their will unchecked by the government. All that they really want is that governmental action shall be limited. In every great corporation suit the corporation lawyer will be found protesting against extension of governmental power. Every court decision favoring a corporation takes the form of declaring unconstitutional some extension of governmental power. Every corporation magnate in the country who is not dealing honestly and fairly by his fellows asks nothing better than that Mr. Wilson's programme be carried out and that there be stringent limitations of governmental power.

There once was a time in history when the limitation of governmental power meant increasing liberty for the people. In the present day the limitation of governmental power, of governmental action, means the enslavement of the people by the great corporations, who can only be held in check through the extension of governmental power.

In another speech Mr. Wilson has taken his stand squarely on the Democratic platform about the tariff. The Democratic platform says the tariff is unconstitutional in so far as it gives protection and that therefore it must be entirely removed. Mr. Wilson states that the protective tariff is "a malignant growth that requires a surgical operation"; and he explicitly promises to be the surgeon "to cut out the deadly thing." Here again, if language means anything, either in the platform or in Mr. Wilson's speeches, there is a direct promise to destroy the protective tariff. This is not a promise to reform it, to reduce it, to do away with it where it is excessive, to see that the wage-worker is benefited by it, that it operates to the advantage of the producer and at the same time benefits the consumer. These are the promises of the Progressive platform. Mr. Wilson's promise is a tariff for destruction. If a protective tariff is unconstitutional, if a protective tariff is "a malignant growth" which he proposes to "cut out," then it is disingenuous to say that the operation shall be done in slow and leisurely fashion so as not to damage the patient. A malignant growth must be cut out at once; an unconstitutional law must be repealed at once.

The Republican proposal is a tariff for privilege; the Democratic proposal is a tariff for destruction; the Progressive proposal is a tariff for labor, a tariff which shall give to the American business man his fair show, both permitting and requiring him to pay the American laborer the wages necessary to keep up the standard of living in this country.

Mr. Wilson's attitude toward the tariff is exactly in keeping with his attitude toward social and industrial reforms. He is against the minimum wage for women exactly as he is against a protective tariff. His principles would prevent us either effectually helping labor or effectually regulating and controlling big business.

He is against using the power of the government to help the people to whom the government belongs.

We take flat issue with him. We propose to use the government as the most efficient instrument for the uplift of our people as a whole; we propose to give a fair chance to the workers and strengthen their rights. We propose to use the whole power of the government to protect all those who, under Mr. Wilson's laissez-faire system, are trodden down in the ferocious, scrambling rush of an unregulated and purely individualistic industrialism.

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