December 20, 2011
To My Fellow Citizens:
On August 31, 1910, Theodore Roosevelt gave a revolutionary speech at Osawatomie, Kansas, and a couple of weeks ago President Barack Obama visited Osawatomie and wrapped himself in the mantle of Roosevelt’s revolutionary progressivism. Thomas Jefferson saw it coming.
Jefferson did not predict that Roosevelt would make a speech at Osawatomie. He merely predicted the subject of Roosevelt’s speech. Jefferson feared that at some point social and economic change would call into question the character of the American republic, portending a revolution that would change it fundamentally. He feared this because he talked to a French peasant woman.
Jefferson was then Ambassador to the Court of Louis XVI. Representing a poor government, Jefferson was not able to afford the display thought necessary for the French Court’s most elaborate ceremonies. So, one day, instead of attending such a ceremony, Jefferson took a walk in the countryside near Versailles. He happened upon an old peasant woman. Falling into conversation with her, he listened as she spoke of her difficulties. As Jefferson later wrote to a friend, he learned that she had no land and was not allowed onto the vast lands held by the nobility who used them only for sport, riding at their pleasure and hunting wild game. She was entirely dependent on the hand-outs and odd jobs the aristocrats deigned to give her. Her children, she told Jefferson, often went to bed hungry.
Jefferson was appalled by the destitution of the woman. He told his friend that the critical difference between France—indeed the rest of the world—and America was that in America land was available to all who wished to work it. The land gave opportunity—equality and liberty—to all and secured to Americans the blessings of republican government. And so it would be, Jefferson wrote, until the land was used up.
As it turned out, industrialization, not population growth, used up the land, so to speak. As America industrialized, people left their farms. As they did so, the wealth generated by industrialization spread to all but unequally. Individuals and corporations amassed great sums. Theodore Roosevelt and people like him, who called themselves Progressives, believed that the old limited national government championed by Jefferson was no longer adequate to these new circumstances. At Osawatomie, as the shade of Jefferson hovered over him, Roosevelt announced the New Nationalism.
By the New Nationalism, Roosevelt meant a powerful president acting in the name and on the behalf of the people who would control the “special interests” (Roosevelt’s term) to ensure equality of opportunity. At Osawatomie, in the spirit of Jefferson, Roosevelt spoke of “the triumph of a real democracy, . . . of an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him.” Roosevelt understood, as Jefferson did, that opportunity so understood satisfied the age-old longing for justice and at the same time encouraged our virtue—the best there is in us.
The revolution in our government foreseen by Jefferson and announced by Roosevelt did not concern its goal—equality of opportunity—but the means to achieve that goal. Jefferson as much as Roosevelt thought government should prevent monopolies. But beyond this Jefferson believed that liberty itself was equality of opportunity and limiting the power of government would maximize liberty. Roosevelt believed that the great wealth and power of individuals and corporations required a powerful central government to ensure equality of opportunity for everyone else.
But the progressive revolution did not stop with the means our government used. Over time, gradually but inevitably, it sought to change its goal. How do we know that there is equality of opportunity? Is it enough to pass laws and impose regulations? If we do so, and inequalities persist or reappear, then perhaps government must do more. It must not simply ensure an equal playing field but a more equal score at the end of the game.
This is the view President Obama expressed in his speech at Osawatomie. With the shades of Jefferson and Roosevelt hovering over him, he said that the fundamental issue was that inequality of outcome meant there could be no equality of opportunity. “Gaping inequality,” he announced, “gives lie to the promise that’s at the very heart of America: that this is a place where you can make it if you try.”
Like Jefferson and Roosevelt, Obama sees equality of opportunity (“you can make it if you try”) as the heart of America. Unlike his predecessors, however, he believes that inequality of outcome or wealth denies equality of opportunity. If it does, then to save the heart of America, the government must work to prevent inequality of outcome.
Let us note immediately that the President made no argument to prove that inequality in wealth, “gaping” or otherwise, reduces opportunity. He merely asserted what has become a Progressive dogma, one that revolutionizes the goal of our government as much as Roosevelt revolutionized the means.
What are we to make of these revolutions? Let us acknowledge that governmental action was and is necessary to ensure that none has unfair advantage. All agree on this. But let us also acknowledge the contradiction at the core of Roosevelt’s revolution: restricting liberty cannot create opportunity. The power of government, therefore, should be as limited as possible, so the heart of America, opportunity for all, beats as strongly as possible. Let us acknowledge, finally, that a government that works to equalize outcomes, the hope of Obama’s revolution, will need to exercise such power that it will imperil opportunity and thus both justice and virtue even more than Roosevelt’s revolution did. This above all was the revolution Jefferson feared as he walked with the peasant woman and looked to the future.