“World War I on the Home Front,” By Ralph Raico
June 21, 2014 26 Comments
This is considerably heavier (and longer) than what I usually do on Saturday. That’s not an apology, it’s also important. Most of it comes from Nomocracy in Politics, which is a wonderful source for us. Many of you have seen my utter disgust for Woodrow Wilson, and my belief that he ushered in many of the policies that slowed down or maybe stopped the miracle that was America. And I’ll bet you haven’t heard any of this in school, because even back when I was in school, the official line was that Wilson was a great president. He wasn’t. In fact, he may have been the worst of American presidents, even including Obama, if for no other reason than Obama is inconceivable without Wilson.
The break point to me is in three parts:
- The income tax, that penalizes Americans for success.
- The Federal Reserve, that allows the government to spend money that it didn’t have, without specifically borrowing it, and
- World War I. This was the worst of all because the government did all sorts of things that were (and are) illegal and or unconstitutional.
In this essay, Ralph Raico, summarizes very well the pernicious changes instituted by Wilson during the war. You’ll note that most of them continue in force. As you are reading this (and do follow the link) I want you to think about how much freer our society was before these things
The changes wrought in America during the First World War were so profound that one scholar has referred to “the Wilsonian Revolution in government.” Like other revolutions, it was preceded by an intellectual transformation, as the philosophy of progressivism came to dominate political discourse. Progressive notions — of the obsolescence of laissez-faire and of constitutionally limited government, the urgent need to “organize” society “scientifically,” and the superiority of the collective over the individual — were propagated by the most influential sector of the intelligentsia and began to make inroads in the nation’s political life.
As the war furnished Lenin with otherwise unavailable opportunities for realizing his program, so too, on a more modest level, it opened up prospects for American progressives that could never have existed in peacetime. The coterie of intellectuals around the New Republicdiscovered a heaven-sent chance to advance their agenda. John Dewey praised the “immense impetus to reorganization afforded by this war,” while Walter Lippmann wrote: “We can dare to hope for things which we never dared to hope for in the past.” The magazine itself rejoiced in the war’s possibilities for broadening “social control … subordinating the individual to the group and the group to society,” and advocated that the war be used “as a pretext to foist innovations upon the country.”
Woodrow Wilson’s readiness to cast off traditional restraints on government power greatly facilitated the “foisting” of such “innovations.” The result was a shrinking of American freedoms unrivaled since at least the War Between the States.
It is customary to distinguish “economic liberties” from “civil liberties.” But since all rights are rooted in the right to property, starting with the basic right to self-ownership, this distinction is in the last analysis an artificial one. It is maintained here, however, for purposes of exposition.
As regards the economy, Robert Higgs, in his seminal work,Crisis and Leviathan, demonstrated the unprecedented changes in this period, amounting to an American version of Imperial Germany’s Kriegssozialismus. Even before we entered the war, Congress passed the National Defense Act. It gave the president the authority, in time of war “or when war is imminent,” to place orders with private firms which would “take precedence over all other orders and contracts.” If the manufacturer refused to fill the order at a “reasonable price as determined by the Secretary of War,” the government was “authorized to take immediate possession of any such plant [and] … to manufacture therein … such product or material as may be required”; the private owner, meanwhile, would be “deemed guilty of a felony.”
Once war was declared, state power grew at a dizzying pace. The Lever Act alone put Washington in charge of the production and distribution of all food and fuel in the United States.
By the time of the armistice, the government had taken over the ocean-shipping, railroad, telephone, and telegraph industries; commandeered hundreds of manufacturing plants; entered into massive enterprises on its own account in such varied departments as shipbuilding, wheat trading, and building construction; undertaken to lend huge sums to business directly or indirectly and to regulate the private issuance of securities; established official priorities for the use of transportation facilities, food, fuel, and many raw materials; fixed the prices of dozens of important commodities; intervened in hundreds of labor disputes; and conscripted millions of men for service in the armed forces.
There were, of course, precursors going back at least to Lincoln and becoming noticeable in Theodore Roosevelt’s, and Taft’s administrations but, they were just that: precursors. This is when Progressivism got its real hold on our country–much to our detriment.
Can we go back? I doubt it, at least not all at once, unless the whole thing falls apart, like the Soviet Union in 1989, and that’s a hard way to fix things.
Should we? Yes we should. We were the wonder of the world, some things were harder but on balance we did more for ourselves–and for the world–than we have since. This is where we came from and how we did it.
Maybe not all the way, all at once. It did take us a hundred years to get this screwed up, but we need to change the direction, or we will go off that cliff at some point. If that happens, everything we have stood for, individual liberty, free market success, free innovation and all the rest will be lost, including the free world, maybe for a long time, maybe forever.