By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
It is one of contemporary American history's considerable ironies that the foremost progressive politician in our history—the one up there on Mount Rushmore with Washington and Lincoln and Jefferson—was the Republican champion of the income tax.
To be sure, Teddy Roosevelt's status as a liberal icon was somewhat long in the making. But in the first decade of the 20th century he emerged as a leader of the progressive movement, and helped nudge many of its ideas into action—including the progressive income tax.
Roosevelt governed in an era much like ours—a time when a long string of pro-business Republican presidents and Congresses, and a conservative Supreme Court, had presided over, and encouraged, economic inequality.
Teddy thought that was bad for the country. He believed that the genius of the American system was its ability to provide equality of opportunity to the eager, bright, and skilled among us—so that genius could find its way to the top. One way to do that, he argued, was to ensure that the robber barons and would-be aristocrats of his era had to share their wealth, and not squander it on themselves and their descendants.
Below is an excerpt from one of TR's greatest speeches, which he gave in 1910. Watching the Fox News fanatics, waving their tea bags out in the rain, makes me sad to see how far the Republican Party has drifted from the ideals of its greatest leaders.
In every wise struggle for human betterment one of the main objects, and often the only object, has been to achieve in large measure equality of opportunity. In the struggle for this great end, nations rise from barbarism to civilization, and through it people press forward from one stage of enlightenment to the next.
One of the chief factors in progress is the destruction of special privilege. The essence of any struggle for healthy liberty has always been, and must always be, to take from some one man or class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned by service to his or their fellows.
This conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess is the central condition of progress.
In our day it appears as the struggle of freemen to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will....
Practical equality of opportunity for all citizens, when we achieve it, will have two great results. First, every man will have a fair chance to make of himself all that in him lies; to reach the highest point to which his capacities, unassisted by special privilege of his own and unhampered by the special privilege of others, can carry him, and to get for himself and his family substantially what he has earned.
Second, equality of opportunity means that the commonwealth will get from every citizen the highest service of which he is capable. No man who carries the burden of the special privileges of another can give to the commonwealth that service to which it is fairly entitled.
I stand for the square deal. But when I say that I am for the square deal, I mean not merely that I stand for fair play under the present rules of the game, but that I stand for having those rules changed so as to work for a more substantial equality of opportunity and of reward for equally good service....
The absence of effective state and, especially, national, restraint upon unfair money-getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power. The prime need is to change the conditions which enable these men to accumulate power....
We grudge no man a fortune which represents his own power and sagacity, when exercised with entire regard to the welfare of his fellows.... We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used.
It is not even enough that it should have been gained without doing damage to the community. We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community.
This, I know, implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had, but I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary.
No man should receive a dollar unless that dollar has been fairly earned. Every dollar received should represent a dollar's worth of service rendered—not gambling in stocks, but service rendered.
The really big fortune, the swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size, acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means. Therefore, I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and in another tax which is far more easily collected and far more effective—a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion, and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.
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