Back in 1913 during his first year in office as president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson published a book, The New Freedom. Concerned about the growing power of corporations and trusts and the abuses of human rights that accompanied it, Wilson contended that the power of the giant organizations must be reined in. After all, he needed something to convince the electorate that they hadn’t made too big of a mistake in electing him instead of Theodore Roosevelt. . . .
|Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.|
This, of course, was nothing more than what right-thinking people had been saying from the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. It had been one of the key issues of the 1912 presidential campaign. Few people except the financial interests that had backed William Howard Taft (and, er, Wilson. . . .) disagreed that something had to be done. The difficulty comes in how Wilson decided the problem should be solved. He wanted to abolish private property in capital.
He didn’t put it quite that way, of course. That would have been too dangerous, especially after Karl Marx declared in The Communist Manifesto (1848) that “The theory of the communists can be summed up in the single sentence: abolition of private property.” Worse, Pope Leo XIII had agreed with Marx — in the definition of socialism, anyway (communism is “merely” scientific socialism) — and condemned “the chief tenet of socialism: community of property.”
No, what Wilson did was first contradict the first principle of reason by declaring that “private property” meant substantially different things depending on whether it was a consumer item owned by a human being, or a productive asset owned by a corporation. That which was true was no longer true if the circumstances changed — according to Wilson. As he said,
There are other tracts of modern life where jungles have grown up that must be cut down. Take, for example, the entirely illegitimate extensions made of the idea of private property for the benefit of modern corporations and trusts. A modern joint stock corporation cannot in any proper sense be said to base its rights and powers upon the principles of private property. Its powers are wholly derived from legislation. It possesses them for the convenience of business at the sufferance of the public. Its stock is widely owned, passes from hand to hand, brings multitudes of men into its shifting partnerships and connects it with the interests and the investments of whole communities. It is a segment of the public; bears no analogy to a partnership or to the processes by which private property is safeguarded and managed, and should not be suffered to afford any covert whatever to those who are managing it. Its management is of public and general concern, is in a very proper sense everybody's business.
Translation? If the form of ownership changes from a sole proprietorship or partnership to a corporation, then the concept of ownership itself changes. Property is no longer private, but public. What was formerly private property is no longer private property because the manner in which it is owned changed. Truth is no longer true due to changing circumstances . . . at least, according to Woodrow Wilson.
Abuses of individual rights by corporations must cease (no argument there), and the way to do that — according to Wilson — is to put people before things. Again, no argument.
The only way to do that, however — according to Wilson — is not to define the exercise of private property in such a way as to protect individual rights, but to abolish individual rights! That is, take away private ownership of corporations and vest it in government. Put all control of capital under the State, and All Will Be Well. As he explained,
I agree that as a nation we are now about to undertake what may be regarded as the most difficult part of our governmental enterprises. We have gone along so far without very much assistance from our government. We have felt, and felt more and more in recent months, that the American people were at a certain disadvantage as compared with the people of other countries, because of what the governments of other countries were doing for them and our government omitting to do for us.
It is perfectly clear to every man who has any vision of the immediate future, who can forecast any part of it from the indications of the present, that we are just upon the threshold of a time when the systematic life of this country will be sustained, or at least supplemented, at every point by governmental activity. And we have now to determine what kind of governmental activity it shall be; whether, in the first place, it shall be direct from the government itself, or whether it shall be indirect, through instrumentalities which have already constituted themselves and which stand ready to supersede the government.
I believe that the time has come when the governments of this country, both state and national, have to set the stage, and set it very minutely and carefully, for the doing of justice to men in every relationship of life. It has been free and easy with us so far; it has been go as you please; it has been every man look out for himself; and we have continued to assume, up to this year when every man is dealing, not with another man, in most cases, but with a body of men whom he has not seen, that the relationships of property are the same that they always were. We have great tasks before us, and we must enter on them as befits men charged with the responsibility of shaping a new era.
These are certainly fine-sounding words, but they boil down to one thing: let government take care of every aspect of life and turn people into slaves of the State, and Utopia will be here. Of course, it comes as no surprise that Wilson did his doctoral thesis on Walter Bagehot’s constitutional theories as detailed in The English Constitution (1867) . . . in which an élite, a “chosen people” (Bagehot’s words) have the responsibility of running the country and controlling everyone else’s lives for the greater good.
And the justification for this great change to a “new freedom”? As Wilson declared, “What I am interested in is having the government of the United States more concerned about human rights than about property rights. Property is an instrument of humanity; humanity isn't an instrument of property.”
Again, no argument with Wilson’s specific words . . . just with what he meant by them. He evidently didn’t realize that it is not a question of property rights versus human rights, but of people with property (which is a right, not a thing) versus people without property — of people with rights abusing people without rights. Wilson’s idea of how to deal with abuse of a right by one individual or group was to abolish it for everyone, i.e., to throw the baby out with the bath.
Not surprisingly, the real solution to abuse of corporate power came from a man who had supported Theodore Roosevelt in the 1912 campaign, Judge Peter Stenger Grosscup. Nor was Grosscup’s program a lot of empty rhetoric or campaign promises, but a well-thought-out proposal that took essential human rights of life, liberty, and — yes — private property into account.