Another Way in Which Bush Is a Wilsonian

Wake up and smell the fascist roses, my fellow Americans. The so-called free-market fundamentalists the people elected in 2000 and 2004, are now moving quickly to eliminate any remaining vestiges of capitalism from this country, and from other leading industrial countries, as well. (The moves are being coordinated by the governments of the G-7 countries, among others.) As the Bush administration proceeds with its takeover of the financial commanding heights of America’s pseudo-capitalist system, any resemblance between the system they are creating and a free-market system, either living or dead, will become purely coincidental.

This morning, the president gave a brief speech in the White House Rose Garden, to give reporters advance notice of what Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and other government officials would spell out more fully a little later. These financial czars, Bush said, “will make clear that each of these new programs contains safeguards to protect the taxpayers. They will make clear that the government’s role will be limited and temporary. And they will make clear that these measures are not intended to take over the free market, but to preserve it.”

In the immortal words of W. H. Auden, “But should our beggars ask the cost/ Just whistle like the birds.”

Our rulers speak of their economically foolish and morally monstrous measures an essential steps to “restore confidence” and thereby “to directly benefit the American people by stabilizing our overall financial system and helping our economy recover.” This kind of talk gives me new respect for Jesse James: He might have been a robber and a murderer, but he did not dispense such drivel to his victims.

Bush’s promise that “the government’s role will be limited and temporary,” in particular, caught my attention. In decades of studying government actions during crises, I have encountered exactly such a promise again and again. This time, I recalled in particular a previous president with whom Bush has often been compared because of his crusade to “make the world safe for democracy,” just as Bush ostensibly seeks to make it with his so-called War on Terror.

In his first term, Woodrow Wilson responded to complaints from exporters and others that the war had caused shipping costs to skyrocket, hurting their business substantially. The Wilson administration undertook to remedy this situation by creating a new government agency, the U.S. Shipping Board, to regulate the rates and other terms of ocean shipping contracts and to create a government firm to build and operate ships in competition with private shipping lines. Naturally, this proposal frightened some people, who smelled the foul odor of socialism. Wilson reassured the opponents of his proposal, however. In a letter to O. G. Villard, he declared: “The idea in the proposal is not that the government should permanently embark in these things, but that it should do the immediate and necessary thing.” Wilson’s statement might well be adopted as an official template for any crisis measure whatsoever.

By the way, the federal government remains deeply engaged in the shipping business to this day, almost a century after Wilson promised that such involvement would be temporary.

In one of his finer moments, Herbert Hoover wrote, “Every collectivist revolution rides in on a Trojan horse of ‘Emergency.'” Hoover was wrong about many things, but he was right about this one.

Robert Higgs is Retired Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Founding Editor of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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