Theodore Roosevelt in Defense of Capitalism

All the extraordinary material development, our wonderful industrial growth will go for nothing unless with that growth goes hand in hand the moral, the spiritual growth that will enable us to use aright the other as an instrument.” – Theodore Roosevelt  

I am reading through Theodore Roosevelt’s “Realizable Ideals,” one of the works of Roosevelt which has been, by and large, lost in the crevices of history. It is a book first published in 1911, which regrettably in the present time is not receiving its due attention. 

I came upon this book by simply observing the bibliography of Roosevelt and being drawn to its title “Realizable Ideals,”- a combination of words that deserves themselves an unpacking, for “realizable ideals” are not the lofty utopian crafted ideals which are nowhere near practical nor possible, but they are achievable ones. Upon commencing this read, I was greeted with, and stopped to muse upon the words which I presented above in quotes. Here we have “material development” and “industrial growth” tied to “moral” and “spiritual growth.”

I paused to closely examine what Roosevelt was saying. I know Roosevelt is not Gospel, but he was a very wise man- an avid thinker and intellectual with strong moral character. His words are supported by much thought and study. So I wanted to examine how what he said relates to our world today and see if the statement above holds truth and relevance. Here he is saying that Material Development and Industrial Growth is useless without Moral and Spiritual Growth. Why? Well, he goes on to say that Material Development and Industrial Growth is merely an instrument used by Moral and Spiritual Growth? Objectively speaking, an instrument is useless if it is not employed. A piano does not produce music without a pianist, or I suppose could make quite the rattle if it was dropped or abused. A hammer has no pounding force without the manpower behind it. Being an instrument in and up itself is subservient to the instrumentalist. Moral and Spiritual Growth is the employer here of the subservient instrument of Material Development and Industrial Growth. This implies that Moral and Spiritual Growth is a more valuable, more commanding force than Material Development and Industrial Growth which ought to be subservient to these higher means of development. 

So in what ways are Material Development and Industrial Growth merely an instrument of Moral and Spiritual Growth? Well let’s examine the products of Material Development and Industrial Growth within a nation. It produces, in its most encompassing form, three things: material products, jobs, and national strength. In examining these more closely, the products are not reserved for the elite, but with industrial growth the products are made for the enjoyment of ordinary people. Jobs of this kind of growth can raise people out of poverty and give a certain sense of purpose within society. It produces wealth which leads to greater charity, funding of a strong military and infrastructure, if employed properly. One might argue that with such growth comes greed and exploitation. Why yes, that would be correct if Material Development and Industrial Growth is divorced from Moral and Spiritual Growth. This is what Roosevelt is saying: Material Development and Industrial Growth “will go for nothing,” separated from the later. 

In discussing Material Development and Industrial Growth of the United States we must examine the concept of capitalism, for it is the root economic model which has led to such growth. The competition it has produced has spurred on enormous and continual growth. Roosevelt believed in capitalism, but yet he also fought capitalists. He believed in the promise and the moral philosophy behind capitalism, that one is free to work as he chooses and keep what he earns; that competition and innovation gives way to growth. But he fought capitalists who did exploit others and destroyed natural wonders in greed. He took on monopolies that got out of hand from losing sight of Moral and Spiritual Growth.

In our nation today, there is a rising appeal of” democratic socialism,” a rebranded term that lies squarely up with Marxist Socialism. “Marxism” at one time in American society may have been seen as a dirty word, but now it is celebrated, particularly among those on the Left and its varying movements. Congresswoman Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez of New York explains the sentiment of many young so-called “progressives”:  “When we toss out these big words, capitalism, socialism, they get … sensationalized, and people translate them into meaning things that perhaps they don’t mean. So to me, capitalism, at its core, what we’re talking about when we talk about that is the absolute pursuit of profit at all human, environmental, and social cost.” I think Cortez, along with many Leftist progressives are taking capitalism and divorcing it from Moral and Spiritual Growth. They are only observing the ugly outcome of the divorce settlement. They aren’t considering that these two things should go together and when they do, they work!

Ken Langone, cofounder of the Home Depot, in his book, “I Love Capitalism” writes “Capitalism works. Let me say it again: It works!  And- I am living proof- it can work for anybody anywhere. Blacks and whites and browns and everyone in between. Absolutely anybody is entitled to dream big, and absolutely everybody should dream big. Show me where the silver spoon was in my mouth.” Unfortunately so many people think capitalism doesn’t work. That it only has corruption in its history. It has even been labeled as “irredeemable.” However, these people that attack the institution, I think, would, in the long run, be much more pleased finding reconciliation between Moral and Spiritual Growth and Material Development and Industrial Growth instead of a crusade to abolish capitalism.  

Ironically, it is many in this same crowd who have worked ardently to demean and deprioritize spirituality, attempting to separate God and religion from nearly all facets in the public eye. It is the same crowd which preaches that morality is subjective, that no moral absolutes exist. When a society cannot agree upon what is right or wrong, then it has no moral foundation on which anything substantial or good can be built. The higher standards for which we reach are unattainable. We are then only left with the opposite of what Roosevelt preaches: unrealizable ideals.

We must, as a people, reprioritize Moral and Spiritual Growth and understand, as Roosevelt did, that capitalism is an instrument of it. Although self-proclaimed a “progressive” in his day, who fought for fair wages, better working conditions, and reasonable regulation, Roosevelt did not bow to socialists nor would agree with the progressives of today. He writes in his autobiography, “These socialist are unalterably opposed to our whole industrial system. They believe that the payment of wages means everywhere and inevitably an exploitation of the laborer by the employer, and that this leads inevitably to a class war between the two groups, or, as they would say between the capitalists and the proletariat. They assert that this class war is already upon us and can only be ended when capitalism is entirely destroyed and all the machines, mills, mines, railroads, and other private property used in production are confiscated, expropriated or taken over by the workers.” Roosevelt was to the point and also writes, “I do disagree most emphatically with both the fundamental philosophy and proposed remedies of the Marxist Socialists.” Roosevelt could say this and stand firm on this position because he knew that capitalism was a good instrument of Moral and Spiritual Growth. No other instrument could be employed to produce such a prosperous and free nation. Historians Alan Greenspan, PhD, economic advisor of President Ford, and Adrian Wooldridge, in their book, “Capitalism in America: A History” brush on the success of the instrument of capitalism:

“American capitalism is also the world’s most democratic. The United States was the birthplace of the engines of popular capitalism, from mass production to franchising to mutual funds. In many countries capitalism has always been associated with a plutocratic elite. In America, it has been associated with openness and opportunity: making it possible for people who were born in obscurity to rise to the top of society and for ordinary people to enjoy goods and services that were once confined to the elites….America’s rise to greatness has been marred by numerous disgraces, prime among them the mistreatment of aboriginal people and the enslavement of millions of African Americas. Yet judged against the broad sweep of history, it has been a huge positive. America has not only provided its own citizens with a prosperous life. It has exported prosperity in the form of innovations and ideas. Without American’s interventions in the Second World War, Adolph Hitler might well have subdued Europe. Without America’s unwavering commitment to the Cold War, Joseph Stalin’s progeny might still be in power in Eastern Europe and perhaps much of Asia. Uncle Sam provided the arsenal of democracy that saved the twentieth century from ruin.” A prosperous economic model produced a strong nation with great lasting influence. 

So, let’s not be quick, as a people, to demonize capitalism. Let’s not look down upon Material Development and Industrial Growth. Instead let us put it in its place. Let us recognize the areas in which it has been corrupted and bring back the remedy which can restore this fine instrument: Moral and Spiritual Growth! We must not let them be separated! And it is among the fruits of such a union I believe Americans, from all walks, can find agreement. 

Get my book Theodore Roosevelt for the Holidays on Amazon!

Reference List

Fuchs, E. (2020, Feb 3) AOC: Capitalism is the absolute pursuit of profit at all costs. Yahoo! Finance.

Greenspan, A. Wooldridge, A. (2018) Capitalism in America: A history. Penguin Press

Langone, K. (2018) I Love Capitalism: An American story. Portfolio/Penguin

Roosevelt, T. (1911) Realizable Ideals. Books for Libraries Press

Roosevelt. T. (1913) An Autobiography. C. Scribner’s Sons
Zhao, C. (2019, March 10)  NY Rep Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez Says Capitalism is Irredeemable. Newsweek.

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