Threading the Needle to Balance Liberty, Commerce, Justice, and Power
Figure TR Threaded the Needle
I first discovered the magic of a Mercury Dime in my grandparents’ kitchen playing with a toy slot machine. To my young eyes, they were the most beautiful coins I had ever seen. As I grew older, I understood the symbolism on the coin. On the obverse is Mercury, Roman god of commerce and communication, among other things. On reverse is the fasces, the symbol of power. Roman lictors carried them and a pair of them adorn the wall of Congress in the House of Representatives. In the US, it is also a symbol of justice.
Figure The Fasces in Congress
I then studied history and political science and gained a better insight into power and read that fasces is the root of the word fascist—a repressive form of government. For this who think the fasces in Congress are symbols of fascism, they are not. The concept of fascism did not come into existence until Mussolini, well after the founding of the Republic.
While writing pieces on education lately, I read a great deal and contemplated the issues of justice, discrimination, capitalism, liberty, freedom, and equity. There are good people on both sides of the divide. There are manipulative people on both sides of the divide. Now truth in advertising, I think there are far more manipulative people on the Critical Race Theory/1619 Project/Black Lives Matter side of the debate. This side of the debate does two things that I find unconscionable. First, they seek to re-write history to undermine the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Rather than fix problems with the society built on these documents, they want to blow it up. Second, they seek to cure discrimination and racism with…discrimination and racism. If it was wrong before, it is still wrong. There has to be a better way than this slash and burn approach.
The dime in the figure shows the balance policy-makers need to achieve. On the obverse, we have liberty and commerce. On the reverse, we have power and justice. All four are good when implemented with moderation and within their relevant range. Taken to extremes and outside their relevant ranges, they can do damage. Figure 3 shows the virtues and vices of liberty, commerce, and justice. The effective use of controlled power makes the difference.
At the left end of the scale is limited government power. Liberty turns to mob rule. Commerce turns to poverty. Justice turns to crime. This sets up a weak government where the strong prey upon the weak and the weak have little or nothing to protect them.
At the right end of the scale is a powerful central government. Liberty turns to dictatorship. Commerce turns to fascism. Justice turns to corruption.
Neither end of the spectrum promotes liberty and prosperity. The founders of the republic designed the Constitution to achieve this optimal point as closely as possible. They specifically state their objectives in the preamble, quoted in Figure 3. Over time, the US has drifted away from this optimal point. Gordon S. Wood, in The Radicalism of the American Revolution, noted that by the 1820s, many of the founders were disappointed with the direction the country was headed. It is difficult to thread the needle of competing demands from different constituencies and react to emerging situations around the world that affect the domestic tranquility and general welfare.
One president, Theodore Roosevelt, threaded this needle. He shaped the US into a world power while trust-busting. His Square Deal looked specifically to achieve a balance between commerce and liberty. To protect workers while promoting markets.
Roosevelt specifically applied the Square Deal to African American citizens, as he did in a letter in June 1903 to journalist Rollo Ogden: “[A]ll I wanted was a square deal for the negro. If he is fit to vote by the test we apply to a white man, let him vote. If he is unfit, don’t. If he is unfit in an office turn him out; not because he is a negro, but because he is unfit. If, on the other hand, he is fit, appoint him; again, not because he is a negro, but because he is fit.”
The term applied more broadly, as when Roosevelt asserted in July 1903, that “This administration stands for a square deal all around,” or when he wrote to Chicagoan Paul Lacey, “…if there is one thing that I do desire to stand for it is for a square deal, for an attitude of kindly justice as between man and man, without regard to what any man’s creed or birthplace or social position may be, so long as, in his life and in his work, he shows the qualities that entitle him to the respect of his fellows.” Roosevelt told civil servant Frank C. Nunemacher that he thought “that the motto of ‘fair play for the working man and a square deal to every American, whether employer or employee’ is as good a one as could possibly be desired.” In 1904, he confessed to journalist Ray Stannard Baker “my favorite formula—A square deal for every man.”
His actions show he lived these words. He broke up trusts and sponsor legislation that helped establish a better balance. He also created national parks and was a conservationist.
Therdore Roosevelt’s presidency threaded a difficult needle. It can serve as an example to thread the needle today. Like President Roosevelt, we need to find a way to right wrongs without committing other wrongs. To balance commerce and protection; the environment and prosperity.