How We Got Here (23)

June 11, 2014

Reform

TR began jawboning. Taft instituted lawsuits. Wilson, when he was elected in 1912 promising the New Freedom, passed legislation aimed at correcting the situation.  Maybe later I’ll come back and fill in the legislation Wilson got through in the first half of his first term, before the coming of war in Europe in 1914 put an end to reform. One of the things we should examine is the Federal Reserve Act of 1914 which tried to free capital from the control of a few banks, but didn’t work out that way. Another is the Income Tax amendment, which attempted to address the effects of extreme inequality and, again, didn’t quite work out as planned.

Reforms rarely do. First comes the reform, then comes the vested interest, tweaking the reform to make it more comfortable for those it tries to reform. That’s just the way of the world. Only with time do people learn that although reform is necessary from time to time, reform is never going to lead to utopia. The problem is, many would-be followers won’t follow any reformer promising anything less than the impossible.

Another problem is that after a while the reformer is likely to start to believe that s/he is just the one to deliver the impossible, and anyone in the opposite camp must be, by definition, stupid and/or evil. And yet another problem is, maybe they are! Or maybe there’s something to be said for their side of things too. Plato to the contrary, philosophers would make terrible kings – not that anybody is likely to give them the chance.

Nonetheless, evils arise and have to be faced. The burst of reform that was Wilson’s New Freedom was the result of pressure that had been building at least since the Civil War changed everything. After the war put an end to reform, another 20 years went by until the New Deal brought forth another spate of legislation designed not only to complete the New Freedom but do deal with the problems that had sprung up since, problems unimagined in Wilson’s day. Then came war once again, and again reform was shelved. The limited reforms proposed and backed after the war by Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy met savage, intractable resistance, particularly in the area of race relations. In the emotional aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the consequent Johnson landslide of 1964, the country underwent a third burst of reform, extensive enough to be traumatizing to large numbers, causing or exacerbating a cultural divide which the rest of the century could not transcend. After the Great Society legislation of 1965-1967, reform gave way to retrenchment, and the initiative went to forces calling for retrenchment in all areas of government other than military and police.

 

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