As part of the How We Value Government series, a reminder that while America has benefited from the free market, we wouldn’t be anywhere without the government playing a major role in the economy — and our entire society.
In his Wisconsin primary victory speech, presidential aspirant Mitt Romney made some interesting observations about Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Abraham Lincoln. He seemed to indicate that he admires them, as they were what he termed “historically great” presidents. He then went on to chide the current president for having the audacity to think of himself in the same league as these three great former leaders. He described the coming presidential election at great length as a historic choice between what he termed a “government-centered society” and a “society led by free people and free enterprises.”
In making these observations, Mr. Romney made no attempt to rectify the fundamental contradiction in his remarks. He either failed to see, or decided to conveniently ignore, the fact that the three “historically great” presidents (one Republican and two Democratic) he made reference to at the opening of his remarks all shared one thing in common: a fundamental belief in the positive use of government to help expand the economy and provide a greater degree of economic opportunity and social justice for all Americans — not just those at the top of the income ladder.
It was President Lincoln, for example, who in 1862 signed such pieces of legislation as the Homestead Act, which issued 160 acres of Federal land west of the Mississippi River at little or no cost to any adult citizen who had not borne arms against the United States, provided they agreed to improve the land. He also signed the Morill Act, which donated 30,000 acres of federal land to a number of states and territories that could then be sold by the state to provide the revenue needed to fund public colleges and universities. The result was the establishment of over 60 “land-grant” colleges and universities across the country, including Cornell University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison (the very state in which Mr. Romney made his remarks about the evils of a “government-centered” society). The Homestead Act greatly accelerated the settlement of U.S. territory in the West and was a boon to the overall economy. The establishment of “land-grant” colleges and universities brought the dream of higher education to tens of thousands — indeed, millions — of low-income farmers and workers who had previously been denied that opportunity, which had untold benefits in science, technology, and the liberal arts.
FDR brought us the most comprehensive banking and financial reform in U.S. history. He established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and a number of other important laws that restored confidence in the country’s financial and banking sector not only among the American people, but also among the business community. In using government in this way, the Roosevelt administration laid the basis for the overall growth of the financial sector for decades to come. FDR also greatly expanded the country’s economic infrastructure through a massive effort to update the country’s antiquated roads, bridges, airports, and other facilities, all of which helped propel the expansion of the economy in the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, and beyond. He also signed the National Labor Relations Act into law, which encouraged higher wages through the unionization of the workforce and, near the end of his life, pushed through the GI Bill, which allowed thousands of returning World War II veterans the chance to secure further job training or access to higher education. Both of those efforts helped make the post-1945 U.S. economy the envy of the world.
The Johnson administration gave us the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act of 1964 and ‘65, which began the long, slow process of ending racial discrimination in America. It gave us Medicare and Medicaid to provide the elderly and low-income individuals with access to health care. Head Start and the Higher Education Act of 1965 helped low-income families secure a better education for their children. The Truth-in-Lending Act helped protect consumers from abusive lending practices. These and a host of other initiatives were designed to build a “Great Society” that would provide everyday Americans with a greater measure of social security and economic opportunity.
In short, all of these “historically great” presidents used government as a tool to improve the lives of working Americans through a host of important initiatives that not only helped render the United States a more just and equitable society, but also helped expand our economy by increasing the level of economic opportunity.