Teddy Roosevelt against white collar crime

Teddy Roosevelt gave this speech at a Harvard alumni dinner in. I’d say it applies today, not in the least as an incredible representation of a populist view of who government and the economy should work for and who it should not bend towards.

This Nation never stood in greater need than now of having among its leaders men of lofty ideals, which they try to live up to and not merely to talk of. We need men with these ideals in public life, and we need them just as much in business and in such a profession as the law. We can by statute establish only those exceedingly rough lines of morality the overpassing of which means that the man is in jeopardy of the constable or the sheriff. But the Nation is badly off if in addition to this there is not a very much higher standard of conduct, a standard impossible effectively to establish by statute, but one upon which the community as a whole, and especially the real leaders of the community, insist. Take such a question as the enforcement of the law. It is, of course, elementary to say that this is the first requisite in any civilization at all. But a great many people in the ranks of life from which most college men are drawn seem to forget that they should condemn with equal severity those men who break the law by committing crimes of mob violence and those who evade the law, or who actually break it, but so cunningly that they can not be discovered, the crimes they commit being not those of physical outrage, but those of greed and craft on the largest scale.

The very rich man who conducts his business as if he believed that he were a law unto himself thereby immensely increases the difficulty of the task of upholding order when the disorder is a menace to men of property; for if the community feels that rich men disregard the law where it affects themselves, then the community is apt to assume the dangerous and unwholesome attitude of condoning crimes of violence committed against the interests which in the popular mind these rich men represent. This last attitude is wholly evil; but so is the attitude which produces it. We have a right to appeal to the alumni of Harvard, and to the alumni of every institution of learning in this land, to do their part in creating a public sentiment which shall demand of all men of means, and especially of the men of vast fortune, that they set an example to their less fortunate brethren, by paying scrupulous heed not only to the letter but to the spirit of the laws, and by acknowledging in the heartiest fashion the moral obligations which can not be expressed in law, but which stand back of and above all laws. It is far more important that they should conduct their business affairs decently than that they should spend the surplus of their fortunes in philanthropy. Much has been given to these men and we have the right to demand much of them in return.

Every man of great wealth who runs his business with cynical contempt for those prohibitions of the law which by hired cunning he can escape or evade is a menace to our community; and the community is not to be excused if it does not develop a spirit which actively frowns on and discountenances him. The great profession of the law should be that profession whose members ought to take the lead in the creation of just such a spirit. We all know that, as things actually are, many of the most influential and most highly remunerated members of the bar in every centre of wealth make it their special task to work out bold and ingenious schemes by which their very wealthy clients, individual or corporate, can evade the laws which are made to regulate in the interest of the public the use of great wealth.

Now, the great lawyer who employs his talent and his learning in the highly remunerative task of enabling a very wealthy client to override or circumvent the law is doing all that in him lies to encourage the growth in this country of a spirit of dumb anger against all laws and of disbelief in their efficacy. Such a spirit may breed the demand that laws shall be made even more drastic against the rich, or else it may manifest itself in hostility to all laws. Surely Harvard has the right to expect from her sons a high standard of applied morality, whether their paths lead them into public life, into business, or into the great profession of the law, whose members are so potent in shaping the growth of the national soul. [Emphasis added]

President Obama has suggested that he will initiate a debate on the tax code, including the corporate tax code. I think an honest debate on taxes in the US, especially those paid (or, more often, not paid) by corporations, would be premised by something that looks a lot like what Teddy Roosevelt said here.

Oh and I’d love see the Chamber of Commerce respond to this line:

Every man of great wealth who runs his business with cynical contempt for those prohibitions of the law which by hired cunning he can escape or evade is a menace to our community; and the community is not to be excused if it does not develop a spirit which actively frowns on and discountenances him.

I’d say we need more active frowning nowadays.

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