The President calling socialism a “menace”? Have we fallen into a time warp?

In a manner of speaking, yes. Here are some selected comments from President Taft (1857-1930) just about a hundred years ago:

SOCIALISM is a short-cut whereby the impatient idealist would achieve economic perfection.

Underlying all [socialist thought], however, is the righteous indignation of men who have a keen appreciation of that inequality and unfairness of distribution which is an accident of our economic system, but which they mistakenly assume to be its inevitable concomitant. And pervading all schools of socialistic thought is a hatred of private property, which is an effect that the Socialist mistakes for a cause and to which he attributes those ills which all thoughtful students of economics seek to remedy.

SOCIALISM seeks to equalize opportunity, and in so far as it does that it is good; but Socialism also seeks to equalize remuneration, and in so far as it does that it is bad.

Socialism seeks to effect, if not an absolutely uniform distribution of this world’s goods, at least an approximately equal distribution, and in that it is doomed to failure.

. . . the government service is always unduly expensive, is usually less efficient, and has gained the unenviable reputation of diminishing the energy and destroying the initiative and enterprise of those who remain long in it. Nor can there be any doubt that these unfortunate results are contributed to materially by some of the very ends which the Socialist regards as desirable, the assured tenure of employment and the certainty of fair remuneration.

COMPARED with private enterprises, no service rendered by the Government pays.

That faculty of judging human nature and selecting just the right man for a particular type of work which is the most valuable asset of the business man, and which contributes more than aught else to his success, is wholly lost to the Government.

To those of us who are convinced that there is a fatal defect in the socialistic philosophy, the reason for these failures is obvious. It is due to the absence of the individual factor, the personal influence of the business leaders, and the proper recognition of the individuality of the employees. Even in private business these defects are a constant menace to enterprises which attain to undue proportions.

Socialism is a one-sided philosophy. It takes heed only of man’s social needs and obligations and wholly ignores his individual aims and aspirations and achievements. But as man has both social and individual needs, both social and individual capacities, in a word, is a being with a dual nature, any philosophy which ignores the one and overdevelops the other, is certain to prove inimical to his welfare and a bar to his progress, and is itself fundamentally unsound.

If, as the President believes experience has proved, economical operation of industries by the Government is an impossibility, the Government, in attempting to conduct certain industries, would be compelled to insure to itself an absolute monopoly because it could not compete with private enterprise. This, in turn, would mean either operation at a serious loss to the Government or a material enhancement of the prices of the products. Either the consumer would be compelled to defray the increased cost of production, increasing his cost of living, or the deficit would have to be made good from the public revenues, and they, in turn, replenished by increased taxation. In either case, it would mean “the appropriation of what belongs to one man to another.”

Is it possible to escape the conclusion that the ultimate aim of Socialism, whether it be repudiated by the Fabian idealist or acknowledged by the franker, and probably more practical, communist, is confiscation, seizure without remuneration, “the appropriation of what belongs to one man to another”? The practical exigencies of an impracticable system can lead to no other goal.

It would seem to require little argument to demonstrate that one of the greatest incentives to industrial energy and thrift is the desire of the bread-winner to provide for the future welfare of those he holds dear. Rob him of this by the prospect that his accumulations will revert to the state at his death [the inheritance tax], and you have robbed him of what to most men is the chief inspiration to enterprise and saving. Do that, and you have robbed the world of one of the mainsprings of its progress.

Examined in the cold, clear light of common sense, Socialism will not bear the test, though viewed merely as a philosophy, it is not without its attractions. Indeed, it is these attractions which constitute its danger. It holds out a promise it cannot fulfil.

Socialism is a menace to good government because it undermines patriotism and saps civic interest and enterprise, exaggerates the discontent of the discontented, and discourages from greater effort the human failure who is led by it to believe that his misfortunes are due solely to an unjust economic system which deprives him of opportunity and robs him of a fair remuneration for his service.

— From “Socialism and Its Menace,” written by Charles D. Hilles with President Taft, The Century, October 1912, pages 943-948.

There is some irony in Taft’s aggressive anti-socialism. According to his wife, Taft would rather have been appointed to the Supreme Court than be president. He . . .

. . . considered himself a progressive, in part from his belief in an expansive use of the rule of law, as the prevailing device that should be actively used by judges and others in authority to solve society’s, and even the world’s, problems. — “William Howard Taft,” Wikipedia

In that role, he would fit right in with today’s activist Supremes.

Even so, his style of progressivism differed enough from his predecessor, Teddy Roosevelt, that the two were never at ease with each other:

The divergent views of the two men over the powers of the executive is well articulated in their respective memoirs. In summary, Roosevelt for his part believed “the President has not just a right but a duty to do anything demanded by the needs of the nation, unless such action is forbidden by the Constitution or federal law.” Taft’s general opinion on the other hand was that “the President can exercise no power which cannot fairly be traced to some specific grant of power in the Constitution or act of Congress.” — Ibid.