The Myth of the Roosevelt “Trustbusters”

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, politicians and pundits on the left and the right have blamed the problems of twenty-first-century America on a familiar populist scapegoat: big business. The solution, they say, can be found in the reign of two twentieth-century presidents – Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt. However, as Rob Atkinson and Mike Lind write for the New Republic, Teddy and FDR weren't the anti-corporate crusaders that they're portrayed as by populists today. Teddy Roosevelt argued that “big trusts” must be “taught that they are under the rule of law,” yet added that “breaking up all big corporations, whether they have behaved well or ill,” is “an extremely insufficient and fragmentary measure.” And FDR said: “Nor today should we abandon the principle of strong economic units called corporations, merely because their power is susceptible of easy abuse.” The answer to the problems caused by corporate concentration, the Roosevelts agreed, is prudent government oversight and using antitrust laws to police abuses—not to break up every big company simply because it’s big.