Roosevelt became known as a trust-buster by filing antitrust lawsuits to break up alleged monopolies. Yet output was increasing and prices were falling. Markets then, as now, were intensely competitive, not monopolistic. John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil dramatically cut prices of its principal product, kerosene. Rockefeller couldn't prevent the formation of new competitors including Tide-Water Pipeline, Sun Oil, Union Oil, Pure Oil, Texas Oil, Gulf Oil and Associated Oil , Royal Dutch and Shell.Yes, sports fans, Standard Oil did cut prices on kerosene, but not because of competition. Standard Oil cut prices on kerosene because of the invention and growing use of electric power. Kerosene was used in lanterns. With electric light, the demand for lantern fuel went down, the supply of kerosene went up, and prices went down. The other oil companies took off with the invention of the internal combustion engine and the discovery of oil in places like Texas and Indonesia. Someone get Powell a copy of The Prize, by Daniel Yergin.
Still, Powell's overall points about TR expanding the power of the federal government do stand. But the vitriol with which he attacks TR is an indication of our contemporary political climate. With his domestic policies, TR is a patron saint of moderates who think that government has a role as a sort of referee in a modern economic system. That system can be very tough on large segments of the population--there was a reason socialist parties took off all over the western world around the turn of the last century. Roosevelt resisted the socialist trend by making some concessions toward government involvement in the economy.
But in today's nasty partisan atmosphere, too many people dismiss anyone who shows any signs of belonging to the other side as the enemy. As a result we get anachronistic articles like Jim Powell's attacking Theodore Roosevelt as "a big government man," to whom "many of our current troubles can be traced."
One of these days, Theodore Roosevelt will be popular for who he really was: a strong nationalist with a clear conception of the importance of American international power, and a strong political actor at home who recognized that markets, as important and beneficial as they are, are not perfect. Those will be good days.