History

Woodrow Wilson's Libertarian Lackeys

Beware the temptation to collaborate with the state.

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"I took this position because I believed in the freedom of the press," said the nation's chief censor. That way, he explained, he could "be in a position where I could help to guard it."

It was 1917, and the assembled members of the media were listening to George Creel, the head of Washington's wartime propaganda and censorship agency. The federal government had taken an authoritarian turn during World War I, and Creel was in the thick of it. In addition to assisting in the suppression of supposedly seditious material, Creel's Committee on Public Information (CPI) published agitprop encouraging a Stasi-like state of vigilance. One ad circulated by the committee urged Americans to report anyone who "cries for peace, or belittles our efforts to win the war."

But Creel kept repeating versions of that guarding-our-freedoms line. At a speech in Indianapolis, he declared that he had "never considered himself a censor"—after all, "censorship plays but a small part in the work of the committee."

It sounds like a perverse joke. But the really perverse joke is that he meant it.

Woodrow Wilson was, famously, one of the least libertarian presidents in U.S. history. Less famously, he hired several figures with quasi-libertarian pedigrees. From Creel, the censor against censorship, to Newton Baker, the borderline pacifist who became secretary of war, the Wilson years offer a cautionary tale about people's ability to fool themselves into collaborating with the evils they claim to oppose.

The story begins with Henry George, a 19th century reformer best known for his Single Tax plan: George wanted every tax—especially the tariff, which he particularly loathed—to be replaced with a levy on the unimproved value of land.

Historians sometimes have trouble comprehending George's place in the political landscape. He is often lumped in carelessly with the critics of laissez faire, though his own views tended toward laissez faire when the subject was not land. And the sheer breadth of his influence is easy to miss, since it cuts across conventional political boundaries. At one end of the Georgist spectrum was the public intellectual John Dewey, whose Single Tax roots did not keep him from endorsing a highly interventionist government. At the other end was Spencer Heath, an engineer and longtime Georgist who came to espouse a sort of landlord-based anarcho-capitalism: Instead of a government taxing land values and using the proceeds to provide services, private "proprietary communities" would charge rent and use the proceeds to provide services.

A surprisingly large number of Georgists entered politics during the Progressive Era. The Progressives of the day are often sorted into two broad categories. One group favored "scientific" management of the economy, coercive moral reform, and a partnership between consolidated industry and the state. The other was skeptical of both big government and big business, favoring reforms that, as the historian Otis Graham put it, largely "stopped short at, and were designed to prevent, the growth of government."

The Progressive Georgists usually fell into the second group. They were happy to, say, replace a government-enforced franchise monopoly with direct municipal ownership, but they were less enthusiastic about changes that smacked of regulation and regimentation.

That latter tendency was strong in Ohio, where several Georgists became mayors: Tom Johnson and then Newton Baker in Cleveland, Samuel Jones and then Brand Whitlock in Toledo. Many Progressives favored the strict regulation of personal habits, but these mayors (with the partial exception of Baker) were inclined to cut back on policing and to oppose laws that restricted drinking, gambling, or the sex trade. "These libertarian undertones to Georgism gave Ohio progressivism a substantively different tenor than the rest of the country, where it often went hand-in-hand with Christian moralism," the historian Christopher England wrote in his 2015 doctoral thesis on George's influence.

This reached its zenith under Jones, who was influenced not just by George but by the pacifist anarchism of Leo Tolstoy. Jones was basically a prison abolitionist: "If I could," he said, "I would open the penitentiaries." When the magistrate of Toledo's police court was absent, Jones would appoint either himself or his assistant—future mayor Whitlock—as acting judge, then dismiss every case.

Jones was long dead by the time Wilson became president in 1913. But Whitlock was eventually made Wilson's ambassador to Belgium, and several other Georgists took posts in the administration, including Creel at CPI, Baker at the Department of War, and Louis Post as assistant secretary of labor. Albert Jay Nock, a protégé of Whitlock's who later became a founding father of the modern libertarian movement, did some work for the Department of State. Outside the government, many Georgists had high hopes for the president. Even Spencer Heath was initially enthusiastic.

When the U.S. entered World War I, Nock had already—in the words of the historian Kenneth Gregg—"left in horror over the directions that [Wilson's] administration was going, never to return to politics again." But he stayed in touch with his old comrades. "I think you have about the most detestable job in the world," he wrote to Creel. But, he added kindly, "you are sincere and loyal to the core, and honestly and with splendid industry and diligence trying to make something out of your job that will reflect sincerity and loyalty….If you do not succeed—and you won't—it is because it isn't in the job."

Post could credibly claim to have undermined the administration's authoritarian policies, having used his position to block thousands of unjust deportations during the postwar Red Scare. It's much harder to say anything like that about Creel, but he really does seem to have believed that he held back the illiberal tide. Years later, he recalled reading after the U.S. declared war "that some rigid form of censorship would be adopted." Concerned, Creel "wrote a letter of protest to the President in which I explained to him that the need was for expression not repression." Wilson hired him, and then…

Well, then the repression began. Creel occasionally interceded to vouch for the loyalty of a group under suspicion, but he spent much more time fomenting paranoia. In a moment that anticipated those Birchite conspiracy theories in which Moscow was manipulating both the civil rights movement and racist vigilante groups, he wrote an article accusing German agents of both inciting whites to lynch blacks and planting "thousands of propagandists among the negroes." And while Creel disliked the mobs that attacked German Americans and suspected pacifists, he didn't take responsibility for producing propaganda that might have helped inspire such assaults. Those attacks, he claimed, were themselves incited by the wily Hun.

Creel became convinced that the war itself could be bent to reformist ends, if only the president would make it an anti-imperial struggle. "Before we got into it," he wrote to Wilson, "our entrance had its chief impulsion from our most reactionary and least democratic elements." But the president had transformed it from "a reactionary trade-imperialistic war" to "a war for democracy"—for the moment. If Wilson didn't stand up for the war's progressive principles, Creel warned, "the reactionary patrioteers will defeat the whole immediate future of reform."

Baker took a similar view. His appointment as secretary of war turned heads because of his pacifist reputation. But his anti-imperial and anti-aristocratic impulses led him to see the Great War as a chance to overthrow the Old World's hierarchies. Baker argued before the Cabinet for entering the conflict; England quotes him commenting the next day that "this king business is pretty near over." Soon he was enforcing conscription and commandeering large swaths of the economy. Never as socially tolerant as Ohio's other Georgist mayors—he had shut down Cleveland's vice district in 1914—Baker now launched a crackdown on prostitution near Army and Navy camps, eliminating more than 100 red light districts.

When Nock asked Baker if he could do something to stop the federal assault on the socialist magazine The Masses—"it seems a wretched contemptible business, even for a government," Nock wrote—Baker agreed to help. But nothing came of it. Instead, Nock himself fell prey to the censors: In 1918, the feds temporarily banned The Nation from transit through the mail because of an anti-war article he had written. Thank goodness his friend Creel was guarding the freedom of the press.

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  1. Woodrow Wilson was, famously, one of the least libertarian presidents in U.S. history.

    After Lincoln?

    1. How dare you!

  2. When the magistrate of Toledo’s police court was absent, Jones would appoint either himself or his assistant—future mayor Whitlock—as acting judge, then dismiss every case.

    I like the cut of this guys jib.

  3. Interesting how people can delude themselves like that. We all compromise to some degree, otherwise there’d be no friendships, no businesses, and probably no living people at all. But Woodrow Wilson was no mystery, not a surprise, and it’s hard to imagine how anyone with any pretense at liking liberty could work with him.

    Georgism’s land tax makes sense in some ways: taxing improvements discourages improving land’s value. But one thing about it puzzles me, and maybe someone can enlighten me:

    It doesn’t distinguish valuable land from cheap land within the same jurisdiction. The US is 2.3B acres; to finance all local, state, and government spending, that’s about $3000 per acre. Cheap for Manhattan, ludicrous for West Texas cattle ranches. Even if jurisdictions have their own constant tax, that leaves the federal land tax at around $1500 per acre in both Manhattan and West Texas, and doesn’t allow for any variation within the New York City and Texas jurisdictions.

    How can you even establish the actual value of bare land? Bare land seldom sells, because no one buys land without the intention of improving it one way or another. Once it’s been improved, how can you even begin to establish the value of all the improvements in order to deduct them from the sale price to determine the bare land value? Even West Texas cattle land has improvements: roads, fences, telephone and power poles.

    Is this contradiction why Georgism never took off, or did its proponents work out some way of determining bare value?

    1. “Agree or war has been our way of compromising
      Let live and love has become our biggest lie…”

      words of wisdom from a man with great vision

      1. That is just human nature. That is more or less a restatement of Clausewitz. War is just policy by other means. Either we figure out a way to agree or we make war against each other until one or both of us gets tired of fighting and we make an agreement.

        1. If the politicians and state representatives that have the disagreements want to have a battle to the death in the streets until they get tired or they’re all dead, I’m perfectly fine with that. It’s conscripting a bunch of young men that have their whole lives ahead of them and telling them that murdering people they don’t know in a country they’ve never been to is a righteous cause while they themselves cower in bunkers that I have a problem with.

          1. + 1 War Pigs.

    2. There is a famous property case from the early 20th Century called Peevyhouse that dealt with something similar to this issue. Peevyhouse was a land owner who didn’t own the mineral rights to his land. They found coal on his land and the guy who did own the mineral rights exercised them and leased them to a mining company who totally trashed the surface. The mining company offered Peevyhouse the full market value of his land as compensation. Peevyhouse didn’t want the money. He wanted the mining company to put the land back the way it was. He wanted his land back not the money.

      Peevyhouse lost and got the money. But it is an interesting and debatable issue whether he should have had the right to his land back as it was rather than a check for what the market said it was worth. By definition, he valued the land as it was more than the market valued it. Otherwise, he would have sold the land. So, can you really say Peevyhouse was made whole when the compensation he was given was less than he valued his land?

      1. I fooled around for a while, trying to come up with the least intrusive tax possible, and decided a land tax was the only one. Consumption and income taxes require nasty government bureaucracies to catch cheaters. The trick to a land tax is to have the owner self-assess its value, and then the property tax can be paid anonymously. The trick to valid self-assessments is to use that declared value to cap restitution for lawsuits and criminal complaints. Declare your house worth $100, and every criminal in the neighborhood is going to rob you blind since they can’t be charged with stealing what is not declared. Neighbors could build tall and shade your house, or dig an open-pit mine and collapse your house, and you’d get $100.

        That’s where I found Georgism and wondered how it determined varying bare land values.

        1. A land tax is a very easy and mostly fair way to tax, if you have a small government that is content with a small revenue. If the tax is low enough, the issue you describe about valuing land don’t come into play. For example, there are about 1.6 billion acres of land in this country not owned by the federal government. If you put say a flat $20 an acre per year tax on that land, it would raise about $32 billion a year in revenue and not be high enough to really be a burden on even the least valuable land and would avoid all the issue you describe. For that to work, however, you would need a federal government that could function on $32 billion a year. Good luck with that. To raise the kind of money to feed our voracious government, a land tax would have to be so high that it would end up being grossly unfair because you could never get the assessed values right.

        2. I don’t really disagree re: the most fair tax. Next to that, at least at a federal level, is probably a tariff, if it is the only tax. It’s obviously more intrusive than a land tax, but since it is unlikely that goods crossing the border wouldn’t be checked anyway, it still seems much less intrusive compared to sales and especially income tax. The latter might be one of the worst, given that it’s terrible economically and in terms of privacy.

          1. The most equitable, least intrusive federal tax would be to tax State governments based on their aggregate land values. No taxing of individuals, no trade interference. The States would tax the counties and municipalities on the same principle, so only local governments collect the economic rent directly from the landholders.

            1. Budget divided by population = fair tax.

              If you can’t pay it, you can’t vote. In a few years, you will be able to afford voting again – until you price yourself out again.

    3. “Bare land seldom sells, because no one buys land without the intention of improving it one way or another. ”

      Actually, I looked into this at one point. In some areas, vacant lots can sell for more than lots with existing houses.

      Why, because the buyers don’t want the existing house. They want to build a new custom house with all the modern amenities.

      An existing house actually reduces the value of the land because the buyer has to go to the expense of having it torn down before building a new house.

      1. True enough, but in practice, I bet not even one sale in a thousand is for bare land. It will at least have road access, power available, water and sewage if in a city.

    4. It doesn’t distinguish valuable land from cheap land within the same jurisdiction.

      Actually it does. The formal name is a land value tax.

      How can you even establish the actual value of bare land?

      Lots of people twist themselves into pretzels coming up with perfect formulas. There isn’t one. The purpose of the tax (which dates back to long before Henry George – to eliminate or reduce incentives for dog-in-the-manger land speculation or rentiership). One that works well in more urban or subdivided areas where as you say raw land no longer even exists or transacts enough to have a valid market is – total market price minus depreciated (NOT replacement) value of improvements. That means every property that sells does have an embedded value to that land.

      Is this contradiction why Georgism never took off, or did its proponents work out some way of determining bare value?

      Georgists tended to be one-issue ideologues so did not have any interest in cooperating with others when that is what is needed to win elections and do stuff. And do not underestimate the opposition of both banks (mortgages really depend on that land value increasing untaxed because improvements tend to depreciate over time) and land/monopoly holders. One of the reasons for the change in focus to an income tax in the late 1880’s was precisely to divert attention from a far more focused – and threatening to the powers-that-be – land value tax. George himself, who was very good at the communication stuff, ran for mayor of NYC in 1886 (when his campaign was quite deliberately sabotaged by DeRps colluding) and finished second ahead of Teddy Roosevelt as many R’s decided to vote D instead to stop George. And he died four days before the 1898 mayoral election.

      His (or similar) ideas had far more effect outside the US. The UK land reform of 1909 proposed by Churchill/Liberals was vetoed by the large landowners in the Tory House of Lords. Which became an issue in a couple of elections but resulted in the rapid decline of the Liberals as Labour took over the opposition side of what became a much more polarized ‘Marxist’ class-warfare debate. Denmark relied on a pre-Georgist land tax (with very low income taxes) until about 1960. The German ‘colony’ in China – Tsingtau – was organized on Georgist lines and was what Sun Yat Sen used as the economic model for reforming post-1912 China. Both CCP and Taiwan claim to be the descendent of that and that’s actually a more productive way of viewing the real economic conflict between them. Estonia implemented a land-value tax for munis after they became independent of CCCP – and it is a major reason why they have succeeded so rapidly without either a kleptocracy or high non-land taxes.

      At core, Georgist ideas create a shit-ton of opposition from the top/established. That tax is a direct tax – on what are almost always the wealthiest and the rentiers – and can’t be shifted to someone else to pay. So unless it is part of some broader revolution/reform – and can deal with THAT – it just runs into a buzzsaw and gets killed off over time.

      1. A NYC example of the sort of land speculation opposition to Georgist ideas is the Astors. Americans see the Astor model of wealth by land speculation – by simply being in the right place at the right time – as very appealing. We want to BE like John Jacob Astor. Buy land and sit on it and let others around us increase the value of it. Being a private rentier is the American Dream. Has been since colonial days. We don’t want ‘the community’ to benefit from that rentiership. The rentiership will ALWAYS exist. That was the big debate of classical economics – even though neoclassical/marginalist economics ignores that it exists. The question is who will benefit from that.

        So while the classical/Georgist ideas work – and create a better society without distorting economic decisions, that’s not what we really want. We WANT the damn distortions because we can imagine that someday we will be the beneficiaries of it.

        1. Very nicely put JFree. Thanks.

      2. What you describe is no longer a bare land tax. Now it’s even more intrusive than a standard property tax based on some bureaucrat’s assessed value, because it adds some bureaucrat’s determination of depreciated value. Instead of one subjective hazy lazy valuation by a bureaucrat whose only incentive is to exaggerate, there are now two of them.

        1. some bureaucrat’s determination of depreciated value.

          Not at all. Depreciation is a tax deduction. LAND itself is not and cannot be depreciated. That means the OWNER himself is simply having to live with the consequences of their own tax filings re that property. They can’t claim the tax deduction for the depreciation – and then deny the depreciation to claim lower taxes on the non-depreciated land.

          Granted – OWNERS play that fucking game all the time – which is precisely why they have managed to get the completely bogus/artificial construct of ‘replacement value’ into assessed values in order to reduce the ‘land’ component and maximize depreciation so that the same improvement can be deducted 2x or 3x its actual cost or more over time. It is why real estate is the biggest source of tax scammery (meaning the DISTORTING of a tax system in order to encourage excess investment/capital diversion into a particular sector that creates a pure tax privilege around itself) around. That was not put in place by bureaucrats advocating that you fucking useful idiot.

          There are legitimate arguments re whether that ‘community rentiership’ at the core of a land value tax can be corrupted. And yes – by bureaucrats. But that is clearly not remotely what you are questioning.

        2. ‘What you describe is no longer a bare land tax. Now it’s even more intrusive than a standard property tax based on some bureaucrat’s assessed value’

          A standard property tax in the US consists of a split rate, one on the building value and one on the land value. Land value tax is essentially scrapping the former in favour of the latter, and any assessor will tell you assessing the building is more complex than the land.
          Broadly Georgism, or indeed Physiocratic ‘laissez faire’ is scrapping all the other taxes on productivity in favour of this single tax also.
          After all when you tax sales,profits or incomes, by lowering the amount of disposable income businesses and people have after, you must lower the rent they can afford to pay also, when you give it more than a moments thought it’s obvious that must finally lower land prices too (like a land tax), but unlike LVT they also destroy productivity by hitting margins and distorting production via dead weight loss.
          The scam of broad based taxation ignores the massive damage caused to society so that landlords can imagine their wealth can grow in greater proportion to the rest of society, which it cannot hence the boom bust nature of house prices, every 18 years or so.

    5. But what harm could come of working with the devil you know? How would things have been any better with more demonic people in those jobs?

      It never makes sense to forswear whatever influence you may have, just because of who you have to work with to wield it. If your effect is nil, so what? It’s not negative, just neutral at worst. But it might be positive.

      1. It was going to be six million anyway you look at it, so my helping push them onto the cattle cars was a non-issue?

    6. “Woodrow Wilson was no mystery, not a surprise, and it’s hard to imagine how anyone with any pretense at liking liberty could work with him.”
      It is my impression that the change of the Democratic party from a libertarian party to a—for want of a better word—fascist party did not happen overnight. Even Franklin Roosevelt could still pretend to certain segments of the electorate that he was a classical liberal (and in fact he did deliver the repeal of prohibition).
      I seem to remember reading somewhere that Wilson’s speeches were larded with classical liberal-sounding phrases. Apparently, classical liberalism still had some influence, at least until the Depression. I think that the content of this article might be seen in the context of a larger phenomenon—the conversion of the libertarian party into a fascist party.

  4. This sounds familiar.

    1. Facebook and Youtube are not “censoring”. They are “fact checking” and protecting the public from “fake news” and “misinformation”.

      Yeah, people like this never change.

      1. So a private organization adding commentary to someone else’s speech is censorship? Tell me more about this down is up world of yours it sounds fascinating

        1. Yeah, declaring something that is a matter of opinion to be “factually false” is effectively censoring it. Words have meanings beyond “I want” dumb ass.

  5. Everyone who ever put a put on anyone’s face rationalized it by convincing themselves that the boot was good for the person and necessary for freedom. This is how it always works.

    1. They haven’t changed. Based on their coverage of the impeachment farce, Reason’s staff would gladly don the jackboots if it meant getting rid of the Orange Man.

      Desperate Times, Desperate Measures, and all that.

  6. “Woodrow Wilson’s Libertarian Lackeys”

    A good companion article to this would be “Barack Obama’s Libertarian Lackeys”, a story about the Reason staff who supported him for president because they naively believed he was going to free the weed.

    1. Cuomo’s libertarian lackeys would be more topical.

      1. Add to that Trump’s libertarian lackeys … I know many. Sigh!

  7. Propaganda and censorship? In other words distorting and withholding information. In other, other words the way people communicate almost all the time.

    If the question is whether or not we sanction government propaganda and censorship, we see that most people would approve at least sometimes, provided the sense of spin matches their biases.

    Perhaps a more fundamental question (and getting back to Libertarianism) is if people should be protected by their government, and from what. Should people be protected from information via censorship? Should people be protected from themselves via propaganda? Again, plenty of Americans have endorsed these missions.

    And of course, the relationship goes the other way. Should government be protected from the people, also via propaganda and censorship?

    1. And that begs the deeper question of whether the government could even protect people from such things if it wanted to. Censorship never works as it is intended. Preventing people from speaking an idea openly doesn’t make that idea go away. It just drives it into private and in some cases makes it stronger since in private it is not subject to open debate and criticism.

      And government propaganda rarely is effective because people know that it is government propaganda and discount it accordingly. The best a government can do is put a gun to people’s head and make them pretend they believe the propaganda but they rarely do at all or when they do they don’t believe it for very long.

      I think the situation we have today might be the most dangerous situation. Today we have a major media that acts as a propaganda arm for the Democratic Party and the government as a whole when the Democrats are in power but maintains a pretense of independence. A private media that is so thoroughly compromised to one side the way ours is, can act as state run propaganda but without the downside of the public discounting it as such. Luckily, the credibility of our media has fallen so much in the past 20 years this is less of a danger than it was. But, it is still a danger.

  8. The Progressives of the day are often sorted into two broad categories. One group favored “scientific” management of the economy, coercive moral reform, and a partnership between consolidated industry and the state. The other was skeptical of both big government and big business, favoring reforms that, as the historian Otis Graham put it, largely “stopped short at, and were designed to prevent, the growth of government.”

    I think it’s safe to say which group won out.

  9. Hey Reason, it’s good to have you back. We all missed you.

  10. Creel’s Committee on Public Information (CPI) published agitprop encouraging a Stasi-like state of vigilance. One ad circulated by the committee urged Americans to report anyone who “cries for peace, or belittles our efforts to win the war.”

    Thank goodness they were able to jail that monster Charles Schenck!

    Seriously though, in what way was Creel remotely libertarian?

  11. I’m ok with them cracking heads of commies.

  12. shame the king business wasn’t pretty near over.

  13. “The nth compromise that’s supposed to save the liberal order from imminent demise is nothing more than the next step down the road to serfdom.”

  14. Haven’t had time to read the article yet, but why are these tales cautionary? Why do you not think having a free speech believer as censor resulted in less censorship than if the censor had had only average views on freedom of speech? Or that having a pacifist as secretary of war made the country less warry than it would’ve been otherwise?

    You always have to look at the range of choice that’s available at a given time and place. Sometimes the best you can do is to be a less whippy slave driver or a more polite extermination camp guard. If I’m ever a slave or in an extermination camp, yes I do want the personnel to be more polite to me. Every little bit helps, and we should not denigrate such efforts by looking only at their milieu.

  15. Also, what’s the alternative: to avoid positions of authority and influence, just because you might have to carry out orders you dislike? Like somehow if you aren’t the one passing along the orders, that makes things better? Like an enthusiast of torture or whatever should be the one in charge of it?

  16. If anything good can be said to have come from Wilson and Creel, at least their actions gave rise to Oliver Wendell Holmes’s great dissent.

  17. Liked this article.

  18. Excellent examples to ponder by the retards unthinking that one achieve something by working within the system other than being its tool…

  19. ‘Historians sometimes have trouble comprehending George’s place in the political landscape. He is often lumped in carelessly with the critics of laissez faire, though his own views tended toward laissez faire when the subject was not land.’

    The term ‘laissez faire’ came into popular usage with the French Physiocrats ‘Laissez faire, laissez passer’. The Physiocrats also advocated a ‘single tax’ on land, so George was entirely consistent with the philosophy.

  20. In John Pilgers documentary, “The war you don’t see” the role of the media to control public actions with propaganda both past and present is demonstrated.

    There is a quote from Dan Rather regarding the media’s actions leading up to war in Iraq over WMD. “We were simply stenographers, going to military briefings and reporting what we were told. We had to for access. If we had asked the tough questions, we probably wouldn’t have gone to war in Iraq.”

    http://johnpilger.com/videos/the-war-you-dont-see

  21. “This reached its zenith under Jones, who was influenced not just by George but by the pacifist anarchism of Leo Tolstoy.”

    Tolstoy, incidentally, was also a Georgist, as was the later mentioned Albert Jay Nock.

    Georgism and libertarianism complete each other.

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