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In Perspective: Jon Meacham on America’s regulatory history

Once the cry and the cause of a generation of progressives to make America safer, fairer and cleaner, “regulation” is now a dirty word in our politics. Even Democrats are quick to talk about cutting regulations; Republicans hate them with — how to put it? — evangelical fervor.

Yet there is a noble and important regulatory tradition in America — and it includes Republicans — that should be neither dismissed nor dismantled lightly.

The 2012 presidential election marks the centennial of the creation of Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party. We think of TR’s noble third-party bid as the Bull Moose campaign, but the movement was fundamentally progressive.

From the reform impulse’s first expression in the early 20th century to the present day, the monuments to progressivism are so enormous that we hardly notice them — they are like the air we breathe.

Wait a minute. The air we breathe is the product of regulatory action: the Clean Air Act, signed into law by Republican Richard Nixon, as was the Clean Water Act. In fact, it was under Nixon, recall, that the Environmental Protection Agency was created. Reasonable regulation has also immeasurably improved the food we eat, the way we work, the treatment of children, and brought about universal public education. Without progressive legislation, women wouldn’t have the vote, senators would still be elected by cronies in state legislatures, and the poverty rate among the elderly would be catastrophically high. For all its problems, Social Security fundamentally changed the way older people lived, giving them security and dignity in their final years.

Security and dignity: the provision of both is not a bad test for any program or any party. For 100 years, Americans have struggled to find the right balance between governments and markets, between free enterprise and fundamental fairness. The best of nations — the best of peoples — know that the way forward lies on a path that wends through public and private: the geography of greatness, I think, is centered on our staking out a place where the markets thrive and governments ameliorate the harsher edges of capitalism.

Politically speaking, we are hardly at the cusp of a new century of progressive regulation. But we bid farewell to such a legacy and such a habit of mind at our very great peril.

Poll: The role of the EPA

Watch the rest of the segments from this episode.