Thursday, November 13, 2014

Coolidge: the Morality of Wealth

Calvin Coolidge mixed intellectually intriguing amounts of morality and economics. He wanted to remove governmental restraints on business activity because such action would help people.

He wanted to lower taxation because it would allow ordinary families and ordinary citizens to have more a chance of succeeding economically.

Although Coolidge worked well with the Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, he differed in temperament from Mellon. Coolidge was content, even as the President of the United States, to live in thrifty middle-class lifestyle.

Even in the White House, Coolidge sharpened his own pencils and was content to eat plain food.

Coolidge believed that thrift was a moral virtue. The government should be thrifty, taking as little money from the people as possible, and spending as litte of the people’s money as possible. Individual private citizens should spend as little as possible, avoid debt, and save as much as possible. For Calvin Coolidge, this was the intersection of ethics and economics.

Historian Amity Shlaes recounts how Coolidge sought to provide jobs and better incomes for the ordinary citizen:

The president was set to speak in December, when Congress returned. That would be the moment to launch a tax bill. The recession was over, and revenues were pouring into the Treasury; $300 million, Mellon was reckoning, would be the annual surplus for fiscal year 1924, more than he had imagined. Instead of 58 percent, the top income tax rate would have to go down to 31 percent, a combination of a lowered 6 percent base rate and a lower “supertax,” or surtax, of 25 percent. A good share of the rate cuts came at the top of the tax schedule. This was not merely to favor the rich, as many said. The tax rate cuts at the top were designed to favor enterprise. If people got to keep more of their money, they would hire others, Mellon said.

The word ‘materialist’ - in the sense of being “more concerned with material things than with spiritual, intellectual, or cultural values.” - cannot be applied to Coolidge. A truly spiritual man, Coolidge saw money and possessions as merely vehicles by which one could express selfishness or selflessness. When Coolidge sought to encourage business, it was as a means to improving the lives of the average American citizens.

Productivity, including economic productivity, would bring not only material comfort, but personal satisfaction and fulfillment to the ordinary citizen. David Greenberg writes about Coolidge:

Business, likewise, was for him benign, not predatory. In the early decades of the twentieth century, Progressive Era reforms had countered some of the worst depredations of the unfettered capitalism of the Gilded Age. By the 1920s, a view was emerging that capitalists’ new sense of social responsibility would preclude the need for aggressive federal intervention in the marketplace. Coolidge shared this view. A believer in the regnant economic orthodoxy of Say’s Law - the notion, propounded by the French economist Jean-Baptiste Say, that supply creates its own demand - Coolidge held that industrial productivity, by generating prosperity, would serve the general good. Indeed, he equated the public interest no wtih some consensus brokered to satisfy competing social factions but with something close to the needs of industry itself. He wanted, as he once said, “to encourage business, not merely for its own sake but because that is the surest method of administering to the common good.”

Thus it was, that during the Coolidge presidency, business became the beneficent friend of the average citizen - not a vehicle to give exclusive privilege to the upper classes - but rather an opportunity for families to experience a sense of success, and the satisfaction which comes from productivity: making a contribution to society.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Progressivism - Not Much Help

Woodrow Wilson was the icon for the Progressive movement which peaked sometime between 1900 and 1920. Historians describe the movement in a variety of ways, but it centers around the notion that the government can trim individual civil liberties in order to implement programs which it has chosen.

Obviously, the interpretive question on which various views emerge is how the government can choose, should choose, or does choose which programs are so important that they justify damaging personal freedoms. Some historians use the word ‘statism’ to characterize Progressivism.

Among the casualties of the Progressive era were women and African-Americans.

Woodrow Wilson was president of Princeton University prior to being elected, in November 1912, president of the United States. At Princeton, he worked explicitly to reduce the number of Black students applying to the university, and reduce the number being admitted.

While Wilson was at the university, Theodore Roosevelt was president. Roosevelt had appointed several African-Americans to federal offices. Wilson made public and well-documented comments, referring to Roosevelt’s appointees by means of vile and racist epithets.

As president, Wilson made no effort to hide his racism. He segregated federal employees who had been desegregated and integrated after the Civil War - specifically, e.g., in the Post Office.

Progressives hoped to get credit for giving the vote to women, because the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified in August 1920, during Wilson’s presidency and during the Progressive era.

During the 1912 campaign, Wilson had opposed women’s suffrage, while Roosevelt supported women’s right to vote. After winning the election, Wilson’s opposition to the women’s vote softened. Eventually, after women publicly picketed in front of the White House, Wilson made statements supporting the women’s vote, but his support was lukewarm and unenthusiastic - one senses that it arose from political necessity, not personal conviction.

More to the point, the Nineteenth Amendment changed little. By the time the amendment was ratified, women were already voting in 41 of 48 states - and had been doing so for a number of years.

The Nineteenth Amendment was more symbolic than effective, but it gave the Progressives a chance to claim that they were doing something for women. In fact, however, Wilson was not the only Progressive to oppose women’s suffrage.

Many who opposed the Progressive movement were active supporters of women’s suffrage, like Henry Browne Blackwell.

In the United States, women enjoyed full legal suffrage in Wyoming starting in 1869, in Idaho and Utah from 1896, and in Colorado starting in 1893. Shortly after the new century began, full suffrage existed for women in Oregon, Washington, Montana, California, Nevada, Arizona, Oklahoma, Kansas, New York, Michigan, and South Dakota - all long before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

Not only had all of that taken place without the Nineteenth Amendment, but most of the remaining states were in the process of introducing women’s suffrage. For example, in Texas and Arkansas, women were already voting in primary elections since 1917 - three years prior to the constitutional amendment.

In Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Maine, and Vermont, women were voting in presidential elections before the federal amendment was ratified.

The majority of women in the United States had voting rights prior to August 1920. Only seven states denied women’s suffrage, and had the Nineteenth Amendment not been ratified, the inevitable change would have happened in some other way.

The Nineteenth Amendment is, then, an empty symbol - but one which served the purposes of Progressive propaganda.

While hoping to get some credit for expanding the civil liberties of women, the essential principle of Progressivism is that the government has the right to cut personal freedom as it sees fit.

Scholar William Voegeli frames the Progressive idea this way: “The Progressives of a century ago” including Woodrow Wilson, and even including some who worked a few decades after what has traditionally been marked as the end of the Progressive era,

worked to transform a republic where the government had limited duties and powers into a nation where there were no grievances the government could or should refrain from addressing, and where no means of responding to those grievances lie outside the scope of the government’s legitimate authority.

Instead of limiting the government’s power over the individual, the Progressives limited the individual’s liberties so that the government could manage society.

What were the results of such managing? The record shows that African-Americans and women paid the price for the Progressive desire to have the government engineer various aspects of society. Yet the Progressives wanted, at the same time, to be praised for helping women get the vote.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Paine's Vision of Representative Government

Among the thinkers and writers who shaped the independence movement which established the United States as a sovereign nation, the understanding of representative government was central. This established a sharp contrast between them and, for example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

The government was to be the instrument and extension of the expressed will of the citizens. The government was not to lead, rule, or reign over the people.

The will of the citizens is not, in this sense, some vague and metaphysical notion like Rousseau’s ‘general will,’ but rather a concrete, empirical, and quantifiable result of balloting - a Lockean understanding of majority rule.

In fact, words like ‘lead’ or ‘rule’ or ‘reign’ are scarce in the writings of the revolutionaries who sought political independence for the thirteen colonies. When those words do occur, it is often in a disapproving description of the British monarchy.

A study of the U.S. Constitution reveals that the words ‘lead’ and ‘reign’ do not occur in it at all. The word ‘rule’ appears only as a noun and not as a verb. The word ‘government’ occurs several times, but the verb ‘govern’ occurs only once: the militia is to be governed in that clause, not the citizens.

The word ‘represent’ (along with ‘representative’ and other forms) occurs forty times.

Instead, the residents of North America sought to establish a republic with freely-elected representatives. The citizens neither wanted nor needed a government to lead them; rather, they arranged for a government to which they would delegate the practical matters of operating a post office or standardizing weights and measures.

For Thomas Paine, the essence of government is representation. He expressed this in a letter to Abbe Sieyes in July 1791. Paine had been, at first, an enthusiastic observer of the French Revolution. He hoped that its outcome would be similar to that of the American Revolution. He would be bitterly disappointed when the French Revolution descended into tyrannical oligarchy, denying the very freedoms it had originally claimed to seek, and executed thousands of innocent civilians.

The Abbe Sieyes was a leader within the French Revolution, and politically wily enough that he was one of a very few such leaders who managed to escape being executed by his fellow revolutionaries. Paine wrote to him:

By republicanism, I do not understand what the name signifies in Holland, and in some parts of Italy. I understand simply a government by representation.

More two hundred years after Paine’s letter, modern political discourse in the United States is full of calls for “leadership,” for someone to “lead the nation,” and for someone to “lead the American people.”

By contrast, two centuries ago, the vision of the founders was for a government to represent, not lead, the citizens. The president was to lead, not the people, but the government as it carried out the will of the electorate.

Approximately a year after this letter to Abbe Sieyes, Thomas Paine again had occasion to express himself regarding forms of government. In May 1792, the British government issued a royal proclamation against seditious writings. The proclamation was triggered largely, almost exclusively, by the popularity of Paine’s book, the Rights of Man.

The book, written while Paine was still a supporter of the French Revolution, was popular in England. It echoed many of the arguments against monarchy, and for representative government, found in Paine’s other writings. But its popularity, and the fact it directed these arguments to events in nearby France instead of faraway America, made the British authorities view it as more dangerous.

The overthrow of the French monarchy raised the fear among English aristocrats that something similar could happen in Britain. The brisk sales of Paine’s book frightened them.

In response to the proclamation, Paine wrote:

I have, as an individual, given my opinion upon what I believe to be not only the best, but the true system of Government, which is the representative system, and I have given reasons for that opinion.

Largely summarizing from Rights of Man, Paine outlines four points against monarchy and for a representative republic. He argues that concentrating power in one person makes war more likely, that monarchs rule in the inexperience of youth and in the senility of dotage, that monarchies have no mechanism for removing incompetent kings, and that both the alleged constitutional structure of, and the legislation issuing from, a monarchy are arbitrary and merely by fiat:

First, Because, in the representative system, no office of very extraordinary power, or extravagant pay, is attached to any individual; and consequently, there is nothing to excite those national contentions and civil wars, with which countries under monarchical governments, are frequently convulsed, and of which the History of England exhibits such numerous instances.
Secondly, Because the representative is a system of Government always in maturity; whereas monarchical government fluctuates through all the stages, from non-age to dotage.
Thirdly, Because the representative system admits of none but men, properly qualified, into the Government, or removes them if they prove to be otherwise. Whereas, in the hereditary system, a nation may be encumbered with a knave or an idiot, for a whole life-time, and not be benefited by a successor.
Fourthly, Because there does not exist a right to establish hereditary government, or in other words, hereditary successors, because hereditary government always means a government yet to come, and the case always is, that those who are to live afterwards have always the same right to establish government for themselves, as the people had who lived before them; and, therefore, all laws attempting to establish hereditary government, are founded on assumption and political fiction.

Having outlined his argument, Paine asserts that the royal proclamation against his book is damaging to the well-being of the people, keeping them in intellectual and political darkness:

If these positions be truths, and I challenge any man to prove the contrary; if they tend to instruct and enlighten mankind, and to free them from error, oppression, and political superstition, which are the objects I have in view, in publishing them, that Jury would commit an act of injustice to their country and to me, if not a act of perjury, that should call them false, wicked, and malicious.

Despite Thomas Paine’s vigorous response to the royal proclamation - or perhaps because of it - his book was seen as criminal by the British government. Paine himself narrowly escaped arrest, and those who printed and published his book faced legal action. Philip Foner writes:

What began as a defense of the French Revolution evolved into an analysis of the basic reasons for discontent in European society and a remedy for the evils of arbitrary government, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, and war. Paine spoke out effectively in favour of republicanism as against monarchy and went on to outline a plan for popular education, relief of the poor, pensions for aged people, and public works for the unemployed, all to be financed by the levying of a progressive income tax. To the ruling class Paine’s proposals spelled “bloody revolution,” and the government ordered the book banned and the publisher jailed. Paine himself was indicted for treason, and an order went out for his arrest. But he was en route to France, having been elected to a seat in the National Convention, before the order for his arrest could be delivered. Paine was tried in absentia, found guilty of seditious libel, and declared an outlaw, and Rights of Man was ordered permanently suppressed.

Paine’s writing was largely polemic, not systematic. Because he wrote regarding specific situations - now America, now France - he was not attempting to construct a philosophy of government or politics, and did not maintain the internal consistency in which writing which one would expect if he were designing a system of concepts intended for universal application.

British philosopher A.J. Ayer notes some of the resulting internal tensions in Paine’s texts:

Very often, Paine writes as if there were only two systems of government, the hereditary and the representative. In one passage, as we have seen, he mentions three, the governments of priestcraft, conquerors, and reason; apparently placing them in historical order and identifying reason with representation and conquerors with monarchs. Sometimes he remembers that some monarchies have been elective, and in the second part of Rights of Man, he sharply dissents from the opinion of his friend, Abbe Sieyes, that while both forms of monarchy are bad, the elective is worse. Shortly afterwards, continuing to ignore the government of priestcraft, he nevertheless increases the total number of forms of government to four, ‘the democratical, the aristocratical, the monarchical, and what is now called the representative.’ He explains that he does not include republicanism among them, for what is indeed the good reason, that republicanism is not a particular form of government but being ‘wholly characteristical of the purport, manner, or object for which government ought to be instituted, and on which it is to be employed’, that is, the public good, it signifies the rejection of monarchy. He goes on to question the right of Poland, ‘an hereditary aristocracy, with what is called an elective monarchy’, and of Holland, ‘which is chiefly aristocratical, with an hereditary stadtholdership’, to style themselves republics, thereby leaving himself free to conclude that ‘the government of America, which is wholly on the system of representation, is the only real republic in character and in practice, that now exists’. One must bear in mind that both parts of Rights of Man were written before the deposition of Louis XVI.

Paine argued that a representative government is not only morally superior, but historically more durable. Paine’s assertion that a representative form of government outlasts other forms carries his line of thought deeply into the realm of propositions which are empirically verifiable.

Reading sympathetically, we may take Paine’s thesis as a generalization liable to individual exceptions. Otherwise, his thesis might be quickly demolished by a nod to the Roman Empire or one of several Chinese dynasties. Summarizing, A.J. Ayer states:

It could be argued that Paine’s four types of government strictly amounted once again to three, since the representative type is depicted by him as an extension of the democratical. He does not invariably claim that the democratic type was historically prior to all the others, and would indeed have been mistaken if he did. Historical priority must surely be granted to associations, the government of which, while one may not choose to call it monarchic, was at least patriarchal or possibly matriarchal. There is, however, one passage in which he allows himself to assert that departures from democracy, other than its development into representative government, were not only a moral and political but also an historical decline.

The passage which Ayer then cites is one in which Paine notes that direct democracies, in some form, were known in the ancient world. But these democracies, Paine reports, disappear when they grow too large, victims of their own success: they either become monarchies or are swallowed up by monarchies. If these ancient democracies had possessed the insight to institute a representative system, Paine argues, they would have maintained their liberty while growing. In his book, the Rights of Man, Paine writes:

Representation was a thing unknown in the ancient democracies. In those the mass of the people met and enacted laws (grammatically speaking) in the first person. Simple democracy was no other than the common hall of the ancients. It signifies the form, as well as the public principle of the government. As those democracies increased in population, and the territory extended, the simple democratical form became unwieldy and impracticable; and as the system of representation was not known, the consequence was, they either degenerated convulsively into monarchies, or became absorbed into such as then existed. Had the system of representation been then understood, as it now is, there is no reason to believe that those forms of government, now called monarchical or aristocratical, would ever have taken place. It was the want of some method to consolidate the parts of society, after it became too populous, and too extensive for the simple democratical form, and also the lax and solitary condition of shepherds and herdsmen in other parts of the world, that afforded opportunities to those unnatural modes of government to begin.

Despite Paine’s internal inconsistencies on the abstract conceptual level, he is consistent on the concrete matter of arguing for a system of freely elected representatives - a ‘republic’ in his understanding of the word. In this, he was thoroughly in the company of those who led the movement for independence in the second half of the eighteenth century in North America.