Sunday, October 26, 2008

National Greatness redux

David Brooks offers a historic pedigree for big government:
There are two major political parties in America, but there are at least three major political tendencies. The first is orthodox liberalism, a belief in using government to maximize equality. The second is free-market conservatism, the belief in limiting government to maximize freedom.
But there is a third tendency, which floats between. It is for using limited but energetic government to enhance social mobility. This tendency began with Alexander Hamilton, who created a vibrant national economy so more people could rise and succeed. It matured with Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War Republicans, who created the Land Grant College Act and the Homestead Act to give people the tools to pursue their ambitions. It continued with Theodore Roosevelt, who busted the trusts to give more Americans a square deal.
The problem is that (a) Brooks' argument lacks a basis in historical and political fact, and (b) his "third tendency" is practically identical to "orthodox liberalism" and inimical to limited government.

First, Hamilton did not "create a vibrant national economy," and I defy anyone to demonstrate that he did any such thing. Hamilton was an advocate of various policies, but these policies did not in any sense "create" the American economy, which is a product of the labor and intelligence of the American people. The Homestead Act is utterly useless as a model for future policy for the very reason that there are no longer any Western lands to give away. And the efficacy of Teddy's "trust busting" is by no means universally applauded by economic historians.

What do Hamilton, Lincoln and Roosevelt have in common, other than occupying pedestals in Brooks' mental pantheon? All were advocates of protective tariffs.

So if Brooks wants to endorse the protectionism of Patrick Buchanan, Lou Dobbs, et al., he could have found no better historic icons than Hamilton, Lincoln and T.R. Exactly how Brooks proposes to pursue "National Greatness" without the protectionist measures advocated by his idols, he doesn't say. However, he does proclaim:
The Hamiltonian-Bull Moose tendency is the great, moderate strain in American politics. In some sense this whole campaign was a contest to see which party could reach out from its base and occupy that centrist ground. The Democratic Party did that. Senior Democrats like Robert Rubin, Larry Summers and Jason Furman actually created something called The Hamilton Project to lay out a Hamiltonian approach for our day.
The Rubin/Summers faction is not calling the shots at the Obama campaign, nor do they have any influence with Howard Dean, who calls the shots with Democrats in Congress. The "Hamiltonian tendency" of the Democrats is a figment of Brooks' imagination, the same imagination that conjured up the "National Greatness" concept that has done so much to lead the GOP to ruin.

UPDATE: Linked in Pirate's Cove roundup (which features a haunting hottie).

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