A (very) brief Coolidgean philosophy of government

Dwight W. Morrow on a 1925 TIME cover

I’m currently reading the 1935 Harold Nicolson biography of Dwight Morrow (1873 – 1931), a friend and confidant of, and adviser to, Calvin Coolidge from their days as Amherst classmates, class of 1895. Morrow was a most interesting and admirable man, and I hope to write on him in more detail – he is associated with two major accomplishments of the Coolidge years, namely the report of the Aviation Board that structured the nation’s approach to civil and defense aviation, and the improvement of relations with Mexico, where he served as ambassador.

Nicolson reports an August 19th, 1927 meeting of Morrow and Coolidge at the latter’s vacation spot in Rapid City, where they discussed his pending Mexican mission. In a letter to J.P. (“Jack”) Morgan Jr. quoted by Nicolson, Morrow wrote:

“He said (…) that it was not the business of the Government to do good but to prevent harm, that when Governments tried to do good they generally got themselves and other people into trouble.” (p. 291)

Here, I feel, is really the Coolidge philosophy of government in a nutshell. Trusting in the superior ability of government agents to discern what is “good” for the people, progressives and “liberals” believe in the governments ability, nay, responsibility for “doing good.” Coolidge, supposedly behind the curve as to the then latest fads in ideology, was actually light years ahead of his time, grasping instinctively the dangers of unintended consequences economists and social scientists are discussing today.

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