Stick to doing the day’s work

A taj of madness

People who travel the world are drawn to the vast, the splendid, the unique edifices that serve as mementos to the rulers (tyrants, really) of yesteryear. Splendid though they are, the pyramids, palaces and temples never fail to remind me of the backbreaking, often murderous, toil and the extortion of taxes that went into their construction, and I’m surely not the only one to experience mixed feelings when contemplating these timeless wonders. Leaving aside for a moment those marvels that were created to celebrate one deity or another, most of the rest were built with the immortal, even eternal, glory of individual kings, rulers, or princes in mind.

And while we may think that we have long left behind those dark days, the democratically elected rulers of today have their “place in history” in mind as much as any despot of old. Their place in history may rest on a breakthrough piece of legislation, never mind its cost to future generations. It may rest on a celebrated foreign treaty, never mind the long-term consequences. It may rest on an “investment” in public rail, or solar energy, that is in tune with the zeitgeist but will never pay back its cost. In Europe, it may rest on keeping an increasingly shaky union of very different countries together at all cost. And sometimes, in a faint of echo of olden days, it may rest on grandiose buildings schemes whose cost rivals that of medieval palaces, even if they can’t begin to match their historic antecedents’ beauty and craftsmanship.

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Do the day’s work

In the afterword of his wonderful biography of Calvin Coolidge’s early years, The Provincial, Hendrik Booraem V draws an interesting line from Coolidge’s lifelong lack of “vitality” and vigor to his political philosophy.

Young Calvin had been a rather weak boy, suffering from a number of ailments, and he never much liked, or participated in, strenuous activity. Even his ventures into sports were mostly confined to sedentary activities such as fishing or riding. In his Amherst college years, he did not excel at any sports and indeed his only participation in competitive sports on record, the “Plug Hat Race” in his junior year, ended with him finishing last.As president, he enjoyed daily walks and apparently fairly limited exercise on a mechanical horse (after developing an allergy to horses) and with other fitness items.

Exercise...the Coolidge way

Booraem ventures that Coolidge’s low vitality was, perhaps subconsciously, regarded by both him and his father as an indicator of impending death or at least of reduced expectations of longevity. As far as can be determined from the extant record, Coolidge had no far-reaching dreams or long-range plans for the future. His famous exhortation to the Massachusetts Senate on Jan. 7, 1914, “Do the day’s work” thus characterizes his approach to politics as well as to life in general. Booraem expands the pithy saying to have it mean “Do the day’s work, yes, with all possible care, intelligence, and honesty; but also, do only the day’s work, make no long-range agenda, set no future goals for achievement.”

Thus, if true, Coolidge’s natural predisposition meshes nicely with a political philosophy that distrusts governmental planning, and that understands the folly of planning in a world where a myriad of individual decisions affect outcomes. It is a humble philosophy that is far removed from the hybris of those who feel that the government, or a class of planners, can know the future and plan for it better than individuals can. This latter way of thinking has been demonstrated by the example of collectivist societies to be an utter failure; still, at least ever since the presidency of Coolidge’s successor, Herbert Hoover, politicians have persisted to this day in having government make plans – and to make the actions of individuals subservient to these plans. Whatever the origin of his political philosophy – here, as elsewhere, Coolidge had the right idea.