Happy Presidents’ Day, Mr. Coolidge!

In celebration of Presidents’ Day, here are links to three articles – f i r s t , here’s historian, Coolidge scholar, and occasional reader and commenter on this blog Jerry Wallace with an all-new article on the timeless values of Calvin Coolidge,

s e c o n d, one of my all-time favorites by economist Robert Higgs, cautioning against the notion of presidential greatness,

and t h i r d, a short vignette by Amity Shlaes, highlighting Coolidge as a paragon of the forgotten virtue of thrift.

 

And what did Coolidge himself have to say? I’ve always loved his quote, “It is a great advantage to a president, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man.” I read this to mean that Coolidge had a healthy appreciation of his own shortcomings, and a wise understanding of the Founders’ conception of a president’s function – not as a supreme visionary and great mover and shaker of things, but as a more humble functionary “doing the day’s work” and letting the people go about their own business.

What’s so progressive about statism?

This is just the germ of a thought I’m developing; please bear with me while I’ll work on fleshing it out over time.

A number of books I’ve been reading (or am currently reading), including Chris Anderson’s “The Long Tail”, Kevin Kelly’s “Out of Control” and James Surowiecki’s “The Wisdom of Crowds”, all eminently readable, have contributed to the perhaps not entirely new thought that the long-term trend of humanity is away from top-down control and stewardship and towards individual freedom and self-determination. In this view, so-called progressives and socialists, who preach the power of the state (more precisely, of individuals in whom the powers of the state are vested) to direct the fortunes of nations and peoples, are at best blocking progress and at worst trying to turn back the clock. Conversely, much maligned proponents of laissez-faire are at the vanguard of progress, as they trust in the ability of complex systems to grow, prosper, and right themselves after imbalances.

Arguably, the greatest burst of productivity occurred in the U.S. over the time from the end of the so-called Civil War until the onset of the so-called Great Depression, coinciding with presidential leadership that was largely content with its constitutional role and did not greatly interfere with the economy. And while occasional busts interrupted the boom, the overall expansion was unprecedented. Never was neglect more benign than in the case of presidents from Grant to Coolidge (with the exception of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson).

As Robert Higgs has pointed out, the last severe recession to be met with presidential laissez-faire occurred in 1920/21, and without governmental interference to speak of, the expansion had resumed and accelerated by 1923.

With the onset of the Great Depression, a sea change occurred in what I am now convinced is a backward direction. Suspicious of markets (and, ultimately, of the self-governing ability of the people), and ready to pounce at the slightest indication of their “failure”, statist planners took over, appropriating the term “progressive” while actually blocking and repealing progress. Calvin Coolidge knew and is said to have expressed that the tide was turning against everything he stood for.

(to be updated and linked to relevant articles)

Presidential greatness reconsidered

While it is of course far too early to even consider the question of whether or not Barack Obama will turn out to be a great president, a mediocre one, or perhaps even a failed one, the very fact that the public and the pundits have saddled him -as they have every recent president- with the responsibility of solving all great and small ills of the nation does not bode well for a vision of limited and constitutional government.

In the sense that mainstream historians -who generally are of a left- liberal persuasion- favor activist, visionary presidents who sought power to make far-reaching changes, he certainly appears to be on the right track to join the exalted ranks of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt and Wilson and, yes, George W. Bush, who bent or ignored constitutional limitations and vastly expanded presidential power.

Scholars such as Robert Higgs, Gene Healy, John V. Denson and Ivan Eland have written about how rankings of presidential greatness are all but turned on their heads once constitutional considerations are factored in, that is, when it is taken into account how faithfully each chief executive fulfilled his oath to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution.

Higgs, for one, asserts, that by this standard, no president since 1932 and arguably since 1896 has been true to his oath of office.  About Calvin Coolidge, he writes: “Of the presidents since Cleveland, I rank Coolidge the highest. He sponsored sharp tax cuts and greatly reduced the national debt. As Mencken wrote, “There were no thrills while he reigned, but neither were there any headaches. He had no ideas, and he was no nuisance” – high praise in view of the many execrable men who have served as president during the twentieth century.”

The fact that “he had no ideas” sounds almost derogatory to our modern ears, whether or not it was meant that way by the author, is telling: the populace expects, nay demands sweeping vision and grandiose, transformatory dreams from the president. The very idea that someone might simply “do the day’s work”, in Coolidge’s words, is nearly alien to us now.

In truth, Coolidge was close to the founders’ ideal of a president, for the people who ratified the original Constitution never intended the presidency to be a vastly powerful office occupied by “great men”. A meager four paragraphs comprise Article II, sections 2 – 4 which enumerate the powers of the president. Indeed, the presidency was conceived as a largely ceremonial position whose occupant would limit himself to enforcing federal laws. Gradually, over time, massively during Lincoln’s and FDR’s presidencies and then progressively during the 20th century, presidents seized more and more power. This trend is not likely to be overturned as long as “elites and masses alike look to the president to perform supernatural feats and therefore tolerate a virtually unlimited exercise of presidential power” (Robert Higgs).

Bernanke on the wrong track

Over at the Independent Institute, Robert Higgs has a characteristically downbeat, yet unfortunately probably accurate, assessment of the future of the U.S. economy. Among the grave problems he sees are the avowed easy-money propensities of the Fed, and especially the “mountain of malinvestment” arising from the stimulus bill. As he points out, it is not unimportant in which way money is spent – wisely, in the service of much-needed economic restructuring, or foolishly, on make-work and pork-laden projects. And that sound you’re hearing is Calvin Coolidge rotating in his grave.