Integralism, Rightly Understood

Aaron Sibarium August 17, 2020 - Understanding America
REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan
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Since at least Woodrow Wilson and arguably since the Mayflower, Americans have struggled to conceive of their interests as distinct from their ideals. Blurring that distinction is sometimes said to be the original sin of neoliberalism (or “globalism”; take your pick), but the truth is it’s been blurry for almost four centuries, from John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” to George Bush’s “Freedom Agenda,” from the rise of Puritanism to its official fall. What’s good for us must be good for the world, we think, and vice versa—an assumption the rest of the world does not necessarily share.

So ingrained is this identity between ideals and interests, in fact, that it’s often presupposed by the very people who critique it. If the post-Cold War project was a kind of “synthetic globalism,” an attempt to synthesize the universal and the particular without subordinating either, elite backlash to that project has paradoxically taken the form of synthetic nationalism, in which nationalist policies are said to advance universalist ends. Immigration drives down native wages . . . and drives brain drain abroad. Foreign wars suck taxpayers dry . . . and drench foreign capitals in blood. Free trade eviserates our manufacturing base . . . and enables slavery overseas. By some providential coincidence, then, restrictionism, isolationism, and protectionism will make the whole world better off, such that putting America first won’t put non-Americans second.

In an interview with American Compass on Aug. 5, Senator Josh Hawley had a chance to transgress these crypto-cosmopolitan bounds. Asked what the main goal of economic policy should be, his answer was unequivocal: “do something that’s good for American workers and the American nation and the American community.” “I’m happy if American companies also benefit other people in the world,” Hawley went on, “but … we shouldn’t be shy about saying, ‘Listen, we want our economy to work well for Americans, both as producers and as consumers.’” So far, so nationalist.

Then forced labor came up.

If you consider yourself an American company … you should not be profiting on slave labor [anywhere in the world], particularly not to the detriment of American workers,” Hawley said,  noting that he has introduced a bill that would penalize firms for using slavery in their supply chains. Just like that, a humanitarian argument became a nationalist one, the universal pressed into service of the particular. After all, “is it so unthinkable that these multinational corporations maybe employ a few more American workers?” 

It’s not—but neither is it unthinkable that Americans are better off, all things considered, with forced labor than without it. Slavery is wrong, full stop. Slave-based supply chains, however, are cheap, and there is no a priori guarantee that we can substitute American workers for their victims. In at least some cases, we probably cannot. So if disrupting a given supply chain won’t bring jobs back to the United States, but will raise prices on U.S. imports, then presumably it is not in our interest to disrupt it, pace the Senator from Missouri. 

But if no U.S. company should be profiting off slave labor—particularly, but not only, “to the detriment of Americans”—it would seem that interests don’t trump integrity in Hawley’s calculus. And that’s fine: It is a good and healthy thing to recognize the limits of your own nationalism, the cosmopolitan constraints on which its decency depends. “America first” should not make America worse.

The problem, for Hawley and for a moral nationalism more generally, is that integrity is inherently internationalizing when it comes to issues like slave labor. If you penalize firms with sordid supply chains, they may just divest from poor countries where slavery is common, making them even poorer and more prone to exploitation. Tyler Cowen sketched a way this could happen in Bloomberg:

Consider the hypothetical case of a U.S. retailer buying a shipment of seafood routed through Vietnam. It fears that some of the seafood may have come from Thailand, where there are credible reports of (temporary) slavery in the supply chain. How does it find out if those reports are true? Asking its Vietnamese business partner, who may not even know the truth and might be reluctant to say if it did, is unlikely to resolve matters.

It is unlikely that businesses, even larger and profitable ones, will be in a position to hire teams of investigative journalists for their international inputs. Either they will ignore the law, or they will stop dealing with poorer and less transparent countries. So rather than buying shrimp from Southeast Asia, that retailer might place an order for more salmon from Norway, where it is quite sure there is no slavery going on.

The result would be higher prices for us, fewer investments in poor countries, and, because of that loss of capital, a net increase in exploitative labor practices worldwide. Profiting off slavery is bad; preventing those profits, but in a way that actually adds to slavery, is clearly worse. And that is what Hawley’s bill might do—unless it were paired with sanctions and trade agreements that independently enforced labor standards in developing countries. Such efforts would require international coordination, through international bodies, in order to work. (The WTO and ILO, for instance.) Which means that the moral case for the bill presupposes an ambitious multilateralism that, I think it’s fair to say, Hawley rejects.

So inasmuch as Hawley is a synecdoche for the New Right, he is also a synecdoche for the peculiar tension it must navigate. American nationalism does not entail open-borders liberalism, but it does entail what might be called “integralism, rightly understood”—a commitment to national integrity that is itself integral to America’s heritage. Honoring that commitment, however, may require concessions to a global framework that has not always served our interests in the past, and won’t always serve them in the future. The question for Hawley, and for the movement of which he is an avatar, is how many concessions to make, and by what means.

Of course, it’s also possible that conservatism’s nascent emphasis on labor standards is just a way of discrediting geopolitical rivals, of advancing interests under the banner of ideals. (Hawley bashed China’s treatment of its Uyghurs, but was curiously silent about debt peonage in India, migrant labor in the UAE, and prison labor in the United States.) In that case, bills like Hawley’s may have a strategic rationale independent of their economic logic, with values serving as a vehicle for containment.

One reason to be wary of them anyway is that they reify a moral framework in which the national interest plays almost no role. Ceding some ground to internationalism does not mean ceding all of it, and as Micah Meadowcroft recently noted for The Commons, it was an internationalist mentality that enabled China in the first place, to both the Uyghurs’ detriment and ours.

But the idealization of interests presents another danger as well: If it becomes too cynical and self-serving, it could corrode the very universalism on which American distinctiveness depends. That’s an outcome that no integralist—rightly or wrongly understood—should want.

Aaron Sibarium
Aaron Sibarium is an editor at the Washington Free Beacon.
@aaronsibarium
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Russell Kirk & Big Tech

Rachel Bovard July 13, 2020 - Tech
natanaelginting – stock.adobe.com
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The debate about Big Tech often breaks down into one of whether or not a private company should be “regulated.” This is especially true as attention heats up around the use of antitrust enforcement — substantively, definitionally, and applicably different than regulation, though in argument one side attempts to conflate them. 

Jim Swift of The Bulwark reflected this sentiment to me recently on Twitter. His response made no sense in the context of the point I was making (noting that the same people criticizing Parler’s content moderation never, ever criticize those same actions when performed by Twitter), but it’s a common enough refrain that it’s worth highlighting here:

“I am just kind of shocked that the Rachel Bovards of the world went from ‘if you don’t like a service, don’t use it,’ to MAKE ME A BICYCLE, CLOWN. Not very conservative.”

A corporations-first emphasis 

The tech debate is a larger proxy for the economic emphasis that has been reflected in the modern GOP over the last three decades. This began under Reagan and was suitable to its moment: the economy of the 80s had become entrenched, heavily regulated, and sclerotic. A disruptive approach was necessary. (Interestingly, though he largely weakened antitrust enforcement, Reagan also employed it as a means to spur innovation — something the libertarian Right now routinely argues is an impossibility.)

But it has continued in such a way that economic emphasis has come to define DC institutional conservatism, almost to the exclusion of other issues. It has also, as Swift’s response to me makes clear, mounted its own kind of purity test.

This may reflect a type of “corporation-first” thinking, but it is not the coherent response of traditional conservatism. In fact, I would argue that it reflects a brittle attitude of DC’s establishment conservatism that puts markets above all, and in doing so, de-emphasizes the tapestry of conservative thought that could actually guide us through this current maelstrom.

Russell Kirk and the free market

There are a variety of conservative thinkers up to this task, but I’ll discuss Russell Kirk, as I recently co-authored a book with former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) that relied heavily upon Kirk’s thinking.

Interestingly, Kirk argued against a type of economic fundamentalism — or policy fundamentalism of any kind — and for a conservative movement as one that resists dogmatic, ideological reflexiveness. Conservatism, he continually reminds readers, is not a single platform, applicable to every person, in every age.

Rather, it’s a set of principles, which emphasize moral order, the wisdom of accumulated tradition, private property, prudence, diffusion of power, equality of rights, and the necessity of a strong civil society. Together, they’re less a prescriptive set of policies than a practical way of viewing the world, and a way in which conservatism retains its relevance in a constantly changing, turbulent age. 

Indeed, this take on conservatism is one that is very much alive, well equipped for the job of finding and presenting a coherent response to the ceaseless unfolding and changing of modernity.

This is the type of conservatism Kirk so masterfully articulated: one which rejects “‘abstractions’ — that is, absolute political dogmas divorced from practical experience and particular circumstances.” Rather, in applying the broad principles, conservatism maintains its coherence, relevance, and practical application. 

Against collectivism 

In this way, conservatives can find a practical response to corporate power. While there is an effort to define the debate around Big Tech as one of “government intervention into private companies,” or “free market approaches versus statism,” I’d argue the issue is far more about the character and preservation of personal liberty and civil society in the face of an assault from unconstrained discretionary power.

It’s a nuance Kirk understood. In his Concise Guide to Conservatism, Kirk wrote.

…economics has been overemphasized in our generation. I do not believe that the great contest in the modern world is simply between two theories of economics, ‘socialism’ and ‘capitalism’ as Bernard Shaw tried to convince women a generation ago. No, I happen to think that the real struggle is between traditional society and its religious and moral and political inheritance, and collectivism (under whatever name) with its passion for reducing humanity to a mere tapioca-pudding of identical producers and consumers.

Collectivism is a threat to personal and economic liberty and can exist in many forms, even at the corporate level. The case has been made many times that Big Tech is a threat to both personal freedom, and the freedom of small businesses and markets to innovate. Attempting to shove the debate into a binary frame of “regulation or free markets” is a misinterpretation of, as Kirk would say, our current “practical experience and particular circumstances.”

This is not to say that economic liberties should be de-emphasized out of the debate, or that I am somehow arguing for a policy platform that dictates free association or behavior. 

Rather, it’s a question of balance. Of course free markets are important. Of course innovation in a free economy is what makes the American system the most successful and robust in the world. The question in this particular case is if the interests of personal liberty and civil society are being appropriately served when corporations like Google control and define 90 percent of the information we search for, and if freedom for small innovators and individuals can be maintained in the face of a corporation more powerful and resourceful than some small countries.

The question is one of maintaining a balance that ensures mutual flourishing of people, civil society, markets, and the family. (Kirk distinguished himself from Hayek by rejecting the idea that unfettered individual liberty was itself the highest social good.)

It’s a balance that many traditional conservatives are still attempting to maintain — one that prioritizes free markets, but without the ideological reflexiveness that creates blind spots toward the threat of collectivism when it exists in the private sector, even when it threatens personal freedom and small innovators.

The challenge for modern conservatism is to reject the brittleness of ideological dogma, and instead apply time-tested principles to modern problems. Kirk, as usual, provides a guide (emphasis added):

For the conserving of freedom of any sort, then, the economy must be free in considerable measure. I repeat that much of the popular discussion of economic questions is obsolete, because it is founded, especially in America, upon the assumption that we still are living in a nineteenth-century condition characterized by the pressure of population upon food supply. But the real problems of the twentieth century are different from those of the nineteenth century, often, especially in the economic sphere, and are in some respects more difficult to approach. Our conservative task is to reconcile personal freedom with the claims of modern technology, and to try to humanize an age in which [Permanent] Things are in the saddle.

Rachel Bovard
Rachel Bovard is the senior director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute.
@rachelbovard
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Is Hamilton a “Bootstraps” Story?

Amber Lapp July 1, 2020 - Understanding America
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As we tend to do with momentous occasions, I clearly remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard the first lines of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. It was a hot and humid day in August, my parents had the kids so I was prepping for an insulation project in our attic, and on a friend’s recommendation I hit play on the original cast Hamilton soundtrack which was free on Amazon Prime. For months afterwards I listened repeatedly, during dishes, folding laundry, increasingly captivated. (I may or may not have convinced my husband to make a trip to NYC for our anniversary in order to see Hamilton’s grave and home in Harlem; I may or may not be calling the child in my womb Eliza.)

Hamilton for me was an antidote to cynicism, a renewed hope that despite our nation’s many faults and failings and despite deepening polarization there could also be a common respect for the constitutional republic which we share—something for Dick Cheney and President Obama to agree upon, a way to celebrate being American that felt both accessible to progressives and conservatives.

So I was intrigued by the recent Time magazine piece, “Will Hamilton resonate in 2020’s America?” in which Andrew Chow writes that “Hamilton remains an astonishing triumph in so many ways”  but asserts that “when the film drops on Disney+ on July 3, it will arrive into a world that has been transformed by the past four years. A very different President holds power; income inequality has widened; a pandemic has wiped out the life savings of thousands of Americans, souring the musical’s bootstraps premise.”

That phrase—“the musical’s bootstraps premise”—caught me by surprise. On one level it’s apparent that the narrative of Hamilton is a variation on the Horatio Alger-theme. But I’m not so sure it’s the story at its core. Hamilton is not so much an individual rags-to-riches tale as it is the story of the beginnings of an imperfect nation grasping at high ideals (ideals it goes without saying we have yet to fully realize).

The other reason this phrase caught my attention is that though Alexander Hamilton may have had a bootstraps story, importantly, his is not a bootstraps legacy.

At least not if we understand a bootstraps legacy to be a libertarian one. In his essay “Rediscovering a Genuine American System,” (which I highly recommend reading in full) American Compass research director Wells King makes the case that there was once “a robust role for public policy in shaping the national economy,” a tradition kept alive from Hamilton to Lincoln to Eisenhower. “Conservatives abandoned that tradition in recent decades and then forgot its existence altogether, preferring the myth of a laissez-faire America and a conception of capitalism as little more than ‘economic freedom,’” King writes.

This “American system” arguably owes its origins to Hamilton, and is typified by a variety of government initiatives from land-grant colleges to projects like the Hoover Dam and Tennessee Valley Authority to the GI Bill. King writes that through this approach government “invested in the prosperity and opportunity of American citizens, recognizing that both a healthy democratic republic and a vibrant economy depended upon prosperity that was widely shared and available to all.” As Abraham Lincoln put it and Wells King quotes, the responsibility of the federal government is “to elevate the condition of men; to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.”

Perhaps no one knows better than a person with a bootstraps story how fragile and tenuous success really is, how much it depends on so much else. Hard work that is not undergirded by a strong public system will reap fewer rewards than effort unaided. A truly just American system will not expect that individuals rise up by sheer dint of thrift and effort alone, but acknowledge that personal responsibility must be matched by public responsibility.

Amber Lapp
Amber Lapp is a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and co-investigator of the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project.
@AmberLappOH
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Taking Back America From the Libertarians

Patrick Deneen June 15, 2020 - Understanding America
U.S. Supreme Court Building
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Washington Post columnist George Will has added his voice to that of Brad Thompson in decrying the rise of an un-American conservative authoritarianism, represented, among others, by such thinkers as Adrian Vermeule, Sohrab Ahmari, and yours truly.  Will and Thompson invoke the American Constitutional tradition as the cure for this “anti-American” threat from the Right.  The tradition they seek to defend, according to Thompson, is the “classical liberalism of the founding era [that] assumed individual rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness” and that “government must be impartial in adjudicating rival conceptions of the good life.”  Similarly, Will argues that the Constitution reflects a belief in “limited government respectful of society’s cumulative intelligence and preferences collaboratively revealed through market transactions.” The Constitution, according to Will (echoing Thompson) establishes “a regime respectful of individuals’ diverse notions of the life worth living.”  In other words, America was founded as a libertarian nation.

Were we to focus more or less exclusively on some passages in the Declaration – as Thompson does – this might be a plausible claim, since it is the Founding era’s most Lockean document.  Even then, a fair amount of scholarship has established that Jefferson’s more Lockean bent was moderated by members of the drafting Committee.  Those members understood that Christian Americans were not drawn to a Deistic and highly individualistic theory of rights, leading a number of scholars to conclude that the Declaration was really a compromise between a small number of Lockeans and the larger population of Christians (a view was advanced by R.L. Bruckberger and later echoed by the late Peter Lawler).  One need only read some of the sermons of that period to encounter views that were highly critical of the Lockean justification for revolution, preferring an ideal of Christian liberty that stressed self-governance, common good, self-sacrifice, and mutual duty.  Thompson might want to read this 1774 sermon by Nathaniel Niles on 1 Corinthians, delivered on the eve of the Revolution in Massachusetts. Niles (a member of Congress during the Founding generation) expressed a commonplace from the pulpit that connected a true form of liberty, understood as governance over one’s self-interest, to a commitment to the common good.  Invoking an ideal of liberty completely opposite to that of John Locke, he stated: “imagine a state whose members are all of a free spirit; and then attend to the glory and pleasures of liberty. The individuals are all of one mind. They unite in the same grand pursuit, the highest good of the whole.”[inlineref id=1][/inlineref]  Will and Thompson would have us believe that endorsement of a conception of liberty that orients us toward the common good was never before heard in the American tradition until the likes of Vermeule and Ahmari.  In erecting their distorted construct of American philosophy, Will and Thompson present a version of the American tradition comparable to Pravda’s efforts to color the Russian tradition as exclusively communist.

The claims of Thompson and Will require us to dismiss a vast area of thought, argument, theory and practice during the nation’s founding period that was decidedly not libertarian.  A confrontation with the far more complex and variegated philosophical and theological sources of that period, and their ongoing influence throughout much of American history, would require recognizing that such libertarianism has never been present in any actual operable political form during America’s history.  Indeed, as a school of thought, a pure form of philosophical libertarianism was not a significant presence in American history until its articulation as Social Darwinism in the early 20th century. It did not become an influential economic school of thought until the mid-twentieth century under the influence of several foreign thinkers, F. A. Hayek and von Mises (and later, Ayn Rand).  I wonder whether Thompson and Will consider themselves as dangerous members of an un-American fifth-column, influenced by a coterie of Austrians and a Russian ex-pat.

In order to argue that a “common good conservatism” is antithetical to the American tradition tout court, Will and Thompson must contrive an American tradition that then – as now – has only held sway among a relatively small number of elites.  A fuller and more accurate telling of history – even of the Constitution – suggests that it is Will and Thompson that are outside the mainstream of the American tradition.

Let’s take the example of the Bill of Rights, which Thompson explicitly invokes as one of the key founding documents of the purported American libertarian tradition.  The proposal and passage of the Bill of Rights was the great victory of the so-called “Antifederalists,” a group of men who opposed the ratification of the Constitution on the grounds that it designed a political system that would lead to political centralization, the rise of judicial tyranny, the creation of a professional military that would be inclined to foreign adventurism, a commercial republic that would accumulate debt and undermine civic virtue, and the eventual hollowing out of the prerogative of states to govern themselves.  The First Amendment – forbidding Congress from the establishing of religion and free exercise thereof – is, doubtless both for Will and Thompson alike, primary proof that the Constitution was established to preclude government influence in establishing any preference for “the good life.”

This talking point by both Will and Thompson perhaps dupes people who take their understanding of the American tradition from the mid-twentieth century ACLU, what used to be a left-liberal position that has now gravitated rightward.  The Bill of Rights was in fact proposed and ratified in order not merely to forbid the government from establishing a religion, but prevent the federal government from interfering in the existing State establishments. It was Congress that was forbidden from establishing a religion, not the States. The first of the Bill of Rights was a protection of the state responsibility to protect the moral frame without which human society might descend into looting, rioting, and an orgy of violence.

Thompson lauds the State constitutions as yet more evidence of the pure libertarian founding that was indifferent to religious questions – neglecting that most of those State constitutions at the time of the Founding included a positive requirement to profess a belief in God.  Here, for instance, is the article three in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780:

“As the happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend upon piety, religion and morality; and as these cannot be generally diffused through a community, but by the institution of the public worship of GOD, and of public instructions in piety, religion and morality: Therefore, to promote their happiness and to secure the good order and preservation of their government, the people of this Commonwealth have a right to invest their legislature with power to authorize and require, and the legislature shall, from time to time, authorize and require, the several towns, parishes, precincts, and other bodies-politic, or religious societies, to make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the institution of the public worship of GOD, and for the support and maintenance of public protestant teachers of piety, religion and morality, in all cases where such provision shall not be made voluntarily.”

Like many state constitutions at the time, the Massachusetts Constitution established rights of property and conscience, but also empowered the state to create and fund religious institutions and also mandated duties of worship:  “It is the right as well as the duty of all men in society, publicly, and at stated seasons to worship the Supreme Being, the great Creator and Preserver of the universe.”  Will and Thompson write these parts of the state constitutions out of the American tradition, as well as the First Amendment’s original intention of protecting these establishments, acting as if our Founding Fathers were indifferent to questions of morality, piety, and virtue, satisfied merely with market forces. By stripping away the emphasis upon duties borne by anyone who owns property, possesses guns, or expresses an opinion – duties that derive from God as much as our rights – we destroy the benefits of such rights by turning them into the narrow possessions of cramped and selfish individuals, thereby instituting among ourselves the “war of all against all.”

Until recent times, America has never been so foolish to consider itself a libertarian nation, much less had such a view advanced by so-called “conservatives.”  We have had a libertarian public policy imposed by the mainstream of each political party: libertarian economics by elites on the right, and libertarian social ethos by elites on the left.[inlineref id=2][/inlineref] Will and Thompson mistake this aberration – foisted upon an increasingly recalcitrant and unhappy public – as the sum of the American tradition, rather than an aberration and deformation.  In truncating the breadth and fullness of the American political tradition, and by mutilating it to fit into their cramped and ahistorical libertarian ideology, Will and Thompson (and their compatriots) diminish the prospects for a genuine restoration of the American tradition.  Their effort to rewrite American history in order to force a truncated libertarian ideology upon the nation is rather … un-American.

Patrick Deneen
Patrick J. Deneen is the David A. Potenziani Memorial College Chair of Constitutional Studies and a professor at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Why Liberalism Failed.
@PatrickDeneen
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Rediscovering a Genuine American System

Wells King May 4, 2020

From the Founding to the Cold War, America’s leading statesmen and political economists understood the importance of a robust national economic policy.

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On February 2, 1832, Henry Clay rose on the Senate floor to defend a bold national economic agenda that he had christened eight years earlier “a genuine AMERICAN SYSTEM” (emphasis in original). He had already advanced a number of measures critical to his vision: the Second Bank of the United States, protective tariffs for burgeoning industries, and infrastructure to connect commercial centers to the expansive frontier. But the political revolution in 1828 that drove Clay’s National Republican party from power and installed a backcountry populist in the White House was threatening to undo these projects.

Speaking over the course of three days, Clay documented the “unparalleled prosperity” that the American System had produced. He explained how this “long established system” was “patiently and carefully built up, and sanctioned, … by the nation and its highest and most revered authorities.” His opponents’ alternative, he alleged, was vacuous at best: “When gentlemen have succeeded in their design of an immediate or gradual destruction of the American System, what is their substitute?” Clay asked. “Free trade! Free trade! The call for free trade, is as unavailing as the cry of a spoiled child. … It never has existed; it never will exist.”1Henry Clay, “The American System,” in Robert C. Byrd, The Senate 1789-9189: Classic Speeches: 1830-1993, ed. Wendy Wolff (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1994), 3:83-116.

"'When gentlemen have succeeded in their design of an immediate or gradual destruction of the American System, what is their substitute?' Clay asked. 'Free trade! Free trade! The call for free trade, is as unavailing as the cry of a spoiled child. … It never has existed; it never will exist.'"

Clay lost this particular round in the never-ending fight over America’s economic aspirations and the role of government in fulfilling them. President Andrew Jackson vetoed the re-chartering of the national bank that summer and then soundly defeated Clay’s challenge in the presidential election that fall. But he was not the first great American statesman to champion a robust role for public policy in shaping the national economy. Nor would he be the last. The efforts of that coalition, from Hamilton to Lincoln to Eisenhower, kept alive the spirit of the American System from the nation’s founding to the middle of the twentieth century. Through its various expressions, the System helped to deliver the “unparalleled prosperity” Clay once heralded and made American industry the envy of the world.

Conservatives abandoned that tradition in recent decades and then forgot its existence altogether, concocting the myth of a laissez-faire America and conceiving of capitalism as little more than “economic freedom.”2Senator Pat Toomey, “In Defense of Capitalism,” speech delivered at The Heritage Foundation (March 11, 2020). The ensuing political struggle between a Left committed to globalization and redistribution and a Right that would do nothing at all, has ignored the actual needs of the nation’s citizenry and its economy. We need more Henry Clays. Conservatives could provide them, if they recognized that the history of American political economy furnishes a rich tradition worthy of conserving.

Hamilton’s Triumph

The very framing of the Constitution emphasized the limited but positive role for government in the American economy. Indeed, the inadequacy of the Articles of Confederation for dealing with essential matters of political economy—international trade, interstate commerce, and public finance—spurred the formation of the Constitutional Convention in the first place. As Article 1, Section 8 makes clear, the Framers understood not only the importance of these economic powers, but also that each one—to lay and collect taxes, to borrow money, and to regulate commerce—was distinct and deserving of enumeration. Such powers were reportedly not a matter of controversy at the Convention.3Carson Holloway, “The Founders and Free Trade: The Foreign Commerce Power and America’s National Interest, The Heritage Foundation First Principles (May 29, 2018), 7-9.

Still, the proper scope and ends of federal power were open questions. The ensuing public debate was shaped—and still is shaped—by an overarching conflict of visions about the ideal American republic: between the Hamiltonian vision of a commercial republic driven by industrialization and a robust financial system and the Jeffersonian vision of an agrarian democracy of small, free-holding yeomen farmers.

Alexander Hamilton proposed an aggressive economic agenda to President Washington and the First United States Congress. In his first act as the nation’s first Treasury Secretary, he advised Congress to pass a general tariff to fund the government’s debt and operations. He later devised a plan to establish the creditworthiness of the United States by assuming the states’ debts and paying creditors at face value. Against the objections of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton also persuaded Washington in 1791 to sign a twenty-year charter for the Bank of the United States, a national bank for which “public utility [was] more truly the object … than private profit.”4Alexander Hamilton, quoted in Frank Bourgin, The Great Challenge (1989).

Later the same year, Hamilton submitted the Report on Manufactures to Congress, outlining a plan to support industrialization through federal “bounties” (subsidies). He argued that the “independence and security” of the United States were “materially connected with the prosperity of manufactures” but that private capital would not be sufficient to support its development. The national interest would “therefore require the incitement and patronage of government.” To modern ears, such state-sponsored industrialization may sound like a response to market failure, but Hamilton’s case was broader: that investment was an affirmative obligation of the federal government. “In a community situated like that of the United States,” he maintained, “the public purse must supply the deficiency of private resource. In what can it be so useful, as in prompting and improving the efforts of industry?”5Alexander Hamilton, Report on Manufactures (1791).

"'There is no Hamilton memorial,' George F. Will has noted. 'But if you seek his monument, look around. This is Hamilton’s America.'"

Though not fully implemented in his tenure as Treasury Secretary, Hamilton’s vision of political economy ultimately triumphed. Following its humiliating experience in the War of 1812, the country pursued a number of Hamiltonian reforms. Congress had failed to renew the charter of the First Bank of the United States in 1811, but chartered the Second Bank in 1816. A series of tariffs, beginning in 1816, were also instated with the express purpose of protecting infant domestic industries. In 1817, Congress passed the Navigation Act requiring that interstate trade be conducted with American-owned ships.

Hamilton did not live to see his vindication, but he would especially have appreciated the concessions of his erstwhile opponents. Thomas Jefferson later admitted that “experience” had demonstrated that manufacturing was “as necessary to our independence as to our comfort.”6Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Benjamin Austin (January 8, 1816). He was emphatic. The person “who is now against domestic manufactures,” he wrote after the War, “must be for reducing either to dependence on that foreign nation [Britain], or to be clothed in skins, and to live like wild beasts in dens and caverns. I am proud to say, I am not one of these” (emphasis in original). James Madison likewise came to defend state-sponsored industrialization through protective tariffs. “Unless aided in its nascent and infant state by public encouragement and a confidence in public protection,” he wrote, entire industries “might remain … for a long time unattempted, or attempted without success.”7James Madison, Letter to Joseph C. Cabell (October 30, 1820).

“There is no Hamilton memorial,” George F. Will has noted. “But if you seek his monument, look around. This is Hamilton’s America.”8George F. Will, Statecraft as Soulcraft: What Government Does (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983) This was already true when Henry Clay spoke in 1832. Only the Hamiltonian project went by a new name: the American System.

The American System and Its School

The American System emerged from crisis and the young nation’s sudden awareness of its own mortality. As the United States entered the War of 1812, Henry Clay emerged as a leading War Hawk in the Congress. Economic nationalism was a natural outgrowth of his anti-British posture and would become a common lesson from the experience of war. Its primary aim was self-sufficiency. “We should thus have our wants supplied, when foreign resources are cut off,” Clay advised his fellow lawmakers, “and we should also lay the basis of a system of taxation, to be resorted to when the revenue from imports is stopped by war.”9Henry Clay, quoted in Michael Lind, Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States (New York: HarperCollins, 2014).

Clay’s American System integrated three mutually supporting priorities: tariff-based protection of infant industries, a national financial system, and “internal improvements,” which we would today call infrastructure. In 1816, Clay led the passage of an expressly protective tariff for the nation’s burgeoning manufacturing industry, averaging 40 percent on all imported manufactured goods. He also advocated the creation of the Second Bank of the United States and federal funding of canal and railroad projects with revenue generated from land sales.

The American System’s development was supported by political economists whose thinking came to be known as the American School. Like Clay, the thinkers behind the American School were engaged not only in a battle of ideas, but a contest between nations. They were contemporaries of the great British classical economists like David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill and took part in a transatlantic debate over the laws of economics and the role of government. They rebutted the arguments of these “British School” advocates for free trade and laissez-faire and outlined policies to protect America’s interests from what they deemed to be hostile British policy.

Daniel Raymond (1786-1849), for example, established his reputation after publishing criticism of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Raymond objected to Smith’s very definition of national wealth as the sum of all private wealth, arguing that its distribution mattered and that national wealth ought to reflect “the condition of the whole nation” such that “general prosperity and happiness” would be maximized.10Daniel Raymond, The Elements of Political Economy (1823).

Another leading light of the American School was Friedrich List (1789-1846), a German émigré who developed and systematized a “national system” of economics that stressed the importance of industrialization in the emerging global economy. “To attain the highest degree of independence, culture and material prosperity,” List argued, a country “should adopt every measure within its power to defend its economic security.”11Friedrich List, The Natural System of Political Economy (1837). For the still-developing United States, this meant tariff-based protection and import substitution for the nation’s infant industries. Once the nation had industrialized, however, List’s system advised switching to a reciprocal trade strategy with other industrialized nations, cautiously opening American markets in exchange for access to others.

These were common themes of the American School: treating the nation—rather than the individual—as the principal unit of economic analysis and incorporating social and geo-political factors that today might seem beyond the scope of economics. The British “dismal science” could not satisfy the optimism and liberality of the still young American republic.

The American School struck its mid-century crescendo in the work of Henry Charles Carey (1793-1879). He warned that the purpose of British free trade policy was to “secur[e for] the people of England the … monopoly of machinery” and argued for an aggressive policy of support for infant industries to “break down this monopoly” and “restore the natural tendency” of balancing manufacturing with agriculture to support “stabler self-sufficient communities.”12Henry Charles Carey, The Harmony of Interests (1851). “The Americans, and few more so than Henry Carey,” writes historian Gabor S. Boritt, “made political economy the beautiful science.”13Gabor S. Boritt, Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 125.

Yet Carey’s greatest contribution to the American tradition may not have been his writing, but his service as an advisor to an ambitious young statesman from the frontier—an admirer of Henry Clay and a student of the American School named Abraham Lincoln.

"As the Civil War raged, Lincoln pursued an American-System agenda on an epic scale."

From his very first campaign manifesto in 1832, Lincoln confessed that “my politics are short and sweet. … I am in favor of national bank … in favor of the internal improvements system and a high protective tariff.” By the time he occupied the White House, his economic policy seemed to have changed little: “I have always been an old-line Henry Clay Whig,” he proclaimed in 1861.14Abraham Lincoln, quoted in Michael Lind, What Lincoln Believed: The Values and Convictions of America’s Greatest President (New York: Anchor Books, 2007), 88.

As the Civil War raged, Lincoln pursued an American-System agenda on an epic scale. Having long advocated for protective tariffs, he raised them two times in the course of just three years. From Lincoln’s presidency through World War II, the American home market was the most protected in the world.15Michael Lind, Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), 140. Lincoln also recreated a federal financial system. With the Legal Tender Act, he granted Treasury the ability to issue “greenbacks,” paper money backed by federal debt. With the National Currency Acts, he taxed state banknotes out of existence and established a network of nationally chartered banks approved to issue U.S. Treasury banknotes. As with protective tariffs, Lincoln had supported ambitious infrastructure projects throughout his political career, and in 1862 he signed legislation to spend millions on what would become the First Transcontinental Railroad.

But Lincoln also expanded the American System’s scope—in both concept and deed. Less than three months after the Battle of Fort Sumter, Lincoln addressed a special session of Congress commemorating the eighty-fifth anniversary of the Declaration of the Independence. At the close of his remarks, the President departed from his stated purpose of securing adequate troops and funding to wage the Civil War to elaborate on the nation’s founding ideals. “The leading object” of the federal government, he said, was “to elevate the condition of men; to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.”16Abraham Lincoln, Message to Congress in Special Session (July 4, 1861). The following year Lincoln signed legislation that committed federal land to this purpose: the Homestead Act, offering settlers 160 acres of public land to encourage westward migration, and the Morrill Land-Grant Act, which funded the creation of more than 60 colleges including Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“The Hamiltonian tradition,” historian Michael Lind has observed, “could not have found a better spokesman than Lincoln.”17Lind, Land of Promise, 140.

Unfinished Work

At Gettysburg, Lincoln tasked the American people with the “unfinished work” of safeguarding and improving the American experiment. In the century after his death, the federal government advanced an economic agenda to support it. The United States built a modern industrial economy that supported national security, economic independence, and widely shared prosperity, becoming the envy and leader of the world. The tradition of the American System and its School played a central role.

To foster and guide economic development, the U.S. government supported strategic industries through protection and investment and established the foundations for a functioning labor market that could serve American workers and businesses alike. Through World War II, the federal government maintained a robust set of tariffs designed not only to generate revenue, but to buttress American industries. It also created a comprehensive structure for union representation and collective bargaining. As reciprocal trade expanded, policymakers intervened with Farm Bills to support the agricultural sector, preserving sectoral diversification critical for economic self-sufficiency and the vitality of many communities. Taxpayers funded ambitious research and development projects through dedicated agencies, such as DARPA and NASA, that laid the groundwork for the computer revolution of the late twentieth-century.

Buttressing this development was a financial system that used public credit and regulatory oversight to ensure that capital was not only efficiently and productively deployed, but safe from corruption and complete destruction by the business cycle. With the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913, the United States had a central bank for the first time since the dissolution of the Second Bank of the United States in 1836. The New Deal brought a suite of reforms, including the Glass-Steagall Act, that transformed the nation’s financial system from a speculative market into something more akin to a public utility. New institutions like the FDIC and SEC provided greater security for American’s financial assets and necessary oversight of financial markets while institutions like Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Small Business Administration provided targeted, subsidized financing to American home and small business owners.

"The nation assumed an obligation to create opportunity and draw people to it, rather than lecture those who could not find it themselves."

The tradition of “internal improvements” lived on as well, as American policymakers recognized that the nation’s size was one of its great advantages and that prosperity ought to reach every corner rather than concentrating in a few cities. The United States invested in ambitious infrastructure programs to provide transportation, energy, and communications to the public. With the creation and maintenance of postal, telegraph, and radio networks as well as railroads and eventually interstate highways, the federal government enabled the spread of the population and its economic dynamism across the continent. Projects like the Hoover Dam and agencies like the Tennessee Valley Authority brought electricity to underdeveloped regions.

From every angle available, the United States invested in the prosperity and opportunity of American citizens, recognizing that both a healthy democratic republic and a vibrant economy depended upon prosperity that was widely shared and available to all. The nation assumed an obligation to create opportunity and draw people to it, rather than lecture those who could not find it themselves. The Homestead Acts expanded the availability of land, first opened by President Lincoln, to once-excluded populations and made property ownership available to most Americans. Investments in the American education system—first universal public high school, and then universities—fostered skills to the benefit of both workers and their employers. Land-grant colleges formed a geographically dispersed network of institutions designed for under-served populations, and programs like the G.I. Bill made traditional institutions more accessible.

Restoring Economic Policy

Economic history is filled with policy successes and policy failures, and the American System is no exception. A tradition is not worthy of celebration based solely on its lineage. Nor do its occasional failures invalidate its overarching successes—much less justify a disavowal of the entire project. As Daniel Raymond observed, “The question, therefore, is not, and never will be, between law and no law, regulation and no regulation, but it must always be between the wisdom of different laws and different regulations.”18Daniel Raymond, The Elements of Political Economy (1823).

Yet the modern American right-of-center, rather than balance a worthy skepticism of government overreach with respect for an inherited approach to public policy, has forsaken that tradition—indeed, written it out of existence—in favor of free-market fundamentalism. That is neither conservative nor wise.

Leading “conservatives” now label any departure from laissez-faire as socialism or, at the very least, as a “hyphenated capitalism” that leads down the “road to socialism.”19Ambassador Nikki Haley, “This is No Time to Go Wobbly on Capitalism,” Wall Street Journal (February 26, 2020). They misunderstand not only the proper role of government in a functioning capitalist system, but the very traditions of American statecraft. If today’s critics are right about the role of government in a capitalist economy, then many of America’s greatest statesmen—even the nation’s and the Republican Party’s very founders—were “hyphenated capitalists” themselves. How, with such a heritage, did the United States get anywhere?

Conservative policymakers ought to study the American history of political economy. They should rediscover principles of public policy that are well-suited to contemporary challenges: that effective government is not only achievable with limited, constitutional powers, but can work alongside private industry to achieve national goals.

Economic stability, national security, widely shared prosperity, strong families, a pluralistic society—in short, the American way of life—are achievements plainly worth conserving. So is the only approach to economic policy that has ever proved capable of producing them.

Wells King
Wells King is the research director at American Compass.
@wellscking
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