If Only: the Founders and Income Inequality

Bill Chapman called my attention to an interesting Newsweek piece by David Cay Johnston entitled Why Thomas Jefferson Favored Profit Sharing, reporting on new research by Joseph R. Blasi and Douglas L. Kruse of Rutgers and Richard B. Freeman of Harvard, as well as on Johnston’s own research, to describe

… the future envisioned by the framers more than two centuries ago – an America in which every worker is a capitalist.

Possibly unsurprisingly, I question that conclusion about the framers’ vision. Some back-and-forth on Twitter leads me to clarify here my dissent from Johnston’s article.

This is the situation — classic, at this point, for me — in which I might agree with an author about the kinds of things we ought to be doing now do encourage far greater economic equality but disagree that there’s any realistic hope of finding support for those things in the thinking of our founders. That’s in part because I recoil, and possibly too hard by now, from what has come to seem to me a compulsive troping by some progressives toward the kinds of American-essentialist, founder-invoking gestures that the right wing routinely uses, possibly to the greater good of their propaganda, and always to the detriment of realism about our history as a people.

The same damage is done by liberals, and in the liberal case I think it’s worse. For while it might be nice to believe, I guess, that if we could only get back to the vision bequeathed us by our founders, progressive values would prevail and the greater good be achieved, that’s way too simple, and too simple in a way that I think undermines both our understanding of where we come from and any hope we may have for where we might be able to go. As usual, the only hope I see lies in complication.

The Johnston piece opens by quoting Washington, Adams, Madison, and Hamilton on such things as the importance of “equal distribution of property” (Washington); fear of “the rich and the proud” destroying “all the equality and liberty” (Adams); a hope that government would defeat “an immoderate, and especially unmerited, accumulation of riches” (Madison); and expectations of abuse “whenever a discretionary power is lodged in any set of men over the property of their neighbors” (Hamilton). These are familiar remarks. In the quote battles waged so hard online, they can always be countered with opposing thoughts from the same men, which can in turn always be countered by quotes more like these, and so on.

Johnston, however, uses this collection of quotations to assert that the equality thing is the one thing the warring founders agreed on. Context is everything, and I’d suggest that these quotations instead indicate that the founders all participated in what was then a familiar, even reflexive Whiggish rhetoric, appealing to an ideal of rough equality of wealth as a key to stability. Such ideas are loose enough in any event, and in the case of some of the founders’ visions for America, fantastical enough, to have permitted these men lifestyles of supreme fabulousness while inspiring them to oppose at every turn the efforts of organized labor (yes, it existed then) to gain access to political power and use it to equalize wealth via representative government. Continue reading

The Founders vs. American Democracy

Here’s another comment that helps refine the discussion I’m interested in, this time posted on New Deal 2.0 in response to my final “Founding Finance” post there:

I am curious where Jefferson (and for that matter Madison, Adams, Washington, and the other main framers) spoke hesitantly about democracy, the people, and the state legislatures. Conservatives would be surprised and it would undermine their ‘rely only on the framers’ approach.

Secondly, it would be interesting to see what the regulators and radical democrats philosophy on private property. If the elite were concerned about the violation of natural rights against private property when it came to paper emissions, what was the radicals’ response? Did they have a philosophy when the constitution was being debated?
Posted by Brian | May 11th, 2011 at 5:31 pm

Paraphrasing my response posted there: Heavy questions, superficially and briefly addressed here. I see Jefferson on democracy as a tricky issue. Continue reading

Is Social Democracy French?

not a whiskey rebel

Wow. In the comment thread on Naked Capitalism, regarding my final New Deal 2.0 “Founding Finance” post, the commenter Peripheral Visionary offers the best-informed, most gracefully and concisely written summary I’ve ever seen of the classic interpretation of the American founding from which my work is precisely intended to dissent. This is so commonly believed, so perfectly put, and so utterly the reverse of what I’ve come to think that I quote it at length:

An interesting assessment, and I generally agree that the Founders’ views were quite complex and varied, and not easily summarized.

It needs to be pointed out, however, that social democracy ultimately had its roots, not in the American revolutionary state, but in the French revolutionary state. That explains its particular emphasis on class, and its focus on the division between capital and labor; both were key features of Western Europe, but not as prevalent features of the American state, which was dominated by independent farmers and craftsmen (hence, with capital in many if not most instances being owned by labor, and therefore with only vaguely-defined class distinctions, the South being the major exception).

In the founding American state, the route to relief of poverty was not through the state (and it is difficult to believe such a thing would even have been considered), but rather through the frontier. The frontier served as an enabler of the otherwise disempowered, who by way of the homestead acts could secure property, independence, and the means of supporting themselves (all at the expense of Native Americans, of course–but then, redistribution programs are zero-sum and therefore always come at a cost to someone else). That “outlet” consistently relieved pressure on the impoverished areas of the East and the South, which would go a long way toward explaining why socialism gained little traction in the 19th Century. Only in the 20th Century, with the last of the frontier exhausted, could socialist tendencies, in the form of social progressivism, gain traction. When Steinbeck’s Joad family goes west in the California of the 1930′s, they find an oppressive class state; had they gone west just fifty years earlier, they would have found open land and opportunity.

That’s the reading that I think a realistic look at finance in the founding period turns upside down.

For example: No, social democracy does not have ultimate roots in the French revolutionary state. For better and for worse, the French revolutionary state had roots in the Pennsylvania revolutionary state. Continue reading

Thomas Paine and the Democratic Revolutionaries: Egypt 2011, America 1776

To the young democratic resisters in Egypt, some of whom I’ve heard saying in street interviews that they admire the American Revolution, I want to say something complicating. (No, I don’t literally think they’re taking time out of changing their country and the world to follow my blog — but hey, you never know!) This: It’s a somewhat bleak fact that the only successful American founding-era revolution for democracy occurred in Pennsylvania in 1776 — and that wasn’t the Continental Congress’s declaring independence from England.

This may be annoying. There may be times for believing in the big, uncomplicated American narratives, and this may be one of them. But Egyptians want democracy, and our famous Declaration was not a declaration for democracy, and since that’s what my books are about, I’m seeing events in Egypt a certain way.

(For what it’s worth, that is. Back when I was shouting and waving my fist in the steet, I didn’t live in a military dictatorship. And I sure didn’t go back the next day to sweep up. Respect.)

Anyway, the real 1776 democratic revolution I’m talking about is at once an inspiring and a cautionary one for worldwide democratic revolutions today.

I should note that everything I know about politics in Egypt I’ve learned from the papers and the radio in the past month. Like so many others, I’ve followed the uprising there with bated breath because of its nonviolence and the strange — possibly unique? — relationship of the military to both the protestors and the regime. With everyone else, I await next steps. Will a government that has been a military one for generations actually enable real elections and subordinate the military to representative civilian authority? Maybe. But if so, the ironies will be many. BBC and others have reported that it is the younger officer corps (not young, younger) that groks the civilian-control thing — and that’s because unlike their Soviet-tutored elders, they’ve grown up under the influence of the U.S. alliance and studied in our war colleges. That would mean our long alliance with a military dictatorship may have had a liberalizing influence on its military. Hm.

There are of course a host of parallels and precedents in U.S. revolutionary history that might provide both inspiration and warning for modern democratic movements. George Washington, a general, did famously hand over the reins of power after his presidency. Of course, he’d been elected in the first place (though not with any real competition). And the army he’d once led had been disbanded some years earlier. Which didn’t stop his administration from flirting, putting it politely, with militarism. And nobody has ever been more sick of being president than George Washington. . . Still, when it comes to subordinating the military to the civilian authority, we may hope that Egyptian generals would consider emulating both the myth and the reality of our American Cincinnattus’s republican integrity.

That was a republican integrity, though, not a democratic one. Washington was no believer in democracy. Nor were any of the other famous founders. And Egyptians want democracy. So while the generals should follow Washington’s example, young people seeking inspiration for democracy in the American revolutionary period need to look to figures who do not show up in certified histories of the American Revolution.

Well, one of them does, so let’s start with him: Paine. Continue reading

Amendments, mobs, God, rights, guns, Pilgrims, Adams, etc.

Responding here to a bunch of comments posted during recent months, since I don’t like burying and scattering the discussion:

Elites versus the crowd. Working backward and starting with lacithedog’s comment on my “New Deal 2.0″ post. Laciethedog is reading Declaration and comments further on the “New Deal” post here. I appreciate the interest and support. And I have a concern about the idea that the founding fathers “incited the masses” and then found “the mob” hard to control. In both Declaration and that “New Deal” post, I do discuss tensions — indeed, outright enmity, at times — between the adherents of populist democracy and the adherents of republican liberty who banded together to defeat reconciliation with England in 1776. But I think I also show that I see the alliance as a matter of mutual manipulation, with ordinary people possessing plenty of initiative, intelligence, and what the historians call “agency,” and not of a mindless mob being incited and then imperfectly controlled by elites. Not sure if laciethedog is thinking of it quite that way, but the terminology gives me pause.

War on Christmas. Laciethedog also comments on my “war on Christmas” post. Point taken. Can’t agree that anything would have made either Adams literally a Tory — but even without a time machine, John Adams’s “Good God!” on reading the radically democratic PA Constitution of 1776 (and his predicting that PA would soon want George III back), and Samuel’s calling for the death penalty for the so-called Shays rebels, made many at the time think the Adamses and others had reverted to a kind of Tory authoritarianism. Neither Samuel’s nor John’s disgust with the populism they’d collaborated with in 1776 represents a reversion, however — which is really the well-taken point of laciethedog’s comment. While they differed in influences, emphases, and personal styles, both Adamses remained pretty consistent in their elite Whig republicanism throughout the period. Whigs were not democrats.

Socialist Pilgrims. Michael Pichowsky makes a thought-provoking comment regarding my post on the “Socialist Pilgrim” flap. But even given all of Pichowsky’s nuanced understanding of the Calvinist-socialist problem, I’m still unconvinced that it’s fair to see the very specific Plymouth experience as revealing some big truth about the virtues of free markets versus a centrally planned economy. Bradford does seem to have been reading the lesson pretty much that way, though.

Inalienable rights and God. My Constitution posts are leading me toward an article that would qualify as something other than a post, more like what I call a “work” in this post — whether I end up publishing it here, on another blog, or in a magazine. Interesting comments in this regard included Martin’s, of What Would the Founders Think?. Martin raises the issue of where the in- or un-alienable rights come from and says that Glenn Beck gets it right: from God. Liberal readers may be surprised to hear me say that, in this context, I agree: Continue reading

John Adams the Yankee v. Samuel Adams the Puritan

Over at American Creation, there are a couple of related posts from the always thought-provoking Jonathan Rowe on topics with great appeal for me. One is a link to an older post, on Rowe’s other site The One Best Way, about John Adams’s liberal ideas on religion; the other is on the illiberality of the Puritan tradition that Adams sprang from.

It’s a tradition I admire in certain ways, intellectually, so it’s always good to get a reminder, which Rowe gives in the piece, of the Taliban-like nature of its criminal code. In writing about the fallacy of associating ideas in the Mayflower Compact, say, with ideas in the Declaration of Independence — something Rowe rightly says “Christian Americanists” (and I’d add liberal, consensus-oriented history teachers) are wont to do — he has fun with the stark fact that Adams’s thoughts on religion would have gotten Adams executed in Puritan New England. Good stuff, just the kind of conflict people should be entertained and enlightened by thinking about.

Rowe’s discussion throws new light for me on the importance of Samuel Adams, not John, in bringing about American independence in 1776, and why that importance has been so little explored in a realistic way. That’s what I do explore in Declaration, and an important part of that story turns on the strange partnership between Samuel and John, with John then the junior player, beginning to emerge.

The religious differences between them are only implicit in the book. But now I think it would have been a good move to bring those differences out more fully, as part of my Boston back-story chapter. Samuel’s deep roots in Puritan thinking are key to my story — he famously wanted to make New England a “Christian Sparta.” But I glossed over John’s rationalist, skeptical, possibly unitarian religious leanings, although they are part and parcel of something I did try to bring to life, his more pragmatic approach to politics, his becoming a man of New England’s liberal future, a Yankee, not a Puritan.

It’s occurred to me so many times, and now in a newly focused way, that establishment history has favored the liberal, rationalist, unitarian, Deist, tolerant (yet more or less observant) founders like Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, Washington, and John Adams, and has never known what to do with the illiberal ones, like Samuel Adams. Paine is another example. When it comes to supposed outliers like them, religion and politics meet strangely in historiography. And founding history gets distorted. Continue reading

Correction to the Wall Street Journal Review of “Declaration”

Delighted to have the WSJ review over the holiday weekend, but there’s a fact that needs correcting, so I’ve done so in a letter to the editor, published in today’s edition. The gist:

Mr. Bakshian cites John Adams … quoting the famous letter to Abigail Adams in which John predicts that America’s independence will one day be celebrated with parades, bonfires, etc. … That letter was written on July 3, 1776, and refers not to the document adopted on July 4, but to Richard Henry Lee’s resolution for independence, which had passed July 2, and which in fact made America independent.

I also note that Adams called the July 2 resolution a “declaration,” causing later confusion.