Liberal Hamiltonians (One Sect of) in “Vanity Fair” Get Whiskey Rebellion, Tea Party, Hamilton Himself Way Wrong

Or: How Liberalist Consensus Fails Both History and Politics

This is just classic:

With their steadfast resistance to taxes, their hostility toward central government, and their willingness to risk a national default, today’s Republican candidates tap into a different American tradition–one that begins not with tea but with whiskey: the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.

To understand that rebellion and why President George Washington was willing to send troops to put it down, go back to the early days of the Revolution and look at what really motivated the founders.

So runs the apparent thesis statement — the straw man, really, since “that rebellion,” supposedly so important to understand, almost never comes up again in the piece — of an essay by Simon Johnson and James Kwak, intended to criticize Tea Party history and economics, in the current issue of Vanity Fair. In the top-five “most popular” online VF pieces, the essay is a perfect example of its (to me) dispiriting type: seemingly learned, reasonable-sounding, liberal; presented for a general readership by noted thinkers; glib, complacent, superficial, and therefore fatally flawed to the point of being just flat-out wrong in its effort to examine both the American populism of the 18th century and today’s populism, as represented by the Tea Party and other current right-wing sensibilities. (Or, for that matter, left-wing sensibilities.)

As such, the piece distills (ha! ha!) all the many ways in which highly informed, well-regarded, no-doubt well-meaning authors can so easily, almost reflexively, abuse history, especially when it comes to finance and economics.

Especially distressing about the piece is how many details the authors can get right, obvious and unexciting details to any student of the period, while somehow managing to ignore the all-important historical context that would give the piece any useful meaning for general readers. So they get all the big stuff, and indeed a certain number of critical facts, wrong, and wrong in a damaging way. Even as they tell their story, purportedly imparting historical wisdom to help us understand current debates, Johnson and Kwak prevent us from engaging with the realities of that history, or with today’s political conflicts over public debt and taxes, their ostensible subjects.

The main idea of the piece, right enough as far as it goes and as far as I’m concerned (and hardly meant to provoke Vanity Fair‘s readership to any new thought): the Tea Party is wrong about the founding-era history on which its claims are based. The Tea Party and the “constitutional conservatives” think the founding was about disempowering government, keeping taxes miniscule, and having no national debt. It wasn’t.

Because yes, yes, it’s true, as the authors say: Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first treasury secretary, believed that a nation could thrive as such only if it enjoyed access to credit supported by reliable taxation. And yes: the Constitution enabled the Congress to tax, and the first Congress, advised by Hamilton, assumed all the state war debts in the federal one, levying taxes proposed by Hamilton to pay for the program. So yes: when Tea Party people say “the founders” excoriated debt and hated taxes, they’re not talking about Hamilton, or the Washington administration, or the first Congress, or even the Constitution as drafted, amended, and ratified.

Those observations are banal, but the piece is far worse than banal. The truisms lose all meaning when the authors try to develop their ideas both in terms of the founding period and in terms of today’s politics. Continue reading

Advertisements