Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Republicans' Whiggish Error

In Louis Hartz's Liberal Tradition in America* Hartz argues that all American ideology is ultimately liberal, to include the Progressives and the New Deal. Hartz's book was written right around the same time as William F. Buckley's God and Man at Yale. It would be interesting to hear how Hartz might have updated his argument in light of the predominance of European left wing and New Left ideology in today's universities. It is true that the elements of New Left ideology that seem to carry forward are in large part those that fit democratic liberalism, such as diversity. Nevertheless, it is also true that Americans have been increasingly indoctrinated in anti-liberal and anti-democratic rhetoric, such as support for ill-defined regulatory systems that benefit economic elites; emphasis on credentials developed by universities that economically support the same New Left ideologues; and a monetary system that is supportive of economic elites, to include the major universities, whose endowments have mushroomed under the Republicans, at the expense of the common working man, whose hourly wage has been decimated by the Keynesian economic policies that university professors have advocated since the 1930s.

Hartz's book is brilliant and perhaps it does not receive more attention is because of the increased emphasis on New Left solutions, and perhaps because he did not anticipate increased deference to elites by an American public that has been increasingly educated to do so. However, as a description of the main run of American history, to include the present, the book makes excellent points.

The history of the Whigs suggests why the Republican Party of the millennium has failed to capture the public's imagination. The Republicans cannot be an elitist party, that is, they cannot pander to the wealthy at the expense of the public. If they do the voters will, as they have, reject them. One of a number of turning points was Bill Frist's refusal to carry forward a law that would have limited federal support for states which permit private use eminent domain. Their failure do so in light of the case of New London v. Kelo captured the (in the early 19th century American sense) impulse of the Whigs.

In order to be successful, the Republicans must inspire the public with what Hartz calls the Alger myth. Americans are in large part desirous of economic opportunity. The Democrats have sacrificed the image of opportunity on the altar of special interest group politics and advocacy of wealth transfers to professional interest groups, real estate developers and Wall Street in the name of the poor. The Republicans cannot cloak the substance of their ideology in purely altruistic raiment because then America would have not two but one party, the Democratic. Nor can they, as they have done, adopt the 19th century Whiggish elitism that is contemptuous of the public. Rather, the Republicans must cloak their ideology in the raiment of economic opportunity. An ideology that capitalizes on such opportunity is believable only if it emphasizes and nurtures private property rights of individuals as against the state and special interests. As well, the Republicans must fathom the source of economic opportunity, which is free enterprise, without which entrepreneurs cannot execute new ideas.

Under George Bush and Bill Frist the Republican Party became a Whig Party, a party of economic elitism. The methodology it adopted was Federalist and Whiggish (in the nineteenth century American sense). It maintained and strengthened regulation; it supported central bank monetary expansion; and it sacrificed private property rights in the interest of frivolous, inept and too often corrupt big business, Wall Street and real estate schemes which have helped to bankrupt the nation.

Hamilton believed that there is a class of people, large commercial operators, who are best equipped to guide the economy. He was wrong. As all who have worked in the real world of industry know the best ideas come from the man or woman on the production line, not the executive. One example is that of Ray Kroc, the builder of McDonald's, who did not create most of the chief concepts that made McDonald's successful (with the exception of a strong emphasis on uniformity and quality of execution), from the concept of scientific management of fast food production to Ronald McDonald, to the firm's use of cash flows, to real estate investment in the stores, to the Big Mac to the Filet O Fish, almost all of McDonald's chief ideas came from franchisees or Kroc's employees.

If so, then why have the Republicans chosen to revert to the Hamiltonian fantasy of a big business elite that is able to guide the economy with freshly minted Federal Reserve counterfeit rather than the reality that the development of new ideas depends on entrepreneurs? The Kelo case brought the Republicans' Whiggish error home.

To quote Hartz (pp. 94-5):

"American Whiggery...could have transformed the very liability of the American liberal community into a tremendous asset. For if the American democrat was unconquerable, he was so only because he shared the liberal norm. And this meant two things: one, that he was not a real threat to Whiggery; and two, that Whiggery had much to offer him in the way of feeding his capitalist impulse. Thus what Whiggery should have done, instead of opposing the American democrat, was to ally itself with him...It should have made a big issue out of the unity of American life, the fact that all Americans were bitten with the capitalist ethos which it was trying to foster. It should, in other words, have developed some sort of theory of democratic capitalism which fit the Tocquevillian facts of American life.

"But this, as we know, is precisely what Whiggery failed to do until it saw the light in 1840, and indeed, in any large sense until the post-Civil War days of Horatio Alger and Andrew Carnegie. Over most of its early history, it pursued a thoroughly European policy, and instead of emphasizing what it had in common with the American democrat, it emphasized precisely what it did not have in common with him. Instead of wooing this giant, it chose, quite without any weapons, to fight him. This would be a high species of political heroism were it not associated with such massive empirical blindness. One can admire a man who will not truckle to the mob, even though the mob is sure to beat him, provided there is actually a mob in the first place. But in America there was no mob: the American democrat was as liberal as the Whigs who denounced him. Consequently the suicidal grandeur of Fisher Ames is tinged with a type of stupidity which makes admiration difficult. At best one can find in the Whigs a kind of quixotic pathos....They pursue the usual conservative strategies but are baffled and dumbfounded at every turn..."

*Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1955.

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