Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Democratic versus Achievement Motives in American History

David M. Tucker. Mugwumps: Public Moralists of The Gilded Age. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1998. 139 pp.

David M. Tucker's Mugwumps: Public Moralists of the Gilded Age is an excellent overview of the Mugwumps. It is sympathetic to its subject, unlike others who have written about the Mugwumps. Phrases like "Old Right" abound in the post-war libertarian literature, but the image often is vague. Tucker's book shows that the 19th century classical liberals, known as independent Republicans, were former abolitionists, not bigots in any sense of the word (the few that turned out to be, such as Henry Adams ceased to be considered Mugwumps and became associated with Populism), and were very conscious of their libertarian ideology, their commitment to Adam Smith, the Manchester liberals and John Stuart Mill, with whom several corresponded. The Mugwumps were:

-A small movement, no larger than today's Libertarian Party as a percentage of the voting public, and probably smaller
-sharply differentiated from the two major parties in terms of their commitment to liberal or libertarian ideas, specifically tariff reduction (which the Democrats tended to support and the Republicans tended to oppose); hard money and the gold standard (which neither party really supported); and opposition to imperialism
-support for the newly formed (under the Pendleton Act) federal civil service, which they thought would end corruption in government and reduce the opportunity for spoils, which led the public to support corrupt government (in other words, they wanted to end special interest capture of government)

The book is very well written (although at times there could have been slightly better transitioning and linkage of ideas) and of serious interest to libertarians, conservatives, and those with an interest in the decline of morals in business and government.

Although the Mugwumps were the first post-industrial libertarian movement, they also were at the root of today's progressive-liberalism, as Richard Hofstadter has pointed out. The effectiveness of their tactics, the use of social control and groupthink to effectuate a uniform party platform, served as a model to the next generation's emphasis on big government, imperialism and state intervention in the economy. Most of all, Mugwumps pioneered the use of groupthink as a political tactic. This has been copied not only by the progressive-liberals but also by today's Libertarian Party, which borrows the Mugwumps' appellation for the Republican Party, "the party of principle".

Tucker's perspective on the Mugwumps is sharply from John R. Dobson's Politics in the Gilded Age which I blog here. Tucker has more respect for the Mugwumps.

David Riesmann has argued that in the twentieth century Americans turned from a 19th century inner directedness that involves a goal and future orientation to an other directedness that involves a focus on peers, influence from popular media, fashion and interpersonal relationships at work. But the tension between these two impulses was already evident in the 1870s.

Several of the Mugwumps, such as Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, sacrificed their Mugwump ideals for conformity to the Republicans' political demands. They refused to join the other Mugwumps in exiting the Republican Party in 1884. Both Roosevelt and Lodge had much more successful political careers than the other Mugwumps because they put politics over principle, and they did so by adopt the other-directed progressive-liberal ideas of the early twentieth century. Theodore Roosevelt may be thought of as the first other-directed American.

A few of the Mugwumps, such as Henry Adams, who rejected Mugwumpery in favor of anti-Semitism, Populism and free silver (Tucker suggests that the Adamses' exit from Mugwumpery was related to their failure in real estate speculation in Spokane and Kansas City and their hope for a silver inflation). Henry Adams became a Populist who blamed Jewish bankers for his business failings.

The most effective Mugwumps were those who played off the two-party system, favoring one or the other party depending on who was following the most libertarian course. They became famous for this in 1884, when they contributed to the defeat of James G. Blaine in favor of Grover Cleveland, who was a largely libertarian president.

The Mugwumps ran only two independent candidates in their roughly 35-year history: Horace Greeley of the Liberal Republicans in 1872 and John M. Palmer of the National Democrats in 1895. Neither fared well. There is a lesson for the Libertarian Party here. The LP would function more effectively as an election spoiler than as an independent political party.

The Mugwumps (or Independent Republicans) were mostly upper class northeasterners, mainly from New England and New York. They tended to have been educated in religious, Protestant schools and to have had a strong moral sense. Many were former abolitionists. They were not religious themselves, but their grounding and education was. They were concerned with the decay of morals in American politics, and were inclined to foresake personal gain and office on behalf of their ideals, which did not match their economic interests. In other words, many of them benefited from paper money and inflation, but they opposed it on moral grounds, and the same is true of tariffs. Many left wing historians, who lack grounding in economics and ethics, look for class or personal motives in the Mugwumps' position. Ironically, support for inflation, free silver, greenbacks and Keynesian economics is very much the position that favors the upper class, banking interests, Wall Street, hedge fund billionaires, large coroporations and corporate executvies. It was Theodore Roosevelt who benefited from his cynical adoption of progressive-liberalism, the ideology of the American upper class from 1900 to 2007. EL Godkin, Carl Schurz, Horace White and the other Mugwumps paid dearly for their idealistic commitment to morality in politics. The fact that historians have often treated them shabbily suggests shabbines in academia more than anything else.

The Independent Republicans had one advantage over today's libertarians and conservatives: the intellectual support of mainstream universities. Relatively few Americans were capable of thinking through monetary issues even in the 1870s. Today, probably even a smaller percentage of the population is willing to expend the effort to do so. However, when the Mugwumps could say that their ideas had the backing of Harvard economists, the public was much more likely to defer. In this sense, they provided a role model to today's progressive-liberals, who dominate our society through their control of higher education. This intrigues me because it suggests a tighter link between the ideology of higher education, economic interests and what Howard S. Katz calls "the paper aristocracy" than I used to think.

The Mugwumps had limited data on which to base their arguments, and they fell into a number of errors. The most grievous Mugwumps fell were their support for the establishment of the Federal Reserve Bank and their belief that the civil service would end special interest politics and government corruption. Their emphasis on the Fed came from three factors: (1) they believed that the Fed would be constrained by the gold standard, which Roosevelt abolished in the 1930s; (2) they believed that separating money from politics would reduce the temptation to inflate (they overrated the institutional separation of the Fed from Congress; (3) they did not anticipate Keynesian economics, which provided an ideological rationale for the inflationist view which (not to blame them, who could would have known?).

Their notions of morality led to their belief in free trade, the gold standard and honest government, notably via civil service reform. Their advocacy of sound money and free trade, which they explicitly linked to the elimination of special privilege, favoritism for the rich (the debtor class, according to their arguments, being the chief beneficiaries of paper money, then as now) was explicitly rooted in their moral sense. They saw individual achievement, self sufficiency and hard work as moral principles that protectionism and paper money would debase.

Then as now there were powerful forces arrayed against moralist and hard money positions. There was strong western agitation for greenbacks and then silver inflation by landowners (much as the subprime crisis today has been a strong motivation of reallocation of wealth to wealthy investment bankers and landowners), and politicians were inclined to support the demands for inflation. In fact, there were several greenback and free silver bills passed, that Mugwump agitation was able to stop, and some that the Mugwumps could not stop.

The Mugwumps saw the debate as one involving moral principle against personal gain. Those who favored personal gain over morals joined the regular party ranks. Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, are cited as two examples of reformers who chose to emphasize their careers as opposed to their morals. When James G. B

Gain in democracatic politics is linked to popular appeal. Hence other directedness results from focus on public opinion. However, the advances in American society came not from the political but from the creative, scientific, engineering and management fields, which do not depend on public opinion. Theodore Roosevelt was among the first other-directed, twentieth century men. In choosing personal gain and political advantage over moral belief, he set the stage for the progressive-liberalism of the twentieth century, its moral vacuity and the economic decline that will result from focus on relationships and opinion rather than achievement.

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