Sunday, January 20, 2008

Gerald W. McFarland's Mugwumps, Morals and Politics, 1884-1920

Gerald W. McFarland. Mugwumps, Morals and Politics 1884-1920. Amherst, Ma: University of Massachusetts Press, 1975. 291 pages.

Gerald W. McFarland's Mugwumps, Morals and Politics 1884-1920 (Amherst, MA.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1975) is a well-researched, well-written and scholarly book. In contrast to David M. Tucker's Mugwumps: Public Moralists of the Gilded Age and John M. Dobson's Politics in the Gilded Age: A New Perspective on Reform McFarland combines a quantitative analysis with his historical narrative; focuses on the later Mugwumps (the narrative ends in 1920); and reviews a wider range of activities than Tucker, who focuses on the ideology of key Mugwumps, and Dobson, who focuses on politics. The Mugwumps were, in McFarland's book, a broader movement than in Tucker's, although Tucker's perspective is better because it clarifies the original Mugwumps' purposes.

McFarland does not consider that the Mugwumps may have been ideologues, motivated by belief in science and morality. Rather, McFarland suggests at several points that the economics of the Mugwumps was "derivative" and motivated by class interest or erroneous thinking. Not that he discounts their ideology entirely, but he does not stress it. It would seem that if the Mugwumps indeed spent a large portion of their time fighting for the gold standard, free trade and efficient government, then they held an underlying belief system to which they were emotionally committed. The gold standard is not, as McFarland seems to think, a silly, abstract idea. Thus, I prefer Tucker's purpose-driven or teleological perspective to McFarland's. But McFarland's book is excellent nonetheless.

McFarland's logic can be equally applied to the Progressives, who followed the Mugwumps by a generation. The leading Progressives were upper class and some were former Mugwumps. Many were professionals. Many were business executives. For instance, the Roosevelts were from a wealthy background. The Progressives' ideas were certainly derivative, in part based on 17th century Mercantilism and in part based on Bismarck's welfare state, which itself was derivative of feudalism. The former Mugwumps, such as Theodore Roosevelt, Simeon Baldwin (who adopted a modest Progressive program into his gubernatorial administration) and Louis Brandeis, who transformed themselves into regular Republicans and then Progressives benefited from their beliefs professionally much more than did most of the Mugwumps. Progressivism advocated the creation of commissions, professional jobs, regulations and the like that served the narrow interests not only of professionals, but of big business as well.

Some of the Mugwumps began to gradually transform into Progressives by the 1890s. McFarland finds that 40% of the Mugwumps never adopted Progressivism, 27% adopted one or more Progressive ideas (many of which were extensions of Mugwumpery involving improving government) and only 33% became outright Progressives. Some of the Mugwumps, such as Josiah Quincy, mayor of Boston, adopted socialist ideas. Perhaps not coincidentally, Quincy was one of the few Mugwumps associated with corruption and political spoilsmanship.

When progressive ideas confronted the Mugwumps, their professional interests likely conflicted with their classical liberal ideology. In other words, the spoils from Progressivism were probably greater than the spoils from classical liberalism. Outside of the emphasis on professionalization (which includes establishing the professions in which many of them worked as well as rationalizing government) the classical liberal ideology never served their eonomic interests, so if the Mugwumps were purely an economic interest group they might as well have dropped classical liberalism in the first place and become another interest group pleading for favors from the Stalwarts or Halfbreeds (supporters and opponents of President Grant). This is a problem for the view that classical liberalism served the Mugwumps' economic interests.

The economic philosophy that best served upper class investors and real estate holders was Populism, but this point seems to escape McFarland, or at least he deemphasizes it. Similarly, although Wilson adopted the Federal Reserve Bank in 1913 and the Federal Trade Commission, an anti-trust measure, in 1914, neither of these were viewed as radically progressive. Many Mugwumps supported the Fed because they believed that removing control of money from the political process would rationalize it. They could not anticipate widespread acceptance of Populism via Keynesian economics in the 1930s and Roosevelt's ending of the gold standard in the 1930s.

But Wilson became much more progressive when he realized that he needed to win over the progressive wing of the Democratic and Republican Party for the 1916 election. Thus, political opportunism as much as anything can explain Progressivism's successes, for example Wilson's adoption of it. Opportunism applies less to Mugwumpery than to Progressivism, for the Mugwumps had little to gain from bolting or from supporting classical liberalism. Few were factory owners and many were investors. Opposition to labor unions would have been much less important to them than support for the gold standard (the gold standard hurt speculators because it resulted in deflation). Yet, they supported the gold standard, which was not beneficial to them economically.

What destroyed Mugwump individualist-liberalism was the wresting of scientific blief from classical liberalism that occurred in universities. Richard T. Ely's establishment of the American Economics Association in the 1890s seriously damaged the individualist-liberal Mugwump movement. They could no longer say that "science" supported their moral views. Although von Mises offered an alternative perspective beginning in the 1920s as did Hayek in the 1940s and Friedman in the 1960s, mainstream academics have emphasized market failure since the 1890s. This made it much more difficult for Mugwumps and later conservatives and libertarians to defend their views.

McFarland's quantitative descriptions of the Mugwumps are useful, although they would have been improved had they been hypothesis or theory driven. The findings that the Mugwumps were almost entirely college graduates (in an era when only two percent of the public graduated from college); that they were not the super-rich millionaires like Jay Gould associated with the regular Republicans (and that a smaller percentage of Mugwumps were millionaires than were the regular Republicans who attended fundraisers); that the Mugwumps came from well-to-do ancestries; and that they were mostly professionals involved in nascent professions attempting to establish themselves (professors, librarians) are interesting but not powerful (i.e., they do not enable us to reject Tucker's null hypothesis that they were morally and ideologically driven).

It seems that the transformation of a third of the Mugwumps from classical liberals to Progressives is linked to their gradual recognition that to win power they needed to one-up the political machines in the cities, which had traditionally provided jobs and benefits to immigrants and the poor. The way to do this, some Mugwumps began to realize in the 1890s, was to provide benefits to the working class that superseded the machines' paternalistic and spoils-based approach. Progressivism was thus a way to wrest power from the political machines by replacing locally-based paternalism with nationally based paternalism. Thus, the New Deal was the logical extension of progressivism, not because of ideology, but from the standpoint of obtaining power and utilizing programs to win power.

The machines began to realize that the Progressives' strategy worked, and responded by tentatively adopting the Progressives' reform ideas. Charles (Silent Charlie) Murphy, the boss of Tammany Hall from the 1890s to the 1920s began to support reform-oriented candidates as early as 1903. Ultimately, Murphy supported Al Smith for Governor of New York, and it was Smith who conceptualized the framework that became the New Deal. Smith was a Tammany Hall man. Franklin D. Roosevelt succeeded Smith as governor of New York, and when he was president in the 1930s adopted Smith's program on the national level.

Thus, progressivism was the nationalization of political bossism. Roosevelt never addressed urban corruption, which would have been a chief Mugwump concern. Tammany Hall was destroyed by the fusion (Republican) mayoralty of Fiorello Laguardia, but it is not clear that this completely eliminated corruption. Progressive and New Deal administrators like Robert Moses, who admittedly was more effective than prior generations' administrations, "got things done" at a very high cost to poor New Yorkers. The progressives' and New Deal liberals' control of New York from the Laguardia administration through John Lindsay resulted in the city's near bankruptcy (saved by Felix Rohatyn and some financial maneuvering), a result that did not attend the political bossism of the nineteenth century.

A useful point that McFarland makes is on p. 113 in his discussion of Robert Treat Paine, a philanthropist and attorney from Boston:

"Paine was a Social Gospel Episcopalian--not a reform type that would dominate liberal circles after the New Deal, perhaps, but a type that played a major role in the incipient social progressivism of the 1890s."

Likewise, McFarland notes (p. 103-4):

"One of the foremost spokesmen for social progressivism was R. Fulton Cutting, a Mugwump who served as chairman of the Citizens' Union...Cutting was descended from Robert Livingston and Robert Fulton and had inherited a large fortune through his family connections...

"In a speech...Cutting denounced past reform movements for savoring 'more of Oligarchy than Democracy'. Patronizing appeals for civic morality had met with limited success, he believed, because reformers made no effort to make city government important to the average voter...As a advocate of Social Gospel Christianity, Cutting predicted that the twentieth century would produce a broad trend toward expanded government social and economic programs: "There is a swelling tide of human brotherhood that seeks to expose itself through Democratic institutions and the religion of the Twentieth Century is destined to employe Government as one of its principal instrumentalities for the solution of social issues."

Cutting said so in 1901. What is revealing in the cases of Paine and Cutting is that (1) they were upper class; (2) they were devout Protestants of the Social Gospel type; (3) they had seen the Mugwumps' reform ideas frequently defeated by corrupt political machines that provided benefits to immigrants and the poor; (4)they believed that they found a way to implement both their Christian beliefs and their interest in reform.

As with any effective ideology, the Paine/Cutting view combined a strategy for obtaining power with a belief that the strategy is morally right. More than 100 years later, Mike Huckabee continues to reflect this perspective, which reflected the views of a segment the Republican Party in 1901.

Those who believe in individualist-liberal ideas, the economics of Mill and Smith, and see progressive-liberalism as a reactionary, poverty-generating system that harms citizens and reflects anything but love, need to make the case that classical liberalism is humane and helps the poor while government does not. As well, the reform of universities to regain a place for classical liberal ideas is crucial. The mass media lacks the theoretical grounding to provide a foundation for a successful reversal of progressive-liberal domination.

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