Hamiltonians For Hoover

One of the oldest memes for understanding the perpetual debate in American politics over the role of government is that of the centralizing Hamiltonian tradition and the decentralizing Jeffersonian tradition. But now comes David Brooks (one of the progenitors of the vague, pseudo-Hamiltonian “national greatness conservatism” of the late 1990s) to tell us that modern liberalism has broken the mold by exceeding the very limits on federal power that the arch-centralizer Hamilton himself insisted on, and that Americans faithfully followed until the 20th century, when everything began to go to hell.

[T]he federal role has historically been sharply limited. The man who initiated that role, Alexander Hamilton, was a nationalist. His primary goal was to enhance national power and eminence, not to make individuals rich or equal.

This version of economic nationalism meant that he and the people who followed in his path — the Whigs, the early Republicans and the early progressives — focused on long-term structural development, not on providing jobs right now. They had their sights on the horizon, building the infrastructure, education and research facilities required for future greatness. This nationalism also led generations of leaders to assume that there is a rough harmony of interests between capital and labor. People in this tradition reject efforts to divide the country between haves and have-nots.

Finally, this nationalism meant that policy emphasized dynamism, and opportunity more than security, equality and comfort. While European governments in the 19th and early 20th centuries focused on protecting producers and workers, the U.S. government focused more on innovation and education.

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

[T]his Hamiltonian approach has been largely abandoned. The abandonment came in three phases. First, the progressive era. The progressives were right to increase regulations to protect workers and consumers. But the late progressives had excessive faith in the power of government planners to rationalize national life. This was antithetical to the Hamiltonian tradition, which was much more skeptical about how much we can know and much more respectful toward the complexity of the world.

Second, the New Deal. Franklin Roosevelt was right to energetically respond to the Depression. But the New Deal’s dictum — that people don’t eat in the long run; they eat every day — was eventually corrosive. Politicians since have paid less attention to long-term structures and more to how many jobs they “create” in a specific month. Americans have been corrupted by the allure of debt, sacrificing future development for the sake of present spending and tax cuts.

Third, the Great Society. Lyndon Johnson was right to use government to do more to protect Americans from the vicissitudes of capitalism. But he made a series of open-ended promises, especially on health care. He tried to bind voters to the Democratic Party with a web of middle-class subsidies.

And here, of course, comes the clincher, where Brooks rationalizes today’s Republican anti-governent craziness as a sad but unevitable product of Democratic overreaching:

[The] balanced governing philosophy was destroyed gradually over the 20th century, before the Tea Party was even in utero. As government excessively overreached, Republicans became excessively antigovernment.

So the beautiful constitutional design that prevailed when women and southern African-Americans couldn’t vote (or for that matter, much earn a living) and working people were quasi-serfs was ruined, and it’s taking an overreaction to re-achieve the kind of balance that a proper Hamiltonianism–you know, the Hamiltonianism of David Brooks, or perhaps Mitt Romney–would achieve. Maybe women and minorities can’t be disenfranchised, but at least we can “reform entitlements” and get rid of labor unions, right?

David Brooks has always been a master at redefining “the center” to coincide with his own views, and at identifying the immediate needs of the country with the tactical positions of the Republican Party. But this takes the cake: Republicans–the sane, non-Tea Party Republicans–are today’s true Hamiltonians! Those wanting a vigorous, proud politics of common good should be pushing the Ryan Budget, lest the excesses of 20th century liberalism unleash the Jeffersonian Tea Party furies. If there existed an ideological Olympics with a gymnastics competition, Brooks would be the gold medal winner time and time again.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.