The next two Republican presidential debates, including this evening’s, will focus on the economy, a testimony to the weakness of our recovery from the 2007-2009 financial crisis, the continued relevance of James Carville’s campaign advice to Bill Clinton over 20 years ago (“It’s the economy, stupid!”), and the all-but-universal assumption that American Presidents can, should, and must create the conditions for widespread prosperity.
Each candidate, we may be sure, will put forward an economic plan. And the proposals they will offer—a simplified, flatter tax code, a balanced budget, less burdensome regulation, support for the on-demand economy—would be steps in the right direction. Nevertheless, regardless of which Republican emerges as the party’s 2016 nominee, he (or she) will struggle to make a case against the Democrats’ would-be economist-in-chief, Hillary Clinton, on a political and economic playing field that has been defined, ever since Harold Lasswell used the phrase in the 1930s, by “who gets what, when, and how.”
The basic Democratic playbook for presidential elections is well known: Republicans foul up the economy with their reckless tax cuts and/or deficit spending and deregulation (especially in the financial services industry), leaving Democrats to clean up the mess. After all, the last four recessions, going back to the early 1980s, have begun on the Republicans’ watch. There are of course, more accurate ways to tell the economic history of the last three decades. But a better place for Republicans to begin is by taking a wider view of the foundations of prosperity, in the spirit of the author of Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville.
In our earlier post we noted Tocqueville’s hope to “instruct,” “revive,” “purify,” “regulate,” and “modify” the democracy emerging in France with lessons gathered from America’s longer democratic experience. Tocqueville begins this project in a seemingly unlikely place, though one that helped define the science of politics in his own day: with an examination of the “Exterior Configuration of North America”—that is, with a geography lesson examining the interplay of the natural environment and political life.
The American Romantics were a strong literary and artistic movement when Tocqueville came to the United States in 1831, but it is a less than romantic portrait he paints of the area of the Western hemisphere on which it sits. Whereas South America “seemed prepared for the needs of man or planned for his pleasures” (though “death was hidden under this brilliant cloak”), the rocky, sandy eastern seaboard of North America “presented another appearance: everything there was grave, serious, solemn. You could have said that it had been created to become the domain of the mind as the other was to be the dwelling place of the senses.”
By the time Tocqueville came to the New World, the domain of the intellect had far outstripped the domain of the senses in both political freedom and economic prosperity. The United States had also, by then, expanded to include the fertile Mississippi Valley, “the most magnificent dwelling place ever prepared by God for human habitation,” but “it can be said that it is still only a vast wilderness.” Even though, “almost in secret,” the “true elements of a great people to whom the future of the continent no doubt belongs” had begun to “gather” there, this fertility could not explain the early success of the United States.
The surprising conclusion, rather, was that less auspicious natural conditions had produced more auspicious circumstances for human flourishing. This did not mean that the best context for human flourishing would be found in the oppressive heat of a vast desert or the frozen wastelands of the arctic, but it did point to an important quality of human nature: that our best efforts are most often called forth when we face difficult but not overwhelming obstacles: “by the sweat of your face, you shall eat bread.”
Republican candidates would do well to digest and apply two important lessons from this analysis.
First, American prosperity never has depended on and never will depend on its political leaders’ sharing economic recipes with the American people. Conservatives, at least, should push back against the expert-friendly hyper-simplification of our almost infinitely complex economic order.
Second, while there may be honor among thieves, organized stealing is not a sustainable business model for nations. The most popular economic nostrum of the recent past—that it’s economically advantageous to take from Peter to pay Paul—has convinced many that their interests are better served by playing the part of the parasitical Paul than the productive Peter. The result has been to make prosperity too easy for some and too difficult for others.
It is good to oppose, on economic grounds, “too big to fail,” the Affordable Care Act, the Export-Import Bank, blank-check public finance, and unsound monetary policy. But it is more important to show why and how the principles on which these policies rest undermine political justice.
Thomas Jefferson captured the essence of Tocqueville’s argument in his First Inaugural Address. After counting America’s geographic (a vast continent far from Europe), social (equal opportunity), cultural (diverse Christian heritage), and divine (Providential care) “blessings,” our third President asked: “What more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people?”
Still one thing more, fellow-citizens—a wise and frugal government which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.
The road to prosperity, it turns out, runs straightest through a path cleared by constitutional liberalism and self-government. From the colonial period down to the present day, Americans have generally had the natural spur and the legal means to pursue a happiness that reaches beyond merely material success. The Republican candidates would not only play against political (stereo)type, but live up to the principles of their party’s great name if their ambition were to restore this—and not just their reputations as armchair economists.