The Economic Founding Fathers
The Economic Mind in American Civilization: 1606-1865.
by Joseph Dorfman.
New York, Viking, 1946. Two Volumes. $7.50.
As America moves toward its “manifest destiny,” its statesmen and thinkers are striving to redefine a sense of national interests and national ideals so as to present some coherent image to the world and to the historians of the future who will chart the lifelines of empire. There has been an agitated quest for an American heritage. The past few years have seen a search for American roots, a reawakened national consciousness, and a carrying forward into our times of the ideas of many early Americans.
Those who seek these facades for faith will find little reward in Professor Dorfman’s book even though it represents the most comprehensive dredging of the American economic mind. The ethical-culture liberal who would seek out only ideals, and the cynical, hard conservative who would search the past for a few phrases to buttress a position that even early conservatives would find untenable, are both doomed to disappointment. In fact one liberal reviewer has vented his disappointment with the moan that the book fails to offer us a “useable past.”
Mr. Dorfman has confined himself strictly to scholarship, eschewing synthesis or evaluation—though these may be intended for the later promised volumes. The study is not constructed within a scaffolding of problems; nor does it attempt to read an “economic chain of being”; it sticks to a straight chronological rendering of the writings of Americans on economic affairs. In straightforward manner Professor Dorfman has set forth the views of different men, in their own context; which is an important contribution at a time hen so many ideas and phrases are being torn from their contexts in the past in order to construct myths. In this simple and honest account, he has given us some fresh views of such notable figures as Roger Williams, William Penn, Benjamin Franklin, Tom Paine, and John Adams—who in many ways appears as one of the most brilliant and even appealing of the early conservatives. Professor Dorfman sees them as men of body as well as spirit, concerned not only with freedom of conscience, but property and order.
The interesting fact that emerges is not their differences but their common preoccupation with the conditions of social stability and their insistence that property was a necessary factor in that stability. (Though considered a conservative notion today, in subtle fashion there is a distinct libertarian flavor to the insistence on property as a condition for freedom; it is the maintenance of property that prevents the alienation from work and the loss of independence so characteristic of our time.) They shared the common platform, too, of economic and political liberalism that saw freedom as possible only in a system of economic and political atomism, a condition in which no man could dominate another. This economic liberalism was not in Adams, as it was later in Mill, coextensive with democracy, or the existence of a mass society.
The crucial issue of the economic mind has been posed implicitly by Dorfman’s master, Thorstein Veblen. In Veblen’s complex mirroring of the grossness of modem life, the question emerges: how were the powerful psychological sanctions of puritanism, the norms of conduct which shaped capitalist acquisitiveness, so altered or thrust aside as to permit the easy rise of the gilded age of conspicuous consumption? This dialectical problem frames a whole series of questions, some of which we can pose as follows:
How did the Puritan emphasis that “in the absence of true religion men fail to observe true order and obedience each in their degree and become excessively worldly-minded and self-seeking” finally transform itself into a sanction for the wordly accumulation of wealth?
How did the religious hierarchial conception of “order and obedience” (which, as Dorfman points out, permeated all colonial conceptions) become translated into a creed of equality of opportunity and free social mobility and in turn succumb to a hardening social stratification?
How did the belief in order and in obedience to authority sanction a revolution against authority, and how could it then be used to denounce further revolution against the newly constituted authority?
What intellectual and economic process allowed the plea for religious toleration from England to be used in attacks against dissenters here?
How could the rationalizations of the colonists’ bitter attack on mercantilism be later used by them to create a policy of protectionism?
How was the unity of social thought that characterized the 8th century fragmented and channelized into the isolated streams of today?
Why was the type of economic thinking rooted in matters of practical policy replaced by economic science which, in its adherence to classical theory, shows such little touch with reality?
These are the kinds of questions that suggest themselves when one gains a perspective of the mind of America, as refracted through its economic writings.
The clue to the answers to these questions, I suspect, lies in the debates over the nature of property. In an emergent capitalist society, property obviously is the hub of the social order. It is central in the Puritan writings of the 17th and 8th century, where property is the basis of status; in the discussions of the Federalists, where property (the concept is broadened from land to commerce) is seen as the basis of freedom and order; in the Utopian writings of Frances Wright, Skidmore, and Evans, where property is the basis of emancipation from wage slavery; in Henry Carey’s defense of the corporation as the epitome of free contract, which foreshadows the rise of the legally protected behemoth that crushed the economic atomism of laissez-faire.
In the formally religious society of the 17th century, the discussion is cast in a theological mold. Yet property remains the core. The Protestant Reformation freed the individual so that he might become a better Christian; its consequence, however, was to enable him to make the pursuit of wealth the basis of social action. By the 7th century, pursuit of wealth is accepted by such divines as Richard Baxter as a necessary part of one’s calling; it is accepted by such a humanist as William Penn as a “necessary evil.”
And toleration, or the right of religious conscience, became important because its alternative was civil war, which could only bring economic destruction. And because the acceptance of persecution as a right of the state becomes a general threat to property, toleration is accepted as the necessary price of social peace. For it is only during social peace that the accumulation of wealth can be safeguarded against arbitrary action. Yet when religious conscience led logically to the Anabaptists in Germany or the Diggers in England, who rejected the notion of property in favor of communalism, then a limit to toleration was justified.
Similarly, note the shift in the arguments of the colonists, who first preached order and authority, then upheld a revolt against authority, and finally sought a rationale against such uprisings against authority as Shays’ Rebellion, which particularly frightened property holders with its threat to divide property. Discarding the belief in rule by divine right, liberal theory moved to a concept of power as a contract between prince and people which the latter have a right to abridge if the prince proves to be a tyrant. In the 6th century the mark of a tyrant was the persecution of a subject for doing his duty to his God; by the 17th and 18th centuries, the mark of the tyrant was interference with the “natural right” of property. The criterion had moved from the sublime to the prosaic; from the divine to the utilitarian.
One gets the sense that the fulcrum of ideological change throughout the whole period covered by these volumes was material interest. One need not accept the Marxian doctrine to grant the importance here of the economic factor: we are dealing with the emergence of an economic civilization, in which the pursuit of wealth became the goal of all social activity. So it is not cynical for Dorfman to suggest that “the great cry of taxation without representation raised by the colonials against the Stamp Act and duties on colonial trade rested in the last analysis on a matter of geography and not on the right of all taxpayers to elect the people who levy taxes.” And it seems quite natural for John Adams to suggest that material forces are dominant in actual life, including all other forces and tendencies, ethical and spiritual.
A reading of the economic mind is important, thus, to understand the development of an economic civilization. But already many of the discussions seem archaic and unreal. The economic mind had a definite conception of man and a view of human nature, as all basic theories of social action do. It was a theory of rational calculus that was perhaps epitomized, not in Franklin, as Max Weber thought, but in Alexander Hamilton. But we seem to have moved away from it into new political conceptions. The period Mr. Dorfman discusses might be described as a phase between the theological and the political. We have moved from a time when man was considered sinful because of his fall, and could be redeemed only by grace, through an Indian summer which conceived of man as part of an order of natural harmony, following his self-interest as part of the larger self-interest of society, to our own neo-Hobbesian view that man is brutish and can be restrained (or unleashed) by power.
Professor Dorfman’s volumes are rich in a range of materials for speculation. One can take his discussions of money, a recurrent problem in the Colonies and in the whole of American history, and weave a theory of history about its struggles, as Brooks Adams did; or conceive the money issue as part of the agrarian struggle against commercial interests; or trace its perversion in the hands of the Adams brothers and later more grotesquely in Nazi theorists—in the distinctions between usury and productive capitalism.
The portraits of the economic thinkers of American society are fine and carefully phrased. If there is one weakness it is in the discussions of the “labor literature” of the 1830’s and 1840’s. Professor Dorfman has seen these writings largely as expressions of agrarian and petty-bourgeois protest. While the solutions proposed by many of these writers lay in land reform, it is a misleading of the intensity of the labor struggles of the period to concentrate on the agrarian content of the proposed reforms. Professor Dorfman has been too attentive exclusively to the writings of individuals; this section might have had greater vitality if he had included various labor documents of the time, such as the wonderfully prescient preamble of the Mechanics Union of Trade Associations of 1827 (“ . . . at the present period when wealth is so easily and abundantly created that the markets of the world are overflowing with it, and when in consequence thereof, and of the continual development and increase of Scientific Power, the demand for human labor is gradually and inevitably decreasing, it cannot be necessary that we, or any portion of society, should be subjected to perpetual slavery”).
The men of the colonial period showed a passionate and genuine devotion to freedom. But we find here a curious mixture, or rather integration, of ideals and interests in their thinking. There was an ethical implication in economic hedonism–;the notion that the fragmentation of power was the best safeguard of liberty. The role of the state was not to be passive, but to guarantee the rule of law. And by accepting a common rule of law binding the external duties of men, individuals were also free to submit to their own moral compunctions rather than to subordinate their moral ideals to law. This formulation abolishes the old antinomy between liberty and law, between freedom and restraint. It also meant a settlement of the political problem of heteronomy, or coordinated authority, versus autonomy. The formulation merges the ideals of freedom and the material interests into one.
If one can draw a unified impression of the economic mind of America, it is that of the moral ambiguity of early liberalism’s efforts to harmonize ideals and interests, its efforts to make freedom and wealth compatible by fusing ethics and economics into a unity. Yet the attempt, even if unsuccessful in practice, contained an important principle for a democratic philosophy. For it is in the interplay of ideals and interests that a free society strikes the necessary balance for survival. In Machiavelli’s time, as possibly in our own, the dominance of material interests as a political force divorced from any sense of ideals, led to cynicism and corruption. The mere proclamation of ideals, detached, in the totalitarian pattern, from divergent or competing interests, can only lead to a fanaticism typified by the religious wars of the past and the cruelty of fascism and Stalinism today.
It would be unfair to Professor Dorfman to leave the impression that his volumes lend themselves only to this kind of philosophizing. I have preferred to draw out the social implication of the early economic writings for the leads it may offer for our own problems. The early economic mind is part of the roots of our time. It is a rich soil and the roots are wide and varied.
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The Economic Mind in American Civilization: 1606-1865, by Joseph Dorfman
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A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find that kind of unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.