LESSONS LEARNED #32: “America is great but it can’t make bad ideology good.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 23rd, 2010

Hamilton vs. Jefferson

So what was the deal with these two Founding Fathers?  Why did they hate each other so?  They were exceptionally bright, among the best read of the founders.  They each had impeccable revolutionary credentials.  And, prior to 1787, they had similar visions for their new country.  So what happened?

Despite their similarities, they were two very different men.  Hamilton was a bastard child whose father left him at a young age.  His life was hard.  He had a job while still a child.  Anything he had he had to earn.  Jefferson, on the other hand, was born into the planter elite of Virginia.  His life was not quite so hard. 

A bit shy, Jefferson buried himself in books.  He loved to read.  And to think.  To ponder the great questions of life.  While Hamilton worked in and learned the import/export business in the Caribbean.  As Jefferson pondered about what might be, Hamilton mastered commerce.  Understood capitalism.  Pondered what was.  And could be.  If he ever got off of that godforsaken island.

Eventually, he did.  He came to the colonies and went to college.  And gave Jefferson a run for his money in the smarts department.  And in one area, he simply left Jefferson in the dust.  Hamilton could understand things if you put dollar signs in front of them.  Jefferson could not.  For all his genius, Jefferson couldn’t make a buck.  He was forever in debt.  Because he struggled in these areas, he distrusted banking and commerce.  And the big cities that they corrupt.  Hamilton, though, understood banking and commerce.  He understood capitalism.  And what it could do.

Thus the divide between these two men.  Hamilton, a champion of capitalism.  And Jefferson, a champion of the yeoman farmer (a farmer who owns and works his own land.).  Of course, Jefferson was anything but a yeoman farmer.  He had others (i.e., slaves) work his land.  Here he was like the contemporary liberal.  Do as I say.  Not as I do.  For wealth and luxury obtained from the labors of others is okay for me and my fellow planter elite.  But not for you.  Especially when the ‘black arts’ of commerce and banking are concerned.

London, Paris/ Versailles and Madrid

The old world capitals had many things in common.  They were the homes of powerful monarchies.  They were the financial capitals of their countries.  And they caused a lot of mischief in the world.  Jefferson saw the connection between money and power.  More money, more power.  More power, more mischief.  Another good reason to hate commerce and banking in Jefferson’s book.

Of course, Hamilton saw it differently.  He saw one empire in ascent.  And two in descent.  And it was no coincidence that the better practitioner of capitalism was also the empire in ascent.  Great Britain.  He may have fought against her in the Revolutionary War, but he still admired her.  Where Jefferson feared the combination of money and power, Hamilton saw the Royal Navy.  Great wooden walls (as John Adams called them) that had protected the empire since she became an empire.  Grew her empire.  Increased her wealth.  And her power.  In fact, losing her British colonies was the only real defeat this empire had suffered.

When the Founding Fathers looked west they saw great potential.  Jefferson saw farms.  Hamilton saw empire.  One greater than Great Britain.  For after all, the Americans did what no other European nation could.  They defeated her in war and took huge chunks of her empire.  (Of course, our Revolutionary War was but one theater in a world war Great Britain was fighting at that time.)  Hamilton saw great potential for his new nation.  If only business and government partnered to harness that great potential.

Money + Power = Corruption

When business partners with government we don’t get capitalism.  We get mercantilism.  Or crony capitalism.  But you have to understand things were different in Hamilton’s day.  A good politician then went to great lengths NOT to profit from his time in public service.  It was expected.  Selfless disinterest.  In fact, it was unseemly to even campaign for public office.  That was just something a gentleman of the Enlightenment wouldn’t do.  And if anything was important in those days, it was showing how much a gentleman of the Enlightenment you were.

That said, business partnering with government would NOT lead to corruption.  At least, in Hamilton’s eyes.  With the right men in power, only good would result.  Though Jefferson, too, was a gentleman of the Enlightenment, he had no such faith in government.  To him, it was simple arithmetic (as long as there were no dollar signs involved):

                Money + Power = Corruption

So the new American capital wouldn’t be in a big American city.  Not in New York City.  Not in Philadelphia.  It would be in a swamp.  On the Potomac.  In Virginia’s backyard.  So Jefferson and his planter elite brethren could make sure the new American government would speak with a southern accent.  So much for that enlightened disinterest. 

Both Right.  Both Wrong.

No man is perfect.  Not even me.  No, really.  It’s true.  I’m not.  And neither were Hamilton nor Jefferson.  Hamilton may have wanted to conquer the world.  And Jefferson may have been such a good liar that he even fooled himself.  But the Hamilton treasury department gave this nation international respectability and allowed her to service her debt.  Which allowed her to borrow.  Which allowed her to survive.  And Jefferson fully understood what Lord Acton would say a century later:  Power corrupts.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

However benign a government may be, however it may look out after the people’s interests, government is still a body of men.  Jefferson understood this.  The Founding Generation was special.  They knew it.  They knew they were making history.  But were they unique?  Would this moment of selfless disinterest in time prove to be fleeting?  (As it turned out, yes.)  And, if so, what would happen to later generations?  When men of lesser character assume offices of sweeping powers?  What then?  Well, they would abuse their power.  So what to do?

Simple.  You prevent such a scenario from happening.  By not giving government sweeping powers.  And by not letting them accumulate great wealth.  Because bad things happen when you do.

The French Revolution

France was the cradle of the Enlightenment.  In the 18th century, anyone who mattered spoke French.  France was the dominate European power.  And some in France lived very well.  Most did not.  The majority were still feudal peasants.  Or poor laborers, artisans and craftsmen.  And they were hungry.  Poor.  And without breeches (those fancy knee-length pants the rich people wore).

While the sans-culottes (those without breeches) went without, the king, nobles and clergy were living large.  All the wealth of the largest European country was concentrated in their few hands.  As was the power.  And, of course, you add money and power and what do you get?  That’s right.  Corruption.  Add to that some crop failures and you get a very unhappy population.  Who overthrow the monarchy.  Execute their king.  And his queen.  And quite a few others before they stopped the bloodletting. 

Note that France’s troubles were the result of the money combining with the power.  The French monarchy incurred a huge debt fighting their perpetual war (it seemed) with Great Britain.  At the end of the world war that included the American Revolution, both saw those great debts grow larger.  Great Britain, an advanced capitalist nation, was able to service her debt and get on with the business of empire.  France, still fundamentally feudal, could not.  This great nation that had sparked the modern age could not even feed her own people.  She had taken all her people could give.  And her people could give no more.

Beware the Do-Gooder

The downfall of most nations results from this combination of money and state power.  This is an ideology that history has proven a failure.  The more money the state accumulates, the more it can do.  And the less you can do.  You go with less.  And the state causes greater hardships for everyone.  It can go to war.  Which it can lose.  Or prolong.  Hitler started out strong but the German people paid a steep price in the long run.  The allied bombers destroyed their homes.  And killed their families and neighbors.  While the allied armies killed their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons.  And those Germans who unfortunately fell within Soviet controlled territory after the war faced possible retribution for the crimes their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons committed against the soviet people.  In that hell on earth know as the Eastern Front.

But war is not the only mischief a state can do.  They can build opulent palaces (like at Versailles).  Or they can create a welfare state.  Where they get as many people as possible dependent on the state.  And the more they do, the more wealth the state transfers from the private sector to the public sector.  The state does well.  Especially the inner-party members.  The few who control the wealth.  And what happens in the long run?  The state gets richer and the people get poorer.  Just like they did in pre-revolutionary France.  In pre-revolutionary Tsarist Russia.  And, ironically, the state that replaced Tsarist Russia; the Soviet Union.  Communist China.  Cuba.  North Korea.  Peron’s Argentina.  Idi Amin’s Uganda.  Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.  Etc.

Whenever the government has large amounts of money and power, they rarely do good things.  What typically happens is that the ruling elite live well while the masses suffer.  And they use fear, intimidation, torture and execution to maintain their power.  What a nation chooses depends on how much they care what the free world thinks of them.  The Communists cared little so they used more brutal force.  Social democracies do care.  So theirs is a much softer tyranny.  These people don’t use force.  They seduce with promises of free stuff and a better life.  Which they never deliver.  Well, not to the people.  They do deliver it to those who hold power.

You Get What You Pay For

It’s bad when we don’t learn from world history.  It’s especially sad when we don’t learn from our own history.  We know what works.  And what hasn’t.  Wilson’s progressivism didn’t work.  FDR’s New Deal didn’t work.  LBJ’s Great Society didn’t work.  These administrations just transferred more money from the private sector to the public sector.  Money plus power equals corruption.  And these administrations were rife with corruption.  When we suffered the stagflation of the 1970s, those in power were still living large. But we never learn, do we?

The Obama administration is transferring more money from the private sector to the public sector than any other previous administration.  Our national debt will exceed our gross national product (GDP).  For all intents and purposes, it will be permanent.  All subsequent generations will work more and more just to service this massive debt.  And pay for all that ‘free stuff’ we were promised.  Sure, we’ll have free health care.  It just won’t be any good.  Nothing free is.  The free toy in a box of cereal is never as good as the toy you pay for.  Because you get what you pay for.  And if the government is going to give everyone free health care, it will have to be ‘free toy inside a cereal box’ quality health care.  For the same reason they don’t put expensive toys in cereal boxes.  If you give something to everyone, you have to give everyone less.  It’s the only way you can afford to give something to everyone.  You have to give everyone crap.

These things have never worked.  Nor will they.  Ever.  Even if the United States does them.  Because bad ideology is just bad ideology.  No matter how great the nation is that tries it. 

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