Government as Example

I’ve been reading Amity Shlaes’s The Forgotten Man.  She paints an intriguing picture of Calvin Coolidge, thirtieth president of the United States from 1923-1929.  He presided over a government that composed a mere two percent of the nation’s GDP – and thought it was too large.  He believed that the private sector should be responsible for itself and disliked intervening.  “If you see ten troubles coming down the road,” he liked to say, “you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you.”  He loved government so little that, in 1927, he decided not to seek reelection, though he would certainly have won it.  Says Shlaes, “It was another of Coolidge’s acts of refraining, his last and greatest.”

It is often said of Franklin Roosevelt that, even if his programs deepened the depression, at least their boldness restored citizens’ confidence that the government was “doing something” about the problem.  It pains me to hear this point advanced in the President’s defense: I prefer to think it the crowning injury inflicted on the nation’s psyche by Roosevelt’s policies.  The unconsidered celebration of Roosevelt’s overbearing programs has brought our nation’s politics to a sorry end.

In today’s recession, pundits loudly demand “bold action”.  It is taken for granted that the government must take drastic measures in order to stabilize the economy.  What sort of action?  No one seems particularly concerned, provided only that it is drastic.  Doing nothing, of course, would be a bold policy in the face of the current hysteria.  Nor is there much boldness in succumbing to demands for action when history seems unable to stigmatize disastrous policies.

Calvin Coolidge’s restraint may have been crucial to the prosperity of the 1920s.  But who today remembers Coolidge?  Good conservative government leaves little record and fades in the public mind.  Only the bold, progressive examples are appalling enough to demand emulation.

Happy Presidents Day.

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