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Small Government’s Last Hurrah

You have to go back to the election of 1924.

By 1.25.11

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The High Tide of American Conservatism: Davis, Coolidge, and the 1924 Election.
By Garland S. Tucker, III
(Emerald Book Company, 306 pages, $29.95)

The last time Democrats and Republicans matched ideologically in a presidential campaign was 1924, according to Garland S. Tucker, III, president/CEO of Triangle Capital Corporation, a publicly traded specialty-finance company. Republican Calvin Coolidge and Democrat John W. Davis shared the traditional American ideals of "limited government -- minimalist in Coolidge's case -- individual freedom and low taxes." After that election, "the Republicans remained on a rightward course, while the Democrats steered leftward; and there has been no major realignment since."

In his book, High Tide of American Conservatism: Davis, Coolidge, and the 1924 Election, Tucker observes that limited government made its last stand during Coolidge's term in the White House. Beginning with his successor, Republican Herbert Hoover (whom Coolidge derisively dubbed "Wonder-Boy"), a fateful series of legislative actions would spur the encroachment of the federal government into virtually all areas of life. In the ensuing years, the essential conservatism of the Founders, Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians alike, has made only brief and limited appearances -- in the unsuccessful 1964 campaign of Republican Barry Goldwater, and under Ronald Regan, beginning in 1981.

This is the kind of a book only a capitalist and practitioner of the American dream could write. Tucker longs for a return to those days when individual freedom allowed for the creation of personal wealth and American business thrived in an atmosphere of low taxes. Wistfully, he quotes Coolidge: "I want taxes to be less, that the people may have more." (He also passes along another of Coolidge's withering comments on Hoover: "That man has given me nothing but advice, and all of it bad.")

Tucker's first-hand knowledge of business obviously makes it painful for him to watch the current drift toward socialism in America which undermines self-reliance and market productivity. The Federal Government's recent involvement in the auto industry and student loan programs, increased financial regulation, and mandatory health insurance coverage are just a few examples. The malign influence of government becomes strikingly evident when present conditions are contrasted with the strength and growth of the American economy as well as the spectacular climb of stock market, reported by Tucker, during the Harding-Coolidge administrations from mid-1921 that culminated in late 1929.

The Great Depression, which began with the stock market crash in late 1929, has been invoked regularly to justify government intervention in the economy. But Tucker attributes that episode to human nature, rather than to any flaw in the capitalist system. "Always, in the final stages of a bull-market," he writes, "greed becomes the primary motivator; investors are loath to consider caution, and the result is a precipitous correction."

Tucker notes that Coolidge himself raised a warning about overheated expectations on the part of investors. And he quotes the observation of historian Paul Johnson that "Business turndowns serve essential purposes. They have to be sharp. But they need not be long because they are self-adjusting." The financial interventions of Herbert Hoover and, later, Franklin Roosevelt interfered with those natural adjustments, effectively delaying economic recovery, and making the turndown that became the Great Depression excessively long and agonizing. (Tucker would, no doubt, be pleased if his readers see any parallels with the Bush-Obama Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) or the various stimulus packages, all of which have thus far proven futile in relieving our current economic woes.)

One point of disagreement between Coolidge and Davis was tariffs. Davis was against the Fording-McCumber Tariff (1922), which imposed the highest duties in American history. Davis believed that "the government was protecting special privileges -- those of manufacturers," and pressed for a return to freer trade. Industrialists, the beneficiaries of tariff protection, supported Coolidge, and "preached to their workers that the tariff safe-guarded their jobs."

Given recent experience with the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA), passed in 1994, it would appear that Coolidge and the industrialists were on to something. Reform Party candidate H. Ross Perot predicted that NAFTA's elimination of most trade barriers between the U.S., Mexico and Canada -- a step supported by the leaders of both the Republican and Democratic Parties -- would result in American jobs being sucked down to Mexico. That happened, and American industry has never recovered. Likewise, the low tariffs and high import quotas which China enjoys through its Most-Favored-Nation (MFN) Status have decimated American manufacturing jobs and contributed greatly to our national debt. Alexander Hamilton, Theodore Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan had no problem restricting imports to promote our national interest. Because of present realities some social scientists believe that at least 10% of the blue-collar workforce will not be employed at any given time. In fact, this group is becoming more and more dependent on government largess for survival.

Tucker offers critical insight into how third-party movements -- such as Theodore Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party and Robert La Follette's Progressive Party -- have reshaped both the Republican and Democratic parties. He charts the realignment of liberal Republicans with the Democrats and the defection of conservative Democrats to the GOP because of the progressive policies of Democrats Woodrow Wilson and William Gibbs McAdoo (McAdoo had been the party's front runner at the 1924 Convention, though Davis was eventually nominated as a compromise).

The leftward drift of the Democratic Party so disturbed Davis that he stated in a 1953 interview, "the greatest changes I've seen in law stem from the relationship between the citizen and his government, with an ever-widening field of government interference." A renowned Wall Street lawyer, who often argued before the Supreme Court, Davis also deplored judicial activism. Tucker believes that, had he lived another 20 years, Davis would have joined his fellow conservative Democrats in defecting to the GOP.

Tucker seems to be preparing us for a coming restructuring of the two major parties in light of the Tea Party movement that so effectively swept Republicans into office this last election cycle. An acronym for "Taxed Enough Already," and infused with revolutionary connotations, the word "Tea" expresses a widely shared desire to curb federal spending, reduce taxes and deficits (which Coolidge accomplished in the Mellon tax cuts of the 1920s), and return to stricter constitutional interpretation.

The Tea Party follows the pattern of past third-party movements in giving voice to the strivings and frustrations of the "common man." Many liberals and old-line party stalwarts fear such populism as an attack on the governmental and technocratic "elites" heavily represented among the ruling classes of both parties (60 percent of Tea Partiers identify themselves as Republicans, the other 40 percent disaffected Democrats or Independents).

The essence of this conflict was captured in an exchange between former First Lady Barbara Bush and Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee. Reacting to the popularity that could make the former Alaska Governor a contender for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, Bush commented that Palin "is very happy in Alaska, and I hope she'll stay there." Palin's retort echoed a widespread weariness with the "ruling class": "I say it with all due respect -- because I love the Bushes -- but the bluebloods want to pick their winners instead of allowing competition to pick and choose the winners."

As average Americans see their personal freedom evaporate under the ever-growing "nanny-state," the Founders' spirit of independence and self-reliance is reasserting itself. A return to the America of "non-elites" like Calvin Coolidge and John W. Davis seems to be just what Garland Tucker both prescribes and foresees.

We can only hope!

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About the Author

Rev. Michael P. Orsi is a chaplain and research fellow in law and religion at the Ave Maria School of Law in Naples, Florida.