April 2013 Brief: Volume 20, Number 12
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The Great Coolidge Revival
by John Hendrickson
A rediscovery is under way in regard to the presidencies of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge and their policies, which led to the “Roaring Twenties.” Several articles and books — both published and forthcoming — have been written in praise of the limited-government economic policies that consisted of both spending and tax reductions that occurred during the Harding and Coolidge administrations. Amity Shlaes, who is the Director of the 4 Percent Growth Project at the George W. Bush Presidential Center and a noted economic historian, has recently published Coolidge, a full-scale biography of President Calvin Coolidge.
One of the main elements to Coolidge is the issue of debt and the economy, which was a major issue in the 1920s just as it is today. Today the nation is confronted with a dangerously high level of debt, slow economic growth, high taxation, and high unemployment. The national debt is $16.4 trillion and rising and the federal government is running annual trillion-dollar deficits. The continuous high unemployment is said to be the “new normal” for society. The source of private- sector uncertainty is the escalating debt, expanded regulations, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and the future of tax policy.
These were similar issues that confronted both President Harding and President Coolidge. In 1921, President Harding inherited a severe economic depression, which consisted of high unemployment, slow economic growth, a national debt, and high levels of taxation. The Harding administration called for restraint in regard to domestic policy, which was the direct opposite of the progressive philosophy. The Harding economic program consisted of cutting government spending, lowering tax rates, and paying down the national debt. The Harding administration began the successful policy of debt, tax, and spending reductions, which Coolidge continued after Harding’s death in 1923.
“Like Warren Harding, Coolidge understood the value of predictability in government: that a predictable tax policy and predictable policy toward debt were the basis for strong commerce,” wrote Shlaes. Coolidge was not just an advocate for economy in government, but his political philosophy was rooted in the principles of the American Founding. Coolidge was joined in his objective to limit government by his Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, who also served in the Harding cabinet, and by Herbert M. Lord, who served as Director of the Budget Bureau. The first Director of the Budget Bureau under Harding, Charles G. Dawes, was now Vice President.
The Coolidge administration’s commitment to limited government or economy in government was a success. As Shlaes described:
Both cutting government spending and lowering the tax rate were Coolidge’s great priorities as President, and it was the Harding-Coolidge policies that led to the national economic prosperity.
In Coolidge, Shlaes also argues that “the extent of the Coolidge achievement is not known.” Coolidge, just as with Harding, is often neglected by historians because of his policies, and many scholars charge the Republican Presidents of the 1920s with negligence in causing the Great Depression. This thesis is especially popular with the pro-New Deal historians who champion the policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his fellow activist Presidents. Nevertheless, Shlaes makes a serious case for Coolidge in regard to presidential greatness. “Indeed, Coolidge was a rare kind of hero: a minimalist President, an economic general of budgeting and tax cuts,” wrote Shlaes. As Shlaes argues, “Coolidge is our great refrainer.”
Shlaes argument in favor of Coolidge is actually resurrecting the traditional conservative view of the presidency — that is, a restrained presidency as demonstrated by Presidents such as William Howard Taft, Warren G. Harding, and Calvin Coolidge. The nation can learn a lot from Coolidge, whose commitment to constitutional principles desperately needs to be replicated today. As Shlaes wrote:
Shlaes argues that “perhaps the deepest reason for Coolidge’s recent obscurity is that the thirtieth President spoke a different economic language from ours.” “Our modern economic lexicon and the theories behind it cannot capture Coolidge’s achievements or those of his predecessor, Warren G. Harding,” argued Shlaes. This is certainly true, especially in the post-New Deal and Great Society eras in which the political culture of the nation has changed. It is debated whether or not Coolidge-style solutions can be applied to today’s problems, but policymakers would be well served to follow the Coolidge example. Whether the issue is cutting government spending, tax reduction, trade, or immigration — all issues front and center today — Presidents Harding and Coolidge provide a blueprint to solve these difficult problems.
By writing Coolidge, Amity Shlaes is changing the historiography of both the 1920s and presidential history, and she is reminding conservatives of not only a forgotten hero, but the need to rediscover traditional conservative principles.
John Hendrickson is a Research Analyst with Public Interest Institute, Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Contact him at Public.Interest.Institute@LimitedGovernment.org.
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