Against Thomas Jefferson!

I was unexpectedly traveling on an airplane recently, so I had some time to read Michael Lind’s Land of Promise (I had just finished Peter Thiel’s Zero to One). Though with the subtitle “An Economic History of the United States,” it’s not a dispassionate, or frankly scholarly, take. Lind marshals a great deal of evidence, but it’s in the service of promoting a Hamiltonian or “developmentalist” view of American history, as opposed to a Jeffersonian or “producerist” perspective.

As such, Land of Promise steps into a debate that goes back to the early days of the republic, though modern interpretations are colored by own peculiar perspectives. One of the major problems with this debate is that it transcends contemporary political alignments. Today Lind is broadly to the Left (he was originally a neoconservative), but he stands strongly against the sort of arguments promoted by Matt Stoller in How Democrats Killed Their Populist Soul. Stoller is an heir to the populist tradition in the Democratic party which goes back to Thomas Jefferson, but famously crystalized under Andrew Jackson. In contrast, Michae Lind and the developmentalists are heirs to Henry Clay’s American System.

In What Hath God Wrought Daniel Walker Howe suggests that though Jacksonian populism was politically ascendant in the first half of the 19th century, with the battle over the Second Bank of the United States symbolic of the reputation of Alexander Hamilton’s vision, ultimately Hamilton and Clay’s ideas ultimately won the day. As Lind and others have pointed out Abraham Lincoln was explicitly an heir of Henry Clay, and the high-tariff Republican party of the 19th and early 20th century maintained the germ of developmentalism, even during the height of Gilded Age laissez-faire.

The “problem” is that today these differences between developmentalists and producerists are hard to map onto modern configurations, though the impulses remain with us. The post-World War II American consensus favored a gradual deemphasize on industrial policy and free trade, in line with producerist thinking, but also public investment in national projects, such as the interstate highway system or the internet, in line with developmentalist thinking.

I haven’t finished  Land of Promise, but it was written in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and before the chaotic Trump revolution of 2016. Lind’s argument seems to be that government and large private actors should act in partnership, with the former restraining the worst impulses of the latter. In ways the method here is not that different from what “business Republicans”/”donor class Republicans” would prefer. In contrast, someone like Matt Stoller is suspicious of bigness, oligopoly, and concentration of power, in classic Jeffersonian fashion. In this manner he actually shares a rhetorical pose with some populist conservatives.

As a modern person, I don’t know where I fall. The America of my youth, the Reagan-Clinton era, was dominated by a Jeffersonian-producerist rhetoric, if not always action. On the other hand, history generally suggests to me that a Hamiltonian-developmentalist paradigm is friendly to the facts of how the world is, as opposed to how it should be.

One thought on “Against Thomas Jefferson!

  1. I’m having some trouble wrapping my head around this kind of thing. On the one hand, the danger with developmentalism is that you can never be certain what you’re giving up with those public investments. The money used to create the interstate highway system might have been used more efficiently elsewhere if it had been left in the hands of the original owners. On other hand, not being sure of the alternative does not mean that the public investments were not the better use of the resources from a social utility standpoint.

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