It was 94 years ago this past Tuesday that Calvin Coolidge was sworn in after the sudden death of President Warren G. Harding. Reflecting back on the Coolidge administration can be a discouraging enterprise, not for his faults but for his incredible success. The Coolidge presidency is a shining example of the power of fiscal conservatism and Republican government and is completely at odds with the GOP today.
The Chief Business of the American People is Business
Coolidge was a clean-spirited, resolute man who felt a moral outrage at expenditure. He believed that in order to grow the private sector the public sector must be downsized. And that’s precisely what he did. As Vice President he worked with Harding to cut the federal budget by 65% – from $18.5 billion to $6.4 billion. As President, Coolidge maintained a federal budget of around $3 billion, and because he had significantly more faith in entrepreneurs than in the federal government, he brought the highest income tax rate down from 73% to 24%. During the first presidential radio address Coolidge said, “The expenses of the government reach everybody. Taxes take from everyone a part of earnings and force everyone to work for a certain part of his time for the government. If the government should add $100 million of expense it would represent four days more work of these wage earners. These are some of the reasons why I want to cut down public expense. I want the people of America to work less for the government and more for themselves.”
That’s exactly what happened, and so began one of the most prosperous decade in American history. Prior to Harding & Coolidge, Woodrow Wilson’s high taxes and government spending had driven unemployment up to around 12% by 1919. Four years later unemployment was 2.4%, so low that it was considered full employment. The roaring twenties, brought to you by a stuffy old dude in a top hat.
Quality Over Quantity
One of the reasons that Coolidge was able to accomplish all of things that conservatives so long for today and still leave the White House with greater approval than when he arrived was his philosophy that “it is more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones,” coupled with the belief that “you can’t know too much, but you can say too much.” Coolidge was less concerned with amassing victories than he was with simply sticking to his agenda – cutting the federal budget, and cutting taxes – because he understood the role of federal government.
“It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary.”
Coolidge didn’t just criticize the opposition, he disproved them.
Stop Doing Things, Start Undoing Them
Coolidge believed that a decline in individual responsibility would result in government expansion and dependence, and indeed, it has. Since President Lyndon Johnson declared unconditional war on poverty 53 years ago, U.S. taxpayers have spent more than $22 trillion on federal anti-poverty programs. Today, some 43 million Americans are on food stamps. Over the past 46 years we have spent more than $1 trillion fighting the war on drugs. According to federal estimates 21 million people battled substance abuse in 2015. One of the great failings of our time is believing that the federal government should provide anything other than equal opportunity. Coolidge’s rebuke of the welfare state is as true today as it was in his own time.
“The individual, instead of working out his own salvation and securing his own freedom by establishing his own economic and moral independence by his own industry and his own self-mastery, tends to throw himself on some vague influence which he denominates society and to hold that in some way responsible for the sufficiency of his support…. This is not local self-government. It is not American. It is not the method which has made this country what it is. We can not maintain the western standard of civilization on that theory. If it is supported at all, it will have to be supported on the principle of individual responsibility.”
Over the years the GOP has failed to follow the example of Coolidge, and has allowed his vision to become a relic, exiled to the unread pages of history. America has had less than a decade of real conservative leadership since Coolidge left office, despite having eight Republican administrations.
It’s Not The Man, It’s The Office
Today the GOP is a party aggrieved by media personalities, and seemingly incapable of effecting meaningful legislation. Why? Under Trump the GOP has become, in a large part, a cult of personality. Disagree with president? Treason! Don’t support a piece of legislation? Liberal!
Many Republicans today see the federal government as a weapon to be wielded against those with whom they disagree, just as liberals did in the Obama years. While he was in office over 50% of the country felt that we were moving in the wrong direction. That number is virtually the same with Trump in office.
As long as we continue to personify the federal government future administrations will simply work to undo the work of the previous one.
Coolidge understood the danger of idolatry and celebrity when he said,
“It is a great advantage to a president, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man. When a man begins to feel that he is the only one who can lead in this Republic, he is guilty of treason to the spirit of our institutions.”