Before it disappears into the cyber-ether, I want to plug James Pinkerton’s excellent review for TAC of Michael Lind’s latest book Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.
Here’s a particularly insightful passage:
As an officer in George Washington’s army during the Revolution, [Hamilton] had seen that the colonists nearly lost the war for want of adequate military equipment. That weapons deficit, Hamilton believed, should never happen again: for any future wars, the young republic needed its own military-industrial complex. And so Hamilton rejected free trade and non-industrialization in favor of a conscious policy of protectionism and industrialism, nurturing the nation’s “infant industries.”
President Washington, himself a plantation owner, sided with Hamilton, thus going against the regional interests of his fellow Virginians and Southerners. Agriculture-exporting Dixie, after all, saw Hamilton’s tariff as an unfair economic burden, designed to benefit Yankee manufacturers. Yet in Lind’s view, the first president’s largeness of spirit — siding with the Hamiltonian modernizers as opposed to his “home team,” the Jeffersonian agrarians — enabled the United States grow into a world power, not only economically, but militarily.
What began as a justifiable desire for military independence and security eventually became the means of continental dominance and projection on the global scene. The nexus between military industry and domestic commerce is something that is at once a truism and a dirty secret; everyone recognizes it, but most people ignore it (the readership of this magazine obviously excepted).
In libertarian and Old Right circles, which I’m fairly new to and quite happy to be traveling in now, there’s a lot of reference to today’s “warfare-welfare state.” The observation is valid enough. But it wasn’t always this way. And it needn’t be this way. The welfare state and the warfare state do not necessarily go hand in hand. The last time I checked, the countries of Scandinavia don’t bother very many people outside their territorial borders.
What has always been the case for nearly the entirety of this republic’s history is the nexus referred to above: the machinery of the “merchant-state,” to borrow Albert Jay Nock’s phrase, powered by industrial development encouraged or directly funded by government, as Lind and Pinkerton write. Often accompanying this system have been attempts to crush internal dissent, from the administrations of the Adams to Lincoln to Wilson, as well as the relentless attrition of local communities.
David Hackett Fischer wrote in his brilliant doorstopper Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America:
During the presidency of John Adams, New Englanders, and their allies responded to the great questions of the French Revolution by attempting to create a national system of ordered liberty, such as had long existed in their own region. This idea meant an active role for government, increased taxation, a strong navy, an expanded national judiciary with broad common law jurisdiction, a more active regulation of commerce, narrow restriction of immigration, an active attempt to suppress dissent, and a moralistic tone of government that was deeply resented by others of different persuasions. All of these policies were enacted by the Fifth and Sixth Congresses in the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Naturalization Act of 1798, the Navy and Army Acts of 1798, the Bankruptcy Act of 1800, the Judiciary Act of 1801 and many new federal taxes, including a direct tax, a salt tax and even a stamp tax.
Some of this, of course, was reversed or delayed in the long interregnum between the decline of the Federalists and the Civil War, but these were at least the bones of the system that would be fleshed out in the 20th century.
If my writing about contemporary domestic politics seems “squishy” or ambivalent, it’s because — while I admit this system has indisputably generated wealth and relieved material deprivation, especially in the old South — the loss of local variety and folkways, not to mention many, many thousands of human lives, can’t be swept under the rug. Simply put, I get tired of hearing that progressives “started it all.” If we’re going to have this kind of state — with the choice of Romney and Obama, do you see it changing any time soon? — then I’d like to see it work on its own terms. If we’re going to have a national economy that’s complicatedly enmeshed in a global economy, commonsense dictates that we’re going to need a national system of mitigating its most unfortunate outcomes. Hence I find the “welfare” third of the welfare-warfare-merchant state to be the least offensive aspect of our Hamiltonian inheritance.