Calvin Coolidge: Libertarian? Think Again

Here goes a brick at a political hornets nest…Dr. Paul Miller of the University of Texas makes some reasoned points in this great piece at The Imaginative Conservative: above all, the reminder that the Founders constituted a limited government, endowed with counterbalancing energy and deliberation, along conservative – not libertarian – lines. If we want to become libertarians, we have to look elsewhere to a precedent that has never been to be enacted by a kind of human nature that only exists in Ayn Rand fiction.

Coolidge understood this distinction intended by the Founders and stands as one of the preeminent exemplifications of their ideals translated for modern America.

For, he said, of the Founding generation, “They knew, however, that self-government is still government, and that the authority of the Constitution and the law is still authority. They knew that a government without power is a contradiction in terms.” Then, he said, “To be independent to my mind does not mean to be isolated, to be the priest or the Levite, but rather to be the good Samaritan. There is no real independence save only as we secure it through the law of service.” Again, he said, “Much emphasis has been placed on our political independence. It has become one of our most fundamental traditions of government, and rightly so.” The Founders, Coolidge went on to say, however, “could not escape the conclusion that as the individual derives his liberty from an observance of the law, so nations derive their independence and perpetuate their sovereignty from an observance of that comity by which they are all bound. As modern developments have brought the nations closer and closer together, this conclusion has become more and more unavoidable. While the rights of the citizen have been in no wise diminished, the rights of humanity have been very greatly increased. Our country holds to political and economic independence, but it holds to cooperation and combination in the administration of justice…All sections have the same community of interests, both in theory and in fact, and they ought to have a community in political action. We can not deny that we are all Americans. To attempt to proceed upon any other theory can only end in disaster. No policy can ever be a success which does not contemplate this as one country. The principle that those who think alike ought to be able to act alike wherever they happen to live should supplemented by another rule for the continuation of the contentment and tranquility of our Republic. The general acceptance of our institutions proceeds on the theory that they have been adopted by the action of a majority. It is obvious that if those who hold to the same ideals of government fail to agree the chances very strongly favor a rule by a minority..Artificial propaganda, paid agitators, selfish interests, all impinge upon members of legislative bodies to force them to represent special elements rather than the great body of their constituency…Not only is this one country, but we must keep all its different parts in harmony by refusing to adopt legislation which is not for the general welfare.”

This regard for historical perspective and respect for the interests of all the people, through an incremental and measured advancement, is conservatism. Conservatives know change is constant but also know that drastic change hurts the most vulnerable people in society. It is for people then that conservatives work to slow the speed of change down so that those in the rear are not left behind. By keeping everyone moving forward together, civilization progresses. Rapid transformation and radical revolution leads to regression, at best, or collapse, at worst. Libertarianism may, and often does, have thoughts to contribute to public policy. Both sides can learn a great deal from one another but we are mistaken to makeover the historical record equating libertarianism with the principles espoused by Coolidge or what the Founders preserved for us and generations not yet born.

Former President Coolidge walking with fellow citizens in the parade celebrating the Tercentenary of Boston, July 1930.

Former President Coolidge walking with fellow citizens in the parade celebrating the Tercentenary of Boston, 1930.

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