Bruce Frohnen has written a great piece explaining, “Not Betrayal: The Real Reason Paul Ryan Should Be ‘Primaried.'” While this delves into current politics, something we try to do regularly, what makes Frohnen’s point so powerful is the distinction he draws between what Ryan believes he’s doing and what Calvin Coolidge strove to do. As Frohnen says, “People like Mr. Ryan must be primaried out of office, not because they are false to their principles, but because their principles are false.” The difference is important. Ryan believes he is doing some great things, even serving the interests of his constituents and the people at large.
What the new Speaker misses is pivotal, however, as Frohnen continues: “Mr. Ryan and his establishment colleagues seem to believe that a bit of common sense of the business variety will reign in Mr. Obama and his social justice warrior administration. They are wrong. By seeking to merely streamline governmental machinery that warps the values and motivations of the people, Mr. Ryan is aiming, in reality, to make that machinery more efficient. This might buy his well-off constituents some more years of relative prosperity, but it definitely will empower those who always run such machinery (the sort of people who prefer administering others rather than letting them do for themselves) and who always see its central purpose as reconfiguring society. Whatever economic surplus the rest of us may produce, these would-be masters will see as rightly belonging to them.”
Enter Calvin Coolidge. As Frohnen writes, “Coolidge’s statement evinces an understanding that the people themselves are chiefly concerned to make a living and go about their lives unmolested.” Even throughout Coolidge’s constructive economy program, applying (as he did) basic budgetary principles, he knew the goal was not the efficiency of the process as an end in itself but an obligation owed to people whose lives were directly and indirectly impacted by every decision Washington made.
When people misquote his “business of America is business” statement, they are accepting the false notion that the very livelihood and creative energy of the people flows from – even equivalent to – the national government. This is simply another way of endorsing what Coolidge time and time again condemned: the people working more for government than for themselves. Coolidge knew this apparatus, even cloaked as it could be in the guise of good intentions, left life all more the meager and real people prostrate before a Washington unwilling and uninterested in restraining its desire to spend what others have worked to earn.
Cal vehemently opposed the assumption of those burdens that the people themselves must necessarily bear to remain free. He despised the bureaucratization of life and warned continually about the extinguishing of culture and the loss of bountiful variety that local self-government had kept kindled for a century and a half. He demonstrated that streamlining government needed to happen through restraining it first and simplifying it not creating more layers of it. He made the case that government was for humanity not humanity for government. He saw people not as “economic units” to be carefully arranged into some overall plan for maximum efficiency, but as human souls with the capacity to govern themselves, possessing needs and aspirations that no central authority, however well-meaning, is equipped to administer. There was a natural limit to what Washington can and should do, Cal observed. He understood well that there were real people at the end of all those regulations, rules, and statutes. It would be they, especially the poorest among us and those least able to bear it, who would have to carry the greatest share of the cost for all that “help” from D. C.
Life in America was so much more than the all-consuming demands of the machinery of government administration. Coolidge appreciated the massive difference between putting out a fire and simply managing the flames. What Mr. Ryan has yet to learn Coolidge grasped all too well: The problem isn’t to get government “working” with a more user-friendly array of goods and services, the problem is to get government out of the way so we can live, keep the rewards of our effort, and “work out our own salvation” as a free people once more.
Simply adding oil to the State machinery, handling people as so many worker-bees beholden to the Beltway, or placing a smiley faces atop the destructive reality government’s omnipresence in daily consciousness inflicts, may condition people to accept it as normal, even permanent, but it fixes nothing. It is akin to helping complete the Emperor’s Death Star not once but twice so that we can “create jobs” for the unemployed and bolster the Galactic economy. The death part we’ll worry about later, today’s “leadership” seems to say.
Instead, we should take up Cal’s challenge: to so exercise both our rights and responsibilities, as The People, to such an extent that we would not notice if Washington actually shut down for six months…preferably much longer.