Following Coolidge’s lead to preserve our foundational principles from neglect and misuse, the Calvin Coolidge Institute is performing a vital work in the state of Nevada. They are setting an example for what is desperately needed all across America: to encourage and elect candidates with Cal’s integrity, courage and conviction. In fact, a Coolidge Coalition is forming in our area of Gulf Coast Florida. How about where you live? In studying Coolidge for some time, the more I have learned the more I come to respect and admire what he accomplished through a genuine leadership grounded on moral consistency, political wisdom, and personal resolve. While he would not have wanted any institution to bear his name, he would have taken great satisfaction in those who shoulder the high demands, not merely the blessings, of citizenship and public service. He praised those who kept our institutions true to the ideals of limited government, economic freedom, religious liberty, and individual responsibility. Anchored by the Golden Rule, progress is measured not by cutting ties with the past but by doing what is right not what is expedient, upholding the good of all not favoring the benefit of a few. Hardly outmoded, these ideals are downright indispensable. Party platforms and campaign pledges are not things to be cast aside on victory night, they furnish the direction of leadership and are the substance of a voter’s voice. This is why party cohesion is so crucial to sound government. He also understood that principles mean nothing if not kept practiced and practical, requiring brave and involved citizens prepared to govern their own government. The government, as he often paraphrased President Cleveland, works for the people, not the people for the government. In this way, we grow worthy of America. The Calvin Coolidge Institute deserves every encouragement and support.
On the Death of American Exceptionalism
The assertion that America has unfairly led the rest of the world is not a new claim. For decades the argument has been pushed forth that it is incumbent on the United States to lower its standards around the globe, share its power, scale back its presence and a fairer, more equitable world would rise. We are led to believe that for civilization to advance it must all be in the direction of less individual freedom and more bureaucratic control. It is unjust, they insist, for America to realize such unprecedented prosperity, success and progress while the rest of the nations live in poverty, decay and oppression. Meanwhile, the denial of individual liberty and government by men instead of laws — notions irreconcilable with America’s ideals — are never recognized as central causes to all the suffering. It is as if the subordination of America’s ideals is something over which to rejoice and hasten. Such attitudes are like condemning the victim for the crime rate.
Why America is different is only impugned and criticized, never understood. After all, they assume, Americans took all this wealth, opportunity and its historic living standards from everyone else. Containing far more envy of America’s power than reality warrants, it is conveniently omitted that America is the exception to the rule because of a voluntarily agreed upon set of principles. These ideas, including government by consent, freedom of conscience, the sanctity of individual life, liberty and one’s pursuit of happiness, do not originate from the tyranny and injustice that have defined normal human existence since the beginning.
The rule of a few on the backs of the many has been tried, weighed and found wanting. It makes no difference whether it be called absolute monarchy, democracy, socialism or liberalism, it is the same prevalent, recurring weed that releases the same toxins upon society every time. America, founded as a refuge from suppression of conscience, denial of political choice and refusal of economic opportunity, applied the years of practical experience gleaned since ancient time to forge a government that served a sovereign people, not the people enslaved to government. Authority would reside not in personalities and social classes but in duly enacted laws through representatives delegated with specific responsibilities from the sovereign people. Endowed with the infusion of freedom, restrained by virtue and directed by sound education, America worked beyond the highest expectations of our visionary and audacious founding men and women. Preserved by the duty and service of each generation to those proven ideals, America demonstrated the exception not only succeeds, it perpetuates a very real good at home and for the rest of the world.
Simply because America is no more perfect than any other nation does not disprove that goodness and righteousness are either unattainable in her future or altogether absent from her past. In less than two and a half centuries, America has empowered millions with unprecedented upward mobility, withstood dictators, toppled regimes wedded to personal power rather than the might of its ideals, ventured into every corner of the globe not to dominate and conquer but to defend the weak, build trade and goodwill with all, share with those in distress and serve those in need. Where there has been need for improvement, our constitutional system affords remedy through amendment and circumspect legislation insofar as it follows reform in the people themselves. America has soberly embraced what Coolidge understood so well: With great blessings come greater responsibilities.
America has done all these things because at one time or another, no one else in the “room” stood up when the occasion demanded. The world has been and will continue to be far better off as long as moral power triumphs over material power. While the few redistribute wealth and call it “fairness,” the only commodity being equalized is misery and its attendant restriction of opportunity for everyone. The only ones who gain from this denial of eternal truths are those who already hold political power, and seek to extort more from the rest of us.
America’s ideals, as the exception to the ancient “might makes right” governance of world affairs, will prevail only if the original sovereigns — we, the people — reclaim our governance. The world will not rise simply by our descent. The vacuum will not be filled by some other equally legitimate set of lofty standards. We will do nothing for the world by relinquishing moral leadership now, expecting that fairness comes by descending to the lowest common denominator. The world will simply be less equal, less just, less free and less morally coherent.
As Calvin Coolidge said, “Some say we cannot go on maintaining a higher standard of living for our people than that enjoyed in other nations. We have done so for generations. That is the fact. The theory that it cannot continue may be no better than the theory that it will last indefinitely. Some nation always has taken the lead. But supposing we shall finally reach the same position as others that is no reason why we should now relinquish our supremacy and descend to their level. It is our business to make our conditions the best as long as we can. We would not be justified in tamely surrendering our treasure now because at some time it may be exhausted. To become equal to others we must go down or they must go up. For us to go down would not in itself raise others. Our example of a free and prosperous people has been the sovereign remedy for world oppression. The truth is our trade regulations are more fair to others than theirs are to us. And what is of chief importance is the great service we render by giving credits and furnishing markets. The higher our standards, the greater our progress, the more we do for the world.”
Coolidge once put it even more concisely, “Do not expect to build up the weak by tearing down the strong.” Those who advocate ultimate liberation on the wings of America’s departure from exceptionalism expect more than reality can give. As with so many observations on government and human nature, however, Coolidge could not be more correct. It is a wisdom that can never be escaped, however much nations or individuals wish to jettison the obligations of righteousness or the constraints of moral standards.
On Pan-American Trade
The Twenties were a decade for Pan-American, or otherwise international, conferences. Coolidge took part in no less than eight during his service in Washington. The issues of international commerce, Pan-American relations, the roll back of “dollar diplomacy” and question of tariff policy revision seemed to attract him to a degree not unlike his commitment to government economy. No one can credibly argue that the Coolidge years were isolationist in outlook or activity. He took every opportunity to personally address those gatherings of private individuals who met to discuss a host of topics from standardization, sanitation, journalism, radio, highways, trade, aviation and many more concerns. As Vice President, Coolidge spoke before the Pan-American Conference of Women sponsored by the League of Women Voters in April 1922. As President he would address the First Pan American Congress of Journalists (April 8, 1926), the Third Pan American Commercial Conference (May 3, 1927), the First International Congress of Soil Science (June 13, 1927), the opening day of the International Radiotelegraph Conference (October 4, 1927), the Sixth Pan-American Conference held in Havana, Cuba (January 16, 1928), the Pan-American Conference on Arbitration and Conciliation (December 10, 1928) and the International Civil Aeronautics Conference (December 12, 1928).
When it concerned America’s connection to the sovereign nations to our south, Coolidge was there at every turn. The Fordney-McCumber Tariff signed by President Harding in 1922, sought to return a higher ad valorem rate to the tariff system, where American-made goods were protected for their value to the markets beyond merely their quantity, size, weight or other factors. The vast majority of goods on the market, no less than sixty percent, were completely free of duties. The Tariff protected American manufacturing while keeping rates low for agricultural products and raw goods. An average 14% increase in rates protected manufacturers from inferior-quality goods flooding the markets and thereby harming both the producer, who has to raise prices to meet higher costs against a cheaper, higher quantity of products, and the consumer, who is left spending more money in the end to replace inferior goods with ones that last. The protective rates, working together with both a large decrease in taxes and reduction in Federal spending, fueled the recovery that brought America out of the 1921 depression and continued (thanks to the Coolidge insistence on economy and tax cuts of 1924, 1926 and 1928) to encourage the spread of prosperity throughout all economic tiers through the rest of the decade. Rather than remaining on course, however, the next administration dismantled the delicate balance of tariff policy up for debate at the worst time. It was the discussion to raise rates even higher in 1929, leading to the passage of a new bill, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, that unleashed an average 20% increase on dutiable imports, a 60% tax increase on over 3,000 imported products and resulted in a destructive series of retaliatory tariff increases by our trading partners around the world. Despite the firm opposition of more than 1,000 economists to the looming increases, President Hoover signed the bill into law in June 1930. While initial figures seem to indicate it was working at first, trade had collapsed and depression only deepened as a result by the spring of 1932.
However, all this was in the future. As Coolidge took the podium to address the entrepreneurs and business men and women of North, Central and South America, imports in raw materials stood on mutually advantageous terms. As Coolidge will point out, this gathering was not a meeting of government bureaucrats and political operatives, it was a voluntary conference between private individuals exchanging ideas, seeking to better understand the needs, problems and market solutions of free peoples, sharing in the “civilizing influence of commerce.” It was not a forum of coercion presenting terms that benefited one at the expense of others with the aid of American money, military might or political deals. It was part of a the grander movement that “rests on the principle of mutual helpfulness,” which is free market capitalism as it naturally exists. Markets, free of state control, are not driven by Bentham’s mechanistic view of people as but utilitarian cogs in a system but rather fellow collaborators, willingly helping supply and be supplied with what each individual needs.
Coolidge commended this gathering of minds and talents from across our Hemisphere for its true merit which lay “in the fact that it represents not government but private industry.” After all, governments do not create, people engaged in commercial relationships do. “Governments do not have commercial relations. They can promote and encourage it, but it is distinctly the business of the people themselves. If this desirable activity is to grow and prosper, if it is to provide the different nations with the means of self-realization, of education, progress, and enlightenment, it must in general be the product of private initiative.” Keenly aware of the political discontent to the south coupled with a clearly harmonious relationship then existing between Pan-American suppliers and U.S. manufacturers, Coolidge continued, “Under free governments trade must be free, and to be of permanent value it ought to be independent. Under our standard we do not expect the Government to support trade; we expect trade to support the Government. An emergency or national defense may require some different treatment, but under normal conditions trade should rely on its own resources, and should therefore belong to the province of private enterprise.”
That policy, which lifted America out of depression in 1921 and since 1913 had raised it as the foremost market for Central and South American raw goods, from wood and copper to cane sugar, coffee and food stuffs, was yielding benefits overwhelmingly in favor of our neighbors to the south. If there was any dominant partner, it was South and Central America, who held nearly all of our money in unprocessed materials. The dependence on Europe for a market had decisively changed. Now the United States was buying more in the markets of Central and South America than it was selling. The clear beneficiary was the collection of American Republics south of the Rio Grande. This was not an unsettling or harmful development, in Coolidge’s judgment. It was a definitive good and a proof that markets, allowed freedom within marginal tariff rates on a small portion of goods, are mutually advantageous to all participants. “It is our conclusion that while government should encourage international trade and provide agencies for investigating and reporting conditions, those who are actually engaged in the transaction of business must necessarily make their own contacts and establish their own markets. There is scarcely any nation that is sufficient unto itself. The convenience and necessity of one people inevitably are served by the natural resources, climatic conditions, skill, and creative power of other peoples. This is the sound basis of international trade. This diversity of production makes it possible for one country to exchange its commodities for those of another country to the mutual advantage of both. It is this element that gives stability and permanence to foreign commerce. It contributes to satisfying wants and needs, and so becomes help to all who are engaged in it.”
Coolidge did not merely praise the broad outlines of growth and commercial collaboration between the Americas, he lauded the specific directions it was taking in the development of transportation, improving the speed the travel by ship, rail, road and air. Coolidge complimented the great network of exchange not only for its material improvement but especially for its conveyance of ideas, its sharing of information, education and communication, embodied in the cable and radio, the Pan American postal agreement, the opening of roads and the clearing of new commercial horizons that resulted. In short, this meant a “more abundant life for all concerned,” not only materially but spiritually.
As he closed his remarks to these market pioneers and creative adventurers from across the Western Hemisphere, Coolidge came back to the intangible importance of what this movement meant. “It is this mutual interdependence which justifies the whole Pan American movement. it is an ardent and sincere desire to do good, one to another. Our associates in the Pan American Union all stand on an absolute equality with us. It is the often declared and established policy of this Government to use its resources not to burden them but to assist them; not control them but to cooperate with them. It is the forces of sound thinking, sound government, and sound economics which hold the only hope of real progress, real freedom, and real prosperity for the masses of the people, that need the constantly combined efforts of all the enlightened forces of society. Our first duty is to secure these results at home, but an almost equal obligation requires us to exert our moral influence to assist all peoples of the Pan American Union to provide similar agencies for themselves. Our Pan American Union is creating a new civilization in these Western Republics, representative of all that is best in the history of the Old World. We must all cooperate in its advancement through mutual helpfulness, mutual confidence, and mutual forbearance.”