Review: Cronyism: Liberty versus Power in Early America, 1607-1849

- AMERICAN INSTITUTE FOR ECONOMIC RESEARCH - Vincent Geloso - JUN 15, 2022 -


Lord Acton, the famous British liberal Catholic historian, once quipped that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” and added that “Great men are almost always bad men.” Those quips have been repeated ad nauseam in polite society – most often in attempts to appear wise and brilliant. Its use is so commonplace that it is now banal.


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This is unfortunate, as there is a deeper meaning to the quote once one reads the rest of the passage from which the quote is lifted. Acton was in fact chastising a fellow historian who had been too apologetic of popes who had done bad deeds.

He argued that rulers, dead or alive, should be held to a higher standard than common men, with the judgment becoming harsher with greater powers. Historians must be those who rendered judgment, as “historical responsibility” needs to “make up for the want of legal responsibility.” They must also be the executioners of the reputations of rulers. “Hang them higher” is the motto that such executioners of rulers’ reputations should live by.


Patrick Newman, in his Cronyism: Liberty versus Power in Early America, 1607-1849 published late last year, unconditionally accepts Acton’s call. Following in the footsteps of Murray Rothbard and his Conceived in Liberty, Newman makes clear that America’s political history to 1849 is essentially a tug of war between the “forces of power” (i.e., mercantilists) who favored a strong state, and the “forces of liberty” (i.e., libertarians, classical liberals) who favored a limited state and free markets.


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Newman argues that British colonial America shared many similarities with French and Spanish colonial America. Strong mercantilist policies (e.g. navigation laws, manufacturing prohibitions, protective tariffs, state-chartered monopolies) were the common denominator. The only difference is that, for some reason left largely undiscussed by Newman, the British were far less able to enforce said policies. As such, liberty (and its defenders) could thrive in the British colonial world in ways that it could not in other portions of the New World (or in the Old World). The American Revolution was, in Newman’s description, a pushback against attempts to enforce mercantilism by Britain. The Revolution was an anti-mercantilist victory (Newman would say a “libertarian” victory) for the “forces of liberty.”


While mercantilist policies were poorly enforced, the ideas behind them remained present. As such, the country’s independence from Britain meant that mercantilists in America could start lobbying more effectively for such policies. Well-versed in public choice theory, Newman departs from widely shared conventions among public choice theorists and their view of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Rather than a victory for an open-world order that constrains the ability of rulers to use their power to trade economic rents with interest groups, the Convention was a complete but temporary victory for mercantilists.


Above, I say “temporary” because Jeffersonians and their allies began to reinterpret the Constitution in an anti-mercantilist manner. Upon ascending to power in 1800, they used the tools that mercantilists thought would ensure their perpetual dominance to roll back mercantilist policies. That rollback was, temporary, as Jeffersonians were eventually corrupted by power and began to favor mercantilist policies. Thus, the waltzing between “liberty and power” began, and it repeated itself once more with the Jacksonian revolution, whose artisans were also eventually corrupted by power.


This depiction of America’s antebellum history is unique, and it is a valuable contribution that should not be dismissed casually.


First, it must be noted that Newman’s depiction of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 is uniquely excellent. To be sure, Newman’s depiction of the convention as a mercantilist victory is not novel. Murray Rothbard expressed it before, but only in scattered articles and in his unpublished fifth volume of Conceived in Liberty.

Robert McGuire, in his To Form a More Perfect Union proposed a roughly similar argument. However, McGuire’s writings are intended for readers with strong technical skills in econometrics which, while immensely valuable, are inaccessible to laymen. Newman’s contribution is to make a cogent case with sufficient details in a format that reaches many. Anyone seeking to provide meat to the argument that America’s constitutional origins are not to be wrapped in the clothes of virtue and idealism will have to start with Newman’s book. For that reason alone, the book should be held in high regard and it should occupy a place of honor in anyone’s library.


LEIA MAIS >

https://www.aier.org/article/review-cronyism-liberty-versus-power-in-early-america-1607-1849/


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