26 Sep 2018

Warren G. Harding Has Become One of My Favorite Presidents

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Warren G Harding.

Harvard prof Jill Lepore’s new one-volume history of the United States, These Truths, has been showered with honors by the liberal establishment.

I’ve read reviews that make it clear that Lepore has simply added a heavy dose of Howard Zinn to the same Progressive “March of Progress,” applauding every increase in size and scope of federal authority, that we were reading back when I was in high school.

You all, I’m sure, are acquainted with the conventional professional historians’ ratings of US presidents in which Warren G. Harding invariably comes in at the bottom. We’ve been told, repeatedly, that Harding was a handsome complete airhead, who incompetently ran a corrupt administration (Teapot Dome Scandal) and who disgracefully had a mistress, but conveniently died and removed himself from office.

Harding’s presidency was before my time, so I had always accepted most of that as true, but Richard Epstein, at Ricochet, responding to Lepore’s book, points out some things about Harding I never knew.

The book covers many cultural and social issues—as well as constitutional and regulatory matters, on which she takes a strong and uncritical progressive stance that sees government intervention as an essential tool to correct the imbalances of the market.

In developing this idea, Lepore’s book covers multiple topics with stunning rapidity, elegant compression, and apparent erudition. One constant theme traces the interaction between constitutional law and technological development from the Founding period to the present, covering everything from the printing press to the Internet. But even that subject is too extensive to receive a full account, so on this occasion I will confine my attention to a small portion of that topic, covering the years between 1920 and 1945 dealing with the rise of broadcasting by radio and the government’s attempt to regulate the airwaves. This case study offers a contrast between the classical liberal view of limited government with strong property and contract rights that I have long defended, and Lepore’s clear endorsement of the progressive tradition that has in many ways displaced it.

Lepore’s narrative of this period begins with President Warren Harding, who, she writes, “in one of the worst inaugural addresses ever delivered,” argued, in his own words, “for lightened tax burdens, for sound commercial practices, for adequate credit facilities, for sympathetic concern for all agricultural problems, for the omission of unnecessary interference of Government with business, for an end to Government’s experiment in business, for more efficient business in Government, and for more efficient business in Government administration.” Harding’s sympathetic reference of farmers is a bit out of keeping with the rest of his remarks. Indeed, farmers had already been a protected class before 1920, and the situation only got worse when Franklin Roosevelt’s administration implemented the Agricultural Adjustment Acts of the 1930s, which cartelized farming. But for all her indignation, Lepore never explains what is wrong with Harding’s agenda. She merely rejects it out of hand, while mocking Harding’s conviction.

Given her doggedly progressive premises, Lepore may have predicted a calamitous meltdown in the American economy under Harding, but exactly the opposite occurred. Harding appointed an exceptionally strong cabinet that included as three of its principal luminaries Charles Evans Hughes as Secretary of State, Andrew Mellon as Secretary of Treasury, and Herbert Hoover as the ubiquitous Secretary of Commerce, with a portfolio far broader than that position manages today. And how did they perform? Lepore does not mention that Harding coped quickly and effectively with the serious recession of 1921 by refusing to follow Hoover’s advice for aggressive intervention. Instead, Harding initiated powerful recovery by slashing the federal budget in half and reducing taxes across the board. Both Roosevelt and Obama did far worse in advancing recovery with their more interventionist efforts.

To her credit, Lepore notes the successes of Harding’s program: the rise of industrial production by 70 percent, an increase in the gross national product by about 40 percent, and growth in per capita income by close to 30 percent between 1922 and 1928. [Emphasis added. –JDZ] But, she doesn’t seem to understand why that recovery was robust, especially in comparison with the long, drawn-out Roosevelt recession that lingered on for years when he adopted the opposite policy of extensive cartelization and high taxes through the 1930s.

RTWT

Don’t miss the discussion of the Federal Radio Act of 1927. Who knew? Can you imagine what technological and cultural progress could have occurred over half a century of free market mass communications?

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