Garrett’s Remorse, and Mine

For years, generations in fact, we Americans have endured a sizzling fissure in our civic life. On the one hand, we celebrate the lapidary prose of founding documents that purport to frame a polity which crowns as sovereign the private conscience of individuals whose rights are clearly articulated, legally acknowledged, and mutually respected. On the other, the operations of an entity dedicated nominally to the fulfillment of that premise, but whose actual function constitutes an unmistakable betrayal of that very premise. That entity is the federal government.

Over time, the anguish created by the failure to meet even minimal expectations has grown steadily more acute. What began as minor chafing in the body politic has evolved into a series of bone-snapping injuries that will require setting, mending, and a course of deliberate healing. With the election of 2020, we now gaze upon a broken femur that has torn through the flesh and is exposed for all to see as a critically weakened limb.

Three questions spring to mind. The first is, does anyone believe this injury is the result of an accident? The second, what brought this fissure about? And third, what is to be done? In what follows I will concern myself with the second question. I consider the first to be merely rhetorical; suggestions for addressing the third are below.

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Election night, 2020. Do I need to rehearse the events of that night? Instead, let me share with you the reaction I felt the next morning when, amidst the vertiginous uncertainty of the outcome, it had become evident that a massive fraud had been perpetrated.

My first reaction was: I know precisely how Garet Garrett felt in the wake of Alf Landon’s loss in 1936.

Who, you ask, was Garet Garrett?

Peter Edward Garrett (1878-1954) was one of our most accomplished newspapermen and a novelist of no small repute. At one time or another he worked for every major national news outlet in the country. His specialty was financial reporting and, during the volcanic market turbulence of the early twentieth century, he knew he was witness to historic events. To indicate the reach of his ideas on the national stage, Garrett ran coverage of all economic topics in The Saturday Evening Post for fully two decades, and general editorial policy for another half decade.

Garrett is the irresistible American—a keen observer, a brilliant and clear thinker, and a writer of crackling, electric prose that conveys more in a single paragraph, and in higher cognitive resolution, than the typical Twitter-reader can process in a year. He grew up on a farm with no agricultural machinery, ended his formal education in the third grade, and yet would become friends with Herbert Hoover, Bernard Baruch, Henry Ford, and Thomas Edison. He was perhaps the most mordant critic of the New Deal and foretold in elaborate detail the consequences of the administrative tyranny it would impose on the private conscience Americans have always assumed was their birthright. A dashing figure who had been struck in the neck by a stray bullet while in a speakeasy, Garrett wore bespoke tailoring with such élan that no less than Gay Talese thought he personified the “metropolitan splendor” of the “boulevardiers often photographed in Esquire.” A man of slight stature with incandescent eyes, thrice married and romantically linked to Rose Wilder Lane (1886-1968), Garrett might make an ideal central figure in a film about the twilight of American freedom during the dark years for human liberty in FDR’s America. Philosopher, flâneur, economist, cultural critic—what’s not to admire?

And one more flourish. You don’t have to be a fan of Ayn Rand to recall her talismanic phrase, “Who is John Galt?” It has been argued that Rand’s leitmotif was lifted bodily from Garrett’s novel The Driver (1922) where it appeared as, “Who is Henry Galt?” That Garrett’s other novels in his industrial trilogy deal with recalcitrant steel and railway magnates serves to underscore the notion that he may well have furnished one of the most resonant literary devices in twentieth-century fiction.

So who cares about Garrett, Alf Landon, and 1936?

I do. And here’s why: Garrett had been summoned to Topeka, Kansas in August of that year to help then Governor Alf Landon, who was the GOP candidate for President, strategize. Garrett penned a six-page memo and advised putting unremitting pressure on debt and unemployment. A second memo, a confidential assessment of Landon’s weaknesses, is also preserved. Here Garrett is remorseless: “What obviously is wanting is power. There is no feeling of power in him.” As we all know, Landon was gutted and flayed.

In post-election letters to Lane, Garrett confessed that: “Everything I believed about my own people was wrong. Everything I have written in the last four years was absurd.” And later “I believed something. What I believed has been rejected. According to my own argument, what people reject they have a right to reject; what world they want they have a perfect right to bring to pass if they can.”

Is a more candid, honest, and self-critical resignation in the face of political loss imaginable?

Yet it is the resignation all participants feel when they have been bested in an honest competition. Your vision lost. But Garrett had been making the case for laissez-faire policies from the most prominent media platforms available. It’s not like he was nourishing some private grudge about a secretly held frustration. Not only had he advised the losing candidate in person and been ignored, but he had primed the public for decades and been repudiated by them! It was a grand slam enough to put anyone in a depressive tailspin, especially a man approaching sixty.

It’s obvious that Garrett felt himself to be a partisan without a party, an advocate without an audience. The explosive capital formation and wealth accumulation he chronicled in the finance pages of the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the New York Tribune and the Saturday Evening Post—before and after the Great War—were natural expressions of what he saw as the majestic spiritual strength of the typical American. Among these expressions were the exercise of private conscience in the weighing of personal risk against an unknown, undistorted outcome of future reward, failure, or indifference.

I think there are millions of Americans who understand Garrett’s philosophical and personal affection for the free exercise of private conscience in markets, because we all know people who run a shop or have built a business. We all know, at least at second hand, the kind of sacrifice and immersion required in serving an indifferent public by people who run their own concerns. The willingness to act on the detection of a market opportunity, to assume the burden of advancing the capital needed to get things off the ground before the first sale can be closed—this willingness may or may not be innate, but it is fragile. And the deliberate erection of barriers, let alone the crushing and extinguishing of this willingness, is how innovation is throttled before it is started; how savings are destroyed before they are formed; how human growth and opportunity are denied before they are even planned out.

So, we all may know this to be true but very few realize how profoundly vulnerable this aspect of experience is. It is one task of sound economic reasoning to demonstrate how envy and fear compromises the willingness to innovate and thus destroys future gains—not only gains that take the familiar form of personal income and wealth, but also scientific and technological advances, market efficiencies, and opportunities to enhance our environments, both natural and cultural. But envy and fear are familiar, oddly comforting to various political constituencies, and easily scalable.

So, in 1936, I suspect that Garrett felt as though he had been led to the edge of a canyon, a vast empty space that could have been filled with human resourcefulness. Instead, it had been hollowed out by the arrogance of enormous new bureaucracies and authorized by the fears and envy of a naïve and trusting electorate.

Garrett’s remorse was the recognition that public opinion had abandoned him. My remorse is that public opinion itself has been repudiated.

In our moment, any public opinion that fails to support The Narrative is a threat to both political parties. Acknowledging contrarians would end both their saturnalian gorging on the federal budget, as well as to their faith in false Progress delivered digitally, with neither effort nor expense. How dare anyone question the apotheosis of Science and continuous, belt-fed “improvements” in human life? The wondrous leveling now underway—that eternal fantasy of adolescents, madmen, and politicians—must not be permitted to be stopped!

But whereas Garrett stood alone in 1936, there are now roughly seventy-five million people who see a different horizon. They may not all see the same destination, but they agree that the canyon of gaping human aspiration needs to be filled in.

A few realities that escaped the attention of millions as late as the Obama administration have become undeniably self-evident in the first weeks of 2021. The first, known by the most skeptical critics of the prevailing political order in the wake of FDR, is that the Republican Party is a marketing entity whose sole purpose is to defraud those who are attracted to it. It’s the bug zapper at the county fair next to the hot dog stand.

If this wasn’t patently clear in the first six weeks of the Trump administration, it became inescapable by the last six weeks. No entity did more to drill holes from within Trump’s ship of state than Republicans like Comey, Sessions, Barr, and others. When you think about it, it is actually stunning that Trump was permitted off the dais at his inaugural in 2017 because he had declared political war on the dominant factions in the crime syndicate that controls American political life.

Trump’s presidency poured a luminous liquid onto the surface of our civic life and revealed in a dramatic and emotional way the horrific fissure between the premise of our liberty that is the stated reason for our government, and its systematic betrayal by that same government.

What I hope most rank and file Republicans soon accept is that their party is not what it purports to be, and hasn’t been for a long, long, time. The unauthorized history of the Republican Party is an odious one, and one that should remind us of the central truth uttered by Ludwig von Mises that, “All modern political parties and all modern party ideologies originated as a reaction on the part of special group interests fighting for a privileged status…”

The Republican Party exists to secure—via government compulsion—benefits that cannot be gained by the voluntary exchange of goods and services in the market, pure and simple. These benefits do not, and never have, been oriented to expanding free markets here or anywhere else. The genealogy of the Republican Party, from Hamilton’s Federalists to Clay’s Whigs, represents nothing more than the evolutionary rebranding of an increasingly sophisticated approach to modernizing, streamlining, and profiting from technical modifications to the old mercantilist policies of the British crown. If anything, it was Jefferson’s Republican-Democrats and the Jacksonian Democrats who offered a pitched and clear alternative to the special interest, corporatist, and interventionist policies of the G. O. P. from the 1790s down through the middle of the 1890s and the cratering of Cleveland’s Bourbon Democrats.

Indeed, once you become familiar with the evolution of the “party systems” over the course of the nineteenth century through the pioneering historical scholarship of Paul Kleppner and understand how the theological divide between pietist and liturgical communities resolved their cultural differences in the political arena, you can begin to see how today’ political friction has become so heated.

If you will pardon the audacity of summarizing two excellent chapters in Murray Rothbard’ posthumous masterpiece, The Progressive Era (2017), the old Democrat party of laissez-faire, sound money, individual liberty, and states rights was eviscerated in the mid-1890s through the intersection of two forces: the corrosive effect of the 1893 crash at the beginning of Cleveland’s second term and the consolidation of pietists and liturgicals in a newly pragmatic GOP under the savvy leadership of Hanna and McKinley. What this meant is that the traditional sound money position of the gold standard was repudiated by an increasingly shrill pietistic subset of the Democrat party energized by William Jennings Bryan, and it was quietly and discretely adopted by the Republicans, who tempered their tone without modifying their biases.

The result was that by the end of 1896, the United States no longer had a political party that connected laissez-faire policy to individual liberty. Both parties became, in the words of Rothbard, “a mere camouflage for an assault on democracy and on freedom on behalf of the burgeoning coalition of technocratic and Big Business elites. For the new non-ideological party system [of 1896] and demobilized electorate meant also that the political party itself became far less important in deciding government policy. And, along with the parties, their constituencies—the voting public—became less important in influencing government actions. This decline of the political party as well as its voting constituency left a power vacuum which… the new order of experts, technocrats, and organized economic pressure groups rushed in to fill. The dominance of the new elites alienated still more citizens and swelled the ranks of non-voters.”

Sound familiar?

As Kleppner noted in 1978: “Freeing elected decisions-makers from the constraints of the party was a requisite condition to increase the policy-shaping role of other political institutions capable of articulating group interests. As the party’s role as a determinant of legislative voting behavior declined, for example, the influence of functionally organized economic interest groups increased. That was accompanied by an accelerated tendency to remove larger clusters of policy from even the potential influence of party behavior by shifting decision-making from elected to appointed bodies. Done in the name of ‘efficiency’ and ‘expertise,’ the consequence of that removal was further to insulate decision-making from organized mass opinion.”

Here, before the end of the nineteenth century, we see the early birthing spasms of today’s administrative state. The successful evolution of our political parties effectively vanquished the pretext for any policy that would enhance and protect the economic position of the average American citizen. And all of this was before the ideological cyclone unleashed by nearly two full terms of aggressively interventionist policies in the executive branch thanks to the most psychologically imbalanced president to date, Theodore Roosevelt. Starting with TR, the Progressives of both parties began to feed on the carcass of the prostrated American middle class, fattened up by the very success of the policies that had ignored and which would ultimately strip from them the dignity and affluence they had come, as witnessed by Garrett, to expect as their birthright.

The real insult comes about a generation later in reaction to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the launch of which, Garrett emphasizes, constituted a repudiation of the very policies he ran on in 1932. The country’s miserable response to FDR’s fascist economic collectivism was apparently insufficient for anyone in the RNC to consider that perhaps three decades of wholesale interventions might be rolled back and economic sanity restored by the repudiation of Progressive economic and monetary policies.

In what appears to have been an archetypal scene of a smoke-filled room where decisions are made by a handful of powerful men, Thomas Lamont (Morgan’s number two man) and Alfred Sloan (CEO of General Motors) hammered out a new corporate charter that would render the GOP a team player going forward in all important measures pertaining to the legislative success of the New Deal. You can read about this in the late Phyllis Schlaffly’s magnificent polemic, A Choice not an Echo (1964, rev. ed. 2014). The electorate has, for half a century, been chafing for an alternative to the statist centrifuge set in motion in the 1890s.

So here we are in 2021, four full generations downstream from the complete abandonment of our government institutions by two hyperbolic statist parties, with no relief in sight. Is it any wonder that there is all this talk about secession and civil war? Fully half the country realizes that it has zero political representation—yet the other half was morally outraged in 2016 when that half finally got one person in political office who acknowledged, imperfectly, this grotesque asymmetry.

As we contemplate what can be done, strategically and tactically, it is tempting to view ideologically provocative targets for political attack. But this is the very lowest of the low-hanging fruit. So is the temptation to pursue political hypocrisy and corruption. Illogic, corruption, and mendacity are all disgusting but they are table stakes, as they say. Remember Mises’s admonition that those who live by party and government solutions alone have surrendered a belief in personal agency.

If there is any lesson in comparing Garrett’s remorse to ours, it is that we need to appreciate fully the historical and cultural depth of the fight we face. The temptation is to swing and to swing fast.

The reality is that we need to swing deep—historically, emotionally, and institutionally—for we will fail to restore liberty if we don’t know where to find it.

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