By Donella Meadows
–July 9, 1987–
When a President summons the image of a great predecessor to cast a gleam of glory onto a present action, watch out. The current incumbent is probably trying to pull off something the historical one would have detested. Richard Nixon used a portrait of honest Abe Lincoln as the backdrop for his prevarications about Watergate. And Ronald Reagan chose the towering statue of Thomas Jefferson to oversee his announcement, on July 3, of a most un-Jeffersonian “Economic Bill of Rights”.
If Jefferson’s spirit still hangs around his Memorial in Washington, it must have wondered what Reagan, that perfect latter-day Hamiltonian, was doing there. Jefferson and Hamilton were “daily pitted in the Cabinet like two cocks”. They were laying down opposing legacies of political thought that have divided the country ever since. Then the political parties were called Federalists and Republicans. Today they are called Republicans and Democrats, but, as Jefferson predicted, not much has changed:
“Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe…depository of the public interests. In every country these two parties exist…. Call them…Whigs and Tories, Republicans and Federalists, Aristocrats and Democrats, or by whatever name you please, they are the same parties still.”
Reagan invited a select group of supporters, equipped with American flags, to witness his speech. The general public was excluded. His Economic Bill of Rights consists of “the freedom to work; the freedom to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor; the freedom to own and control one’s property; the freedom to participate in a free market.”
That all sounds OK until you read the fine print. It includes, for instance, the same Constitutional budget-balancing amendment Mr. Reagan has been seeking for years.
Jefferson didn’t need a Constitutional amendment to balance the budget; he just balanced it.
He not only balanced the budget, he ran surpluses until the national debt was paid off. He did it by favoring domestic spending, especially for education, by cutting the military, and by taxing the rich:
“We shall soon see the final extinction of our national debt, and liberation of our revenues for the defense and improvement of our country. These revenues will be levied entirely on the rich….The farmer will see his government supported, his children educated, and the face of his country made a paradise by the contributions of the rich alone, without his being called on to spend a cent from his earnings.”
You might call that policy an Economic Bill of Rights, but it is not the one President Reagan has in mind.
Jefferson was not “soft on defense” — he liked having a navy to bash the Barbary pirates who were interfering with trade, and he urged a strong militia. But he handled international disagreement with negotiation rather than muscle-flexing, he saw an established military as a threat to democracy (“the spirit of this country is totally adverse to a large military force”), and he saw war as a losing proposition:
“Never was so much false arithmetic employed on any subject as that which has been employed to persuade nations that it is their interest to go to war. Were the money which it has cost to gain…a little town, or a little territory, the right to cut wood here or to catch fish there, expended in improving what they already possess, in making roads, opening rivers, building ports, improving the arts, and finding employment for their idle poor, it would render them much stronger, much wealthier and happier.” Mr. Reagan’s July 3 proposals include a requirement of a “super-majority” vote of Congress to raise taxes, reduction of government regulations, a financial-impact statement for government actions, further privatization of government functions, and reform of the welfare system. After six years of this Administration consistently favoring the rich and corporate over the poor and individual, we can be certain that each of these proposals is motivated by a Hamiltonian urge to protect the privileges of a few, not by a sympathetic understanding of the needs of the many.
Thomas Jefferson wrote that our inalienable rights are “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, not “life, liberty and property”. He knew that highly unequal accumulations of property are as much a threat to freedom as unequal accumulations of political power. When he was a young revolutionary, he wrote some good advice for Hamiltonians:
“The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest. Only aim to do your duty, and mankind will give you credit where you fail. No longer persevere in sacrificing the rights of one part of the empire to the inordinate desires of another; but deal out to all equal and impartial right.”
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1987