My conclusion, after reading this book, is that Calvin Coolidge is grossly under-rated. Actually, that’s not quite right, because to be under-rated, you first have to be known. As far as I can tell, nearly nobody in America today knows much if anything about Coolidge. I certainly didn’t before reading this book. Yet not only is Coolidge a fascinating character study, his political life and his Presidency hold important lessons for today.
Coolidge was successively governor of Massachusetts, Vice President, and President, covering the period 1919 to 1929. As President, much of his focus was on restoring fiscal stability to the United States after the deficit spending of World War I. He presided over a time of great change in the United States, although the federal government of the time had little to do with the changes, which were mostly technological and sociological. Coolidge was succeeded by Herbert Hoover, who undid most of Coolidge’s fiscal work and presided over the descent to the Great Depression. Perhaps because his life and his Presidency seem to lack drama, Coolidge is little mentioned today.
Coolidge’s was a native Vermonter, with the flinty reserve that Vermonters had historically been known for. He was a Progressive, with much politically in common with Theodore Roosevelt—although nothing else in common, and not nearly as radical as Roosevelt. But by the standards of the time he was, in many ways, fairly liberal. He persevered against uphill odds throughout his life, from humble beginnings and being a social outcast at Amherst, to snobbery from leading politicians who came from “better families,” and both his enemies and friends consistently underestimated him.
But unlike today’s liberals, Coolidge believed that a big government was necessarily bad, because it necessarily impinged on liberty. We see that today, on a scale and promising a future that would have terrified Coolidge. He would have been horrified at the erosion of the rule of law and the idea that the Constitution meant imposition of whatever five unelected judges desired as their political program. Shlaes’s book, while it wisely avoids drawing modern parallels, which always make a historical biography feel stale within a few years, does an excellent job of drawing the man from his youth to his death, and the book is a pleasure to read.
One common vice of any age is imagining that all important ideas are new to that age. Coolidge’s tax policies show that to be false. His main preoccupation while he was President was dealing with the huge spending, huge deficits, and huge tax rates that resulted from World War I. He believed, as once did everyone, that the government should not spend more than it took in and that taxes should be as low as possible on principle. He also believed that higher tax rates did not necessarily mean more tax revenue. While Ronald Reagan pushed tax cuts in part with the argument that reducing tax rates could increase revenue, the theory was treated as new, and named the Laffer Curve, after Arthur Laffer’s supposedly drawing it on a napkin. But not only did Coolidge and his Treasury Secretary, Andrew Mellon, have a precise understanding of this concept, they carefully passed bills in Congress to gradually test the scope of the effect, showing conclusively that in the tax environment of the time, revenues went up considerably with tax rate cuts.
Of course, the 1920s were a very different time on very many levels (tariffs were regarded as good policy by most, for example), so that does not prove the same result would happen today. But Coolidge’s approach to taxation shows it is always a mistake to think that people in the past were somehow simple or ignorant. In most particulars, other than raw technology, they were less simple and ignorant than us, and worked much harder at self-improvement than us, because aggregate wealth wasn’t enough to support the enormous amount of parasitism we have today. If you didn’t provide value to society, if you wanted to teach womens “studies” or Latino “studies” or some equally worthless pseudo-discipline, or if you wanted to earn your living by receiving government grants and sitting on the couch, or by corrupting the minds of the young in universities against the wishes of the parents paying the bills, you would have starved. So people had to be smart, knowledgeable and competent. When you read about the government in Coolidge’s time, one thing that strikes the reader is that everyone in power was educated and competent—his approach to taxation is only one example.
That said, Coolidge’s primary method of cutting the bloated federal budget was, well, cutting the bloated federal budget. In these days, when merely reducing the rate of increase of any program is treated by those affected as a crime against humanity, and deficits are at level probably literally unimaginable to Coolidge, to read about Coolidge’s and his team’s efforts seems like reading about something a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. For example: Coolidge was personally involved in the decision to change post office mailbags from blue striped ones to gray canvas, to save $50,000 annually. Today, union prevailing wages would be paid through a no-bid contract to a so-called disadvantaged enterprise, and they would cost millions and tear constantly. Nobody today even talks about actual cuts to federal spending, yet Coolidge cut on a massive scale, and refused to spend even when it was damaging to him politically.
Shlaes spends a lot of time showing Coolidge was a man of such principles. As another example, when there was unprecedented giant flooding of the Mississippi, and unprecedented giant flooding in his home state of Vermont (doubtless of the sort that would be blamed on “climate change” today, though then they called it “weather”), Coolidge refused to involve the federal government in relief, believing such action to be a state responsibility. He was criticized for this stand (which, like his refusal to consider more than two terms despite intense pressure to do so, followed the principles of George Washington), and Hoover immediately took a different tack, setting the federal government on the path to the Jabba the Hutt it is today.
A man like Coolidge could not be President today. He was too principled, too little a demagogue, and too intelligent. He did not pander to any constituency at any time. And if a man like Coolidge somehow became President today, he would have no impact, given the rot and bloat of the federal government, including the regulatory bureaucracy, Congress and the Supreme Court; the ascent of the uneducated and unproductive to political power through the diligent efforts of Alinskyite “community organizers”; the fundamental unseriousness of popular culture and its descent to Idiocracy; and the monolithic legacy media’s ability to set and maintain the narrative in favor of the latest in pernicious leftist ideas. So the time is past, and imagining Coolidge as today’s President is not productive, merely a pleasant fantasy. But we can hold him up as a historical ideal, while realizing that what we need now is not a new Coolidge, but aggressive and pitiless destruction of the stranglehold of the Left on America—perhaps, someday, to result in an America where a new Coolidge can, in fact, be President.