The Great Garet Garrett

Bill Steigerwald
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Posted: Jul 31, 2008 1:15 PM
The Great Garet Garrett

Economic journalist and author Garet Garrett (1878-1954) is largely forgotten by history. Only libertarians and "Old Right" conservatives who still believe in individual liberty, free markets, small government and a foreign policy founded on noninterventionism keep Garrett's name and memory alive today.

Yet, as Seattle Times editorial writer and columnist Bruce Ramsey details in his coming biography "Unsanctioned Voice: Garet Garrett, Journalist of the Old Right," Garrett was a major figure in the American media mainstream from the turn of the 20th century to the 1950s.

A self-taught economist with a fiction-writer's style and a knack for clearly explaining how the real world worked, Garrett was a vocal foe of the New Deal, socialism and U.S. involvement in World War II. He was a financial writer or editorialist at The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and then the Saturday Evening Post, arguably the most important middle-class media outlet of the '30s and '40s.

A handful of his more than a dozen books and novels -- some of which, like "The Wild Wheel" (about Henry Ford), are in the public domain -- can be read online (links are at Garrett's Wikipedia entry). And four Garrett books, including "Defend America First: The Antiwar Editorials of the Saturday Evening Post, 1939-1942" and "Salvos Against the New Deal," both of which were edited by Ramsey, have been published by Caxton Press (caxtonpress.com).

The small but freedom-friendly Idaho company, which has been printing Ayn Rand's "Anthem" in hardback for nearly 50 years, will bring out Ramsey's biography of Garrett next month. I talked to Ramsey by phone from Seattle.

Q: Why does Garrett deserve a biography?

A: The reason I wanted to do a biography of him was that he stated some ideas very clearly that I think are valuable ideas, even though they've become unpopular -- or at least were unpopular for a long time. ... One of those ideas is a justification for a limited-government, free-market capitalist society that's based on self-reliance. He directly ties self-reliance in with the idea of freedom and individual liberty in a way that is not done by a lot of modern writers.

Secondly, he has an idea of foreign policy that is America-centered -- basically from a time when America was a continental power or maybe a hemispheric power but did not have pretensions to being a world power with a lot of world responsibilities. He ties that in with the idea of a limited government by saying that when you become a world empire, as he called it, instead of a republic, you really can no longer have a limited government and true individual freedom. You can't have a limited government because you need to have this strong presidential power - the president who can take you to war on his decision is not bound very much by a constitution. And if you become a world empire you need to have a Congress that can levy all sorts of taxes on you and basically determine domestic policy on how it influences the empire or the whole world. So he made this argument for what he called a limited constitutional government in a republican form that I think is more consistent than the arguments made since then by conservatives. Also, he ought to be remembered for his writing style. He was a colorful and exact writer. As a writer I really admired him and much of the reason why I wanted to write about him instead of somebody else was that I liked his writing and I wanted to bring it back and show it off.

Q: What were his politics and who would he resemble today?

A: In the recent campaign it would be (Texas Republican Congressman) Ron Paul. That's for sure. It was a very much Ron Paul-type foreign policy and the emphasis on the Constitution. Even on the immigration issue, he's close to Ron Paul.

Q: What were his political beliefs?

A: The closest word today would be "libertarian." But he didn't use that word. He never labeled himself. But he was for a small government and basically a pre-New Deal interpretation of the U.S. Constitution; for sound money -- meaning gold-backed currency; for a mind-your-own-business foreign policy; and for an internal free market in the United States. Basically, he was opposed to the welfare state. He wanted an independent, self-reliant America that would go its own way and not be all bound up in obligations to other countries to modify and do what they wanted to do.

Q: What made him different or better than the other anti-New Dealers?

A: Well, some of the others focused on personality -- the personality of Roosevelt or people around him like Rexford Tugwell or the zany Henry Wallace over at the Agriculture Department. Garrett really was focusing on the economic essence of what the New Deal was trying to do. So he really homed in on the central idea of the thing -- one of which was to try to restore the previous price structure by pushing prices of things up. Garrett thought it was insane to do that in a depression -- to go around and try to push prices up -- because it made it harder for anybody to put together an enterprise and make any money, because they had to pay more for inputs, labor, whatever. It just wasn't the way we ever got out of a depression before.

Q: Why should we care about Garet Garrett today?

A: Well, because we are facing some of these same questions today. They're perennial questions about the size and power of the federal government and just what it undertakes to do and how much control it has over our lives; secondly, because he linked these two things -- the size and power of constitutional government in the domestic sphere on one hand and foreign policy.

He was a man of the right. He was in those days essentially a conservative, and I think the right in America needs to rediscover somebody like this because they have gotten all seduced by a kind of a nationalist, rah-rah-rah for our side (mentality) and they don't question the bigger questions -- what the troops are deployed for, what's the purpose of it, whether it makes any sense and whether it's really in our interest.

Actually, the American right got sidetracked by the Cold War. Before the Cold War, we had an attitude that was more like Garrett's and then you have four decades of struggling against the Communists. And, of course, the right wasn't going to like the Communists, and they were going to disregard Garrett's misgivings about it and go have this big battle to contain the Communists. But fighting communism changed the right. It made the right into the pro-military party -- the feeling that it was a good thing to have bases in Korea and Germany and Diego Garcia and who knows where.

I think it's mistaken. You actually have more freedom as a free country if your government is smaller and you stay out of other people's problems and Garrett was someone who expressed that very clearly.

A Garet Garrett Sampler

Republic or empire?

Garet Garrett biographer Bruce Ramsey chose this passage for the Trib from Garrett's 1952 book, "Rise of Empire":

The history of a Republic is its own history. Its past does not contain its future, like a seed. A Republic may change its course, or reverse it, and that will be its own business. But the history of Empire is world history and belongs to many people.

A Republic is not obliged to act upon the world, either to change it or instruct it. Empire, on the other hand, must put forth its power.

What is it that now obliges the American people to act upon the world? .

It is not only our security that we are thinking of -- our collective security. Beyond that is a greater thought.

It is our turn.

Our turn to do what?

Our turn to assume the responsibilities of moral leadership in the world.

Our turn to maintain a balance of power against the forces of evil everywhere -- in Europe and Asia and Africa, in the Atlantic and Pacific, by air and by sea. .

It is our turn to keep the peace of the world. .

But this is the language of Empire. The Roman Empire never doubted that it was the defender of civilization. Its good intentions were peace, law and order. The Spanish Empire added salvation. The British Empire added the noble myth of the white man's burden. We have added freedom and democracy. Yet the more that may be added to it the more it is the same language still. A language of power.

Other quotes from Garet Garrett

Lenin, the greatest theorist of them all, did not know what he was going to do after he had got the power.

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Loyalty of the law-making power to the executive power was one of the dangers the political fathers foretold.

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There are many aspects of government. The one least considered is what may be called the biological aspect, in which government is like an organism with such an instinct for growth and self-expression that if let alone it is bound to destroy human freedom - not that it might wish to do so but that it could not in nature do less. No government ever wants less government ... that is, less of itself. No government ever surrenders power, even its emergency powers -- not really. It may mean to surrender them, but on the first new occasion it will take them all back.