"Reviving the Hamilton Agenda." That's the headline the New York Times gave David Brooks's recent column honoring Alexander Hamilton, the Founding Father perhaps least interested in limiting political power. Unlike his rival Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton favored strong central government and weaker states.
And he didn't trust the free market. He was an old-fashioned mercantilist -- he wanted politicians and bureaucrats to control private economic activities for the sake of special business interests.
In the true Hamiltonian spirit, Brooks also doesn't trust the market -- which means he doesn't trust free, peaceful individuals and private property. He writes, "We Hamiltonians disagree with the limited government conservatives [I assume Brooks has libertarians like me in mind] because, on its own, the market is failing to supply enough human capital."
Now David Brooks is a bright guy, so I wonder how he can blame the free market for failing in this way. He continues, "Despite all the incentives, 30 percent of kids drop out of high school and the college graduation rate has been flat for a generation."
Excuse me, but why is that the market's fault? Government dominates education in America. K-12 education is a coercive, often rigidly unionized government virtual monopoly that fights every attempt to experiment with free-market competition.
Brooks writes that Hamiltonians like him "think government should help people get the tools they need to compete." But when has government ever been good at that?
He claims the state can "increase the quality of human capital" by, for example, providing "Quality preschool [to] help young children from ... disorganized homes. ... "
Really? What is the chance that it would be "quality" preschool if government runs it? Even the acclaimed Head Start has not been shown to have any lasting effect on academic performance.
Why does Brooks think the government is competent enough to "help ... people compete"? He writes that liberals' "programs haven't worked out," but then proposes his own. When I challenged him on that, he said his ideas are in a "different category" and argued that some intervention is effective and necessary.
Please. When I asked Brooks why a government that performed as ineptly as FEMA did after Hurricane Katrina will be better at running preschools, he said, "Some lives are so screwed up, it's hard to make them worse."
Government coercion almost always makes things worse. It discourages individual effort, and sucks capital away from more productive uses.
Brooks, like a good Hamiltonian, favors coercive government micromanagement. He says, "Bigger child tax credits and increasing the earned income tax credit [welfare] can reduce the economic strain on young families. ... [G]overnment should increase funding for basic research, especially in math, engineering and physics.
"The list could go on."
That's what I'm afraid of.
Government will choose which "basic research" to fund? Does he recall the 1970s synthetic-fuels program or the 1990s Superconducting Super Collider boondoggle?
Child tax credits? Just cut taxes for everyone!
Brooks even advocates national service, "forcing city kids to work with rural kids, and vice versa."
Why are pundits and politicians so eager to use force against others?
America became an economic power despite, not because of, Hamiltonian intervention. Hong Kong and much of East Asia went from abject poverty to affluence in a few decades not because their governments gave people "tools they need to compete" -- they didn't -- but because they exercised limited powers.
I wish Brooks and other Hamiltonian conservatives understood that freedom and prosperity have nothing to do with bureaucrats managing society through schooling and tax manipulation. Prosperity comes from leaving people free in a legal system that respects their persons and property so they can pursue their dreams while taking responsibility for their actions. Free people find their own tools if the state leaves them alone.
In the era of big government, the last thing we need are champions of the statist Hamilton. What we need now are champions of the libertarian Jefferson, who said in a very un-Hamiltonian way: "I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it."