The Outstater: Coolidge in the Voting Booth

October 26, 2015

To live under the American Constitution is the greatest political privilege that was ever accorded to the human race.” — Calvin Coolidge

THE PUBLIC OPINION POLLS TELL US that next week’s local elections will advance those candidates with the most governmental-political experience. That makes sense, right? We want officials, Republican or Democrat, experienced at governing. But there’s more to it than that.

The common wisdom since at least the 1940s has been that we want to send the most credentialed, experienced, professional person to represent us in the seat of power, much as we would choose a lawyer to represent us in court. Depending on how you think this is working out, though, you might question whether it isn’t at cross purposes to our unique political system.

In its simplest form, our system assumes that anything not specifically defined as illegal is legal. Most everywhere else it is the opposite; that is, anything not specifically defined as legal is assumed illegal. For the surprisingly diverse but short list of countries that do it our way, see Daniel Hannan’s “Inventing Freedom, HarperCollins 2013.

You don’t have to be an economic historian to understand which of those two systems would favor investment, innovation and local control. Nor do you have to be a political scientist to understand that the other would favor a talent for compromise and central control.

This is anything but new. The Normans and the English fought the Battle of Hastings 950 years ago over such a difference in viewpoint. It has been fought in one way or another ever since. The point here is that during this last half century or so, we may have accumulated enough Normans and need a few more English.

So instead of picking someone to represent us as a lawyer this time, consider looking for someone to represent you as a friend and neighbor. In order not to be confused by the personalities of next week’s election, let’s look at an example from an earlier generation.

Calvin Coolidge spent a lifetime in public office but did not let it enamor him to public office — and was a lawyer only incidentally. Excellent biographies of Mr. Coolidge abound but let’s draw from Paul Johnson’s “Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties,” HarperCollins 1991:

“Calvin Coolidge was the most internally consistent and single-minded of modern American presidents. If Harding loved America as Arcadia, Coolidge was the best equipped to preserve it as such. He came from the austere hills of Vermont, of the original Puritan New England stock, and was born over his father’s store. No public man carried into modern times more comprehensively the founding principles of Americanism: hard work, frugality, freedom of conscience, freedom from government, respect for serious culture (he went to Amherst and was exceptionally well-read in classical and foreign literature and in history).”

Will there be such a candidate on your ballot Tuesday? In some measure, almost certainly. Whether of Anglo-Saxon stock is unimportant, but he or she should understand capitalism as if raised above a corner grocery store or village bodega. And if a lawyer, your candidate should be of the country sort who represents clients not by writing special rules for them but by keeping them out of court so they can mind their business.

To all of this can be added William Allen White’s sublime compliment of any working politician: “Coolidge slapped no man on the back, pawed no man’s shoulder, squeezed no man’s hand.”

That may be hard to find.

— Craig Ladwig



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