Hamilton’s Pragmatism [...]

Brad DeLong and co-author Cohen write:

Jefferson has gotten the better monuments and the better press in both newspapers and history books (but not in musicals, where the brilliant Lin Manuel-Miranda and his colleagues’ rap/rock rules). But in policy and in the real material arc of history, it is Hamilton who looms as the giant. He was the architect of the boldest, most original, and most important deliberate reshaping of the economy of the United States of America. Adam Smith’s ideas dominated and continue to dominate economics textbooks. But it is Hamilton’s more pragmatically oriented corrections to laissez-faire and to Smith’s ‘System of Natural Liberty’ that have successfully shaped development strategy for successful ‘late developers’ like Germany, Japan, Korea, and China—and, to a substantial degree, the United States.

The lesson is that ideologies—no matter what they are—are bad masters. Hamilton’s genius was in focusing on not what was decreed according to ideological first principles laid down by some academic scribbler, but rather focusing on what was in a pragmatic sense likely to generate prosperity at that moment in that situation.

Hamilton broadly got it right. His successors who continued his policies under decent Jeffersonian draperies also got it right. The post-Civil War decision to go for a heavily-industrialized economy knit together by continent-spanning railroads got it right. The Progressive course correction of the inequities produced by the Gilded Age got it right. So did the—overwhelmingly pragmatic—policies of FDR and of Eisenhower.

It is only in the past generation that we have forgotten our pragmatic past and applied ideological litmus tests to what our public policies will be. And we have suffered for it.


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