What Would Ben Franklin Say About An America In Decline?

Entrepreneur Tom Blair, a history buff, is an expert on the Founding Fathers, especially Benjamin Franklin. Blair wrote a book asking "Where is our Benjamin Franklin?" Blair makes the essential point that he is heavy with worry that for "many Americans, the fire in the belly no longer seems to burn."

John Tamny
2/18/2013 @ 8:00AM
Forbes

Writing about the successful American Revolution in his masterful 1998 book, A History of the American People, historian Paul Johnson opined that the British weren’t incompetent as much as the Founders were brilliant. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Monroe, and Franklin were in the eyes of Johnson the greatest collection of minds in one place in the history of mankind.

At present the creation of our Founding Fathers limps along with high unemployment, gargantuan budget deficits, and a lack of confidence that is, well, un-American. So with these United States seemingly in trouble, it’s always worthwhile to consider the difficult times we’re in through the eyes of the Founders themselves. Wildly successful entrepreneur Tom Blair has done just that with his highly insightful and enjoyable Poorer Richard’s America – What Would Ben Say?

A history buff of the first order (he has one of the world’s largest collections of WWII aircraft), Blair’s expertise extends to the Founders, including the one most known for his wit and entrepreneurialism, Benjamin Franklin. Poorer Richard’s America is written in the style of Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack; each chapter addressing issues that define today’s political and economic existence.

Blair asks “Where is our Benjamin Franklin, and why aren’t we listening to the original?” Good question, after which it’s easy to recommend Blair’s imitation of one of America’s own.

To begin, Blair (as Franklin – always, for the purposes of the review) makes an essential point that would surely be on the mind of the Founders concerning our reliance on the federal government. He writes that he’s become “heavy with worry” that for “many Americans, the fire in the belly no longer seems to burn. More and more of you cling tight to the Great Federal Breast while beseeching your government to kiss your hurts and chase the pain away.” So true. Though the Founders surely authorized the federal government through the Constitution, they then quickly made plain that its powers would be few and defined. Our federal government’s role in our lives was to be strictly limited by design, yet more and more Americans expect it to heal our inner and outer wounds.

Taking the above narrative further, Blair writes that “Your forefathers and foremothers didn’t require a State or Federal Stimulus Package to nurture national growth; by working and sacrificing for Junior and little Missy, they forged the most robust economic engine the world has ever seen.” Absolutely they did. The Founders arguably sensed what today’s politicians do not, that “recessions” are an economy’s momentarily painful way of cleansing from the commercial world any egregious errors; the word recession really a signal of economic rebirth.

Furthermore, our forefathers themselves didn’t expect “stimulus” packages from the federal government owing to the simple truth that nowhere in our founding document is the term “economic growth” even mentioned. Surely growth would take care of itself in a free society. After that, assuming “economic growth” was included in the document, Franklin and others would arguably know that the quickest way to create economic quicksand is to rob businessmen of the very failure that teaches them how to succeed, and that forces successful economic evolution.

About America’s first citizens, Blair writes of the incredibly hard journeys they endured to get here. Implicit in his writing is that for a nation of immigrants, their continued arrival enriches us. As he puts it so eloquently, to the new arrivals “America was the land of opportunity, that opportunity being that if citizens toiled until their bones ached they might be able to pull more from the land than they could have, or were allowed to, in their motherland.” Another notable immigrant, industrialist Andrew Carnegie, once wrote to a relative in Scotland that “If I had been at Dumferline working at the loom it’s very likely I would have been a poor weaver all my days, but here, I can surely do something better than that, and if I don’t it will be my own fault, for anyone can get along in this country.”

All of the above is important given Blair’s repeated point that some Americans have seemingly lost the burning desire that has historically defined the American spirit. If so, presumably the best way to revivify any lost drive is to re-open our borders to the world’s ambitious. Blair writes of “billions, in foreign lands who have fire in their bellies” and who are willing to “crawl up the economic curve.” My view is hallelujah, that as we expand the division of labor globally that there will be more goods for all of us to enjoy, but if the fear is that we’re losing our edge here, it seems the best answer is to legalize all work in the U.S. irrespective of country of birth.

Blair writes that it “vexes” him, the attitude among Americans that they’re the best. He has a point in light of his point about some Americans having lost their drive, but my own view is that yes we are the best, and the reason we are has to do with the fact that we descend from some of the most courageous individuals from all over the world who were willing to endure incredible hardship in order to attain personal and economic freedom. Answering the popular view among some Americans to this day that the new arrivals to the U.S. are “Unreal Americans,” Blair notes that this false emotion “is evidently as cyclical and inevitable as the changing seasons that characterize the passing of a year.” In short, the arrival of every new nationality has brought frowns to the alleged natives whose ancestors’ arrival was similarly frowned upon by some.

Taking on corporate influence, Blair writes that they “have become the shadow fourth branch of your government. And by being such, they distort and corrupt the balance of interests and representations so carefully, so hopefully conceived and memorialized in America’s Constitution by our Nation’s Founding Fathers.” Read in isolation, the previous line might cause one to assume Blair anti-business, but as his own stellar record of commercial achievement makes plain, he’s not.

My read of the above is that Blair is properly offended by corporate influence that has at times grotesquely revealed itself in the form of bailouts for the well connected. It was said back in 2008 that our banking system was too important to let fail, but if anything, the system’s importance speaks precisely to why certain institutions should have been allowed to implode. Indeed, the computer/technology spaces are some of the most vibrant in the U.S. today, yet both sectors are marked by decades of constant failure; the latter regularly forcing the betterment of the companies overall. The “seen” is banks that are still alive (Citigroup has been bailed out at least five times in the last 22 years), but the “unseen” is how much healthier and innovative U.S. banks would be now if our federal minders weren’t constantly bailing out their mistakes.

Digging deeper into corporate influence later in Poorer Richard’s America, Blair writes of the revolving door between politics and the pharmaceutical industry; from relatively low paying jobs in Congress to multi-million dollar pay packages as lobbyists for the drug industry. Particularly eye-opening to this reader was Blair’s description of the already odious 2003 Medicare bill. Within the latter was “a clause that forbids-yes, forbids-Medicare to use its bulk-purchasing power to negotiate low drug prices.” The influence of certain business sectors in Washington is offensive on its own, and then it should be added that it’s ultimately to the detriment of those same businesses. Indeed, how much innovation has been sucked out pharmaceutical firms for them being so beholden to politicians possessing contempt for profit?

If there’s disagreement with Blair about corporate influence it’s in his assertion that “America must expel Corporate America, and its paid agents, from the streets of Washington and the halls of Congress.” My own view is that lobbyists are merely a symptom of the bigger problem that Blair understands intimately, and that Blair wrote about in his introduction: too many Americans expect the feds to kiss their wounds. If the federal government were held to the strict enumerated limits laid out in the Constitution, we wouldn’t have to worry about lobbyists.

Regarding the myriad federal programs that allegedly compassionate politicians provide us with, Blair reminds readers “that each and every federal program is paid for dearly by us Americans.” Yes we do pay for them because the government only has resources insofar as it extracts them from taxpayers and investors. Later in the book, Blair adds to the previous point what’s frequently lost on supply-siders (like all supply-siders, I feel production is the source of all consumption such that we must remove the tax, trade, regulatory, and monetary barriers to production) who sometimes unwittingly extol the virtues of tax cuts for the economic growth they bring, along with the revenues they shower on Washington. The growth part makes sense, but Blair alerts the reader to what some supply-siders miss; that the “ill-advised and ill-begotten programs these members of Congress contrive through the legislative survive the member’s time in office, thus becoming an indelible drain on America’s Treasury.” Absolutely. When Washington is the recipient of tax dollars, it doesn’t use them to pay off the deficits (more on them later). Instead, politicians in both parties use the funds to devise new programs that are near impossible to sunset.

Addressing the growing desire among some Americans to spread democracy globally, Blair happily writes of the unease he feels “when I listen to Americans of high position lecturing that America must forthwith deliver democracy to other nations.” The latter is very important. Certainly the Founders were of the view that we’d maintain friendly relations with other nations, but they were also clear that we should be allied with none. That we now have military bases in 175 countries around the world would surely have them spinning.

Furthermore, the Founders were as skeptical of democracy as they were of monarchy; the former taking on the trappings of monarchy if not checked. Franklin himself famously responded about the creation of the United States that they’d given us “A Republic, if you can keep it,” and as opposed to a democracy marked by the passions of the voters, the Founders gave us a constitutional Republic in which the powers of the federal government were once again very limited. In the coming years in the Middle East we’ll likely see the horrors of our drive to deliver on the world unrestrained democracy.

After that, I would add to Blair’s point that just as we shouldn’t try to foist our form of government on other countries, we also shouldn’t force on them our environmentalism. Love the latter or hate it, the simple truth is that we’re able to be environmentally aware precisely because we’re a very rich country. Countries like India and China, on the other hand, both full of people just trying to make ends meet, don’t have time to care about the environment when it’s still a success if they can feed themselves on a daily basis.

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