What Presidential Legacy? Pulling Back the Curtain on the Existence of a "Good" President

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Some time ago, I saw a news report on comments made by Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel about Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff. Wiesel admitted that he fell totally for Madoff’s charm some 20 years ago and, as a result, invested (and lost) some 15 million dollars on behalf of his Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. In his comments about Madoff, reported by the New York Post, Wiesel said, "Psychopath is too nice a word for him." Wiesel went on, "He [Madoff] should be put in a solitary cell with a screen and on the screen, for at least five years of his life, (there would be) pictures of his victims." Strong words, indeed. Given that Madoff was recently sentenced to something like 150 years in prison, I reckon Wiesel got most of his wish.

I have no interest in even trying to defend Bernie Madoff, but it strikes me as ironic that people are ready to tar and feather him for doing something the U.S. Gubmint has been doing since about 1935.

I wonder, "Why would this guy Madoff, who jilted people via a voluntary choice, be more worthy of condemnation than American Presidents, who routinely kill, enslave, and steal from people using coercion and the threat of violence?" Seriously, if Madoff deserves to be imprisoned and tortured, certainly someone who kills a family he's never met soon after his first day in office deserves similar punishment, no? Interestingly, I'm not the only person who wonders about this aloud, nor is every advocate of freedom in agreement on the issues. I rather think the Madoff case illustrates why libertarian restitution, applied outside the realm of security and patrol, is a best-case solution, but that is for another essay.

In many cases, among both the intelligentsia and the proletariat, whenever the discussion turns to politics, people display a partisan bias. In response to a few of my essays, respondents have even accused me of being a partisan. (No one ever said reading comprehension was a prerequisite for sending a random e-mail to some guy you found on the Internet.) As a market anarchist, I take no stock in any political party, mainstream or otherwise. I've stated as much more than a few times, starting with my very first essay ever, and continuing up through my "Is It Wrong If I Just Don't Care?" rant, and beyond.

Does either party have a premium on liberty? No. I agree with those who call for plumb-line libertarianism — neither left nor right. (While I am all for big-tentism between various "varieties" of libertarianism, no one should mistake neoconism for a flavor of libertarianism.) I often get a question, intended to be a straw man, when people find out that I feel this way, which is: "You're not saying that it doesn't matter if [place name of politician A here] is president versus [place name of politician B here], are you?" Yes, that is exactly what I'm saying. In terms of the major freedom issues, it doesn't matter worth a large pile of rat excrement which party produces the President of the United States. (In fact, this is what renders voting such a colossal waste of time.)

As an exercise, I began to examine previous American presidents to see if even one of them was free of rancid, oily, anti-freedom residue. The task was daunting, and I didn't finish it. Along the way however, I discovered a few interesting tidbits. For instance, from an interesting paper on the National Debt, I got:

For the mathematically inclined, if you take the first derivative of the data presented to find the slope of each President's debt increase, you will find that the Republican slopes are consistently more positive than the Democratic slopes.  For everyone else, this just means that unbiased mathematical proof exists to support the claim that since 1945, Republican presidents have borrowed more than Democratic presidents regardless of the inflation rate.

Ouch. The GOP, the supposed "party of small government" spends more money. Who knew? (Actually, who didn't know?) Further along in the same study, I found another interesting tidbit about Andrew Jackson:

Jackson did not believe in debt, or banks for that matter, and he made a real effort to eliminate all federal debt.  He got it down to $18,000 (or somewhere thereabouts) just before leaving office.

So "Old Hickory" was none too fond of debt. He also wasn't that much of a champion of freedom, given his stances on nullification — secession — and the forceful removal of Indians. (I admit it. I'm still a little shaky on how one can "discover" land with people already living on it.) Jackson's specific foibles aside, if holders of the highest office in a land supposedly founded upon the ideals of freedom do not exemplify a belief in freedom, it pretty much means that the late, great Harry Brown was right when he said, "Government doesn't work."

Author Ivan Eland, of the Independent Institute, has written a book entitled "Recarving Rushmore" which examines each U.S. president vis-à-vis the level of success each had in advancing the causes of peace, prosperity, and liberty. I certainly won't duplicate Eland's excellent scholarship in this essay, but this essay represents my own attempt to analyze selected presidents spanning the entire history of the presidency in the U.S. using a similar rubric. As an aside, based upon a wonderful long-format interview I was lucky enough to see, Eland rates John Tyler, Grover Cleveland, Martin Van Buren, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Chester A. Arthur as the best presidents of the U.S., due to their stances and accomplishments in maintaining a limited government, operating via a restrained executive branch and maintaining a restrained foreign policy.

I focused on some of the mistakes of the plethora of not-so-great presidents, of which there are many to choose. (I might debate the existence of any good president, but since I'm an anarchist, that's no real surprise!)

Note: My sincere thanks to posters at the FreedomainRadio.com Forums for their help on this table.

Selected Presidents of the United States of America and Samples of Their Legacies against Freedom

#

President

Took Office

Left Office

Legacy Against Liberty

Party

Vice Pres.

Term

1

George Washington

April 30, 1789

March 4, 1797

  • Quelled the Whiskey Rebellion via armed troops.

No Party

John Adams

1

2

 

 

2

John Adams

March 4, 1797

March 4, 1801

  • Signed the Alien and Sedition Act.

Federalist

Thomas Jefferson

3

3

Thomas Jefferson

March 4, 1801

March 4, 1809

  • Won the presidency directly by virtue of owning a lot of slaves.
  • Imposed draconian embargo and enforced it via martial law.
  • Prosecuted more people under the Alien and Sedition Act than John Adams.

Democratic-Republican

Aaron Burr

4

George Clinton

5

Notes: The first three presidents of the United States of America infringed upon their "subjects" in ways that were antithetical to the powerful words of document(s) they actually conceived and signed. A revolutionary leader like John Adams somehow decides that it makes sense to jail people for speaking out? Come on. Jefferson, who Eland rightfully calls "a towering intellect," jailed more people with the Alien and Sedition Act — a piece of legislation he did not originally support — than did Adams.

#

President

Took Office

Left Office

Legacy Against Liberty

Party

Vice Pres.

Term

16

Abraham Lincoln

March 4, 1861

April 15, 1865[4]

  • Authorized military conscription, while authorizing the rich to avoid draft via cash payments.
  • Sent troops into NY City to enforce the draft.
  • Authorized the printing of 1st U.S. fiat currency.
  • Effectively removed secession as a relevant possibility via the Civil War.

Republican
National Union[5]

Hannibal Hamlin

19

Andrew Johnson

20

Notes: A lot has been written about Lincoln. Of all the U.S. presidents, he seems to generate the most heat. While I am certainly no fan, I am somewhat persuaded by this examination of the facts. It might be that I maintain no romantic view of the Confederacy. Given that Lincoln was himself a white supremacist, I've no love for him either. (Among his "legacies" not mentioned above, he promised the South that it could keep its slaves if it surrendered within 100 days of the remarkably mis-named Emancipation Proclamation. What a leader!)

28

Woodrow Wilson

March 4, 1913

March 4, 1921

  • Authorized the creation of the Federal Reserve.
  • Authorized the U.S. entry into WWI.
  • Signed the Internal Revenue Act, which led to the modern personal income tax.
  • Mobilized the U.S. economy for wartime, leading to the Military-Industrial Complex.
  • Spearheaded the creation of the League of Nations via actions that eventually led to the rise of the Bolsheviks in Russia.
  • Signed the Espionage Act.

Democratic

Thomas Marshall

32

33

Notes: For a president who does not seem to get a lot of mention, Wilson seems to have set the table for an alarming loss of future freedom. The creation of the Federal Reserve alone deserves its own essay.

32

Franklin D. Roosevelt

March 4, 1933

April 12, 1945[1]

  • Spearheaded economic policies that led to the Great Depression.
  • Established The New Deal social programs.
  • Authorized the U.S. entry into WWII.
  • Authorized the bombing of Dresden.
  • Set up Japanese internment camps in the U.S.
  • Created the Tennessee Valley Authority, which led to nationalization of utilities.

Democratic

John Garner

37

38

Henry Wallace

39

Harry S. Truman

40

33

Harry S. Truman

April 12, 1945

January 20, 1953

  • Authorized the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasake.
  • Authorized the formation of the National Security Agency (NSA).
  • Signed the War Powers Act which led to the formation of the War Finance Corporation, and later the Small Business Administration (SBA).

Democratic

vacant

Alben Barkley

41

Hubert Humphrey

45

Notes: FDR and Truman seem to get a lot of positive spin from those who ascribe to a liberal point of view. Given that the Great Society hurt poor people more than any single presidential act that seems rather misguided. In contrast, the acts of murder from the dropping of the atomic bomb cannot be misinterpreted.

37

Richard Nixon

January 20, 1969

August 9, 1974[2]

  • Ended the gold standard.
  • Started the war on (some) drugs.
  • Continued CIA intervention in Chile's internal affairs.
  • Continued interventions in Cambodia and Vietnam.

Republican

Spiro Agnew

46

Spiro Agnew[2]
vacant
Gerald Ford

47

Notes: Few bad decisions have had a more sweeping negative financial effect than the removal of the gold standard, although other decisions made around 1980 do seem to have really gotten the ball really rolling.

39

Jimmy Carter

January 20, 1977

January 20, 1981

  • Instituted gasoline price controls, leading to a massive gasoline shortage.
  • Authorized funding of the Mujahedeen.
  • Signed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
  • Signed the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA).

Democratic

Walter Mondale

48

40

Ronald Reagan

January 20, 1981

January 20, 1989

  • Promoted economic policies that deepened the chasm between ends of the socio-economic spectrum.
  • Increased funding of the Mujahedeen.
  • Contravened the Boland Amendment by laundering money from the sale of arms to fund his own private war — the Iran Contra Scandal.
  • Doubled the size of the U.S. Federal Government.
  • Got into bed with Osama bin Laden.

Republican

George H. W. Bush

49

50

41

George H. W. Bush

January 20, 1989

January 20, 1993

  • Deepened U.S. involvement with Osama bin Laden.
  • Authorized Gulf War I.
  • Further increased the size of the U.S. Federal Government.

Republican

Dan Quayle

51

42

Bill Clinton

January 20, 1993

January 20, 2001

  • Sponsored sanctions against Iraq.
  • Authorized the Battle of Mogudishu.

Democratic

Al Gore

52

53

43

George W. Bush

January 20, 2001

January 20, 2009

  • Signed the USAPatriot Act.
  • Started the Iraq War.
  • Authorized the invasion of Afghanistan.
  • Further increased the size of the U.S. Federal Government.
  • Committed a plethora of impeachable crimes.

Republican

Dick Cheney

54

55

Whole treatises could be written about the follies launched into history by George II. The guy generated his own impeach-Bush movement. Giving such a monumentally un-gifted man a larger entry seems wrong though. It also seems, if his First 100 Days are any indication, that Bush the Second's successor, President Barack, might enter into an almost Reaganesque realm with his combination of spending and contributions to liberty such as indefinite detention. I'll leave enhancing the entries of Clinton and Bush II, as well as creating an entry for President Barack as an exercise for the reader.

The bolded items in my table represent broad categories whose ramifications resonate today.

Fiat Currency

Few tools provide the State with power it should not have better than the ability to print money. Without fiat currency, long-term war is almost impossible. Without fiat currency, government debt is small, and generally must remain manageable, i.e., collateralized with something, even if it grows. In the case of the Civil War, all the fiat currency used to pay for it was retired after the war ended, but without that money, the war likely could not have been nearly as destructive. As I've noted, the debasement of currency for the benefit of the State dates back at least to Roman times. Fiat currency represents the most thorough debasement of the currency, since fiat currency is worth nothing. (If debasement is what one is after, you can't do much better than that!)

The Federal Reserve

The Federal Reserve deserves its own essay. For a wonderful, if troubling study of this subject, I endorse G. Edward Griffin's "The Creature from Jekyll Island" heartily. For now, this simplistic explanation should suffice. The Federal Reserve is not that much more "federal" than Federal Express. It is simply a quasi-private central bank, run primarily by a presidentially-appointed board of governors. According to Wiki, a central bank has as its primary responsibilities: to maintain the stability of the national currency and money supply, with more active duties including controlling subsidized-loan interest rates, and acting as a lender of last resort to the banking sector during times of financial crisis (private banks often being integral to the national financial system). Given that the U.S. dollar has lost well over 90% of its value due to the inflation that is an inexorable result of central banking, I'd say stability has not been achieved. Wealth transfer, well, that has been achieved!

War

In another essay, I noted the folly of war when I said:

Governments exist to make war. They always have. This is because war is a racket. Standing armies, which are remarkably misnamed, are the realization of the fact that without professional soldiers, wars are often quick and indecisive or long and ridiculous. (That is, states can still fight, but it's not really that, well, satisfying and the wars can fizzle out due to simple logistics like running out of ammo or food, or having to tend the crops.) With professional soldiers employed by a highly-developed state, the cost of supplying them, feeding them, and housing them can be off-loaded to others. This makes it possible to invade and conquer distant lands and make “efficient” war, i.e., kill a lot of people very quickly. Best of all, the profits can still be absorbed by the war-racketeers.

That sums it up. The war racketeers have been milking the U.S. cow for years.

The Nanny State

Few things upset me more than bureaucratic paternalism masquerading as genuine concern. I've noted the insanity of statist authority paradigms in other places. As I noted, C.S. Lewis was prescient when he said:

Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.  It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies.  The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

If the supposedly-omnipotent moral busybodies would simply mind their own business, we'd all be happier. We would also slow the apparently inexorable movement toward becoming a nation of criminals.

Conclusion

Given what one can see in my (admittedly incomplete) table, it seems pretty clear that U.S. presidents are not really champions of freedom and liberty. Since they occupy the highest office in the land — a position of power in the coercive state — this should come as no surprise. What is more troubling is the continued persistent belief that the next guy (or gal) elected to the position will somehow transcend the forty-plus year history of mediocrity, lying, infringements upon freedom, state-authorized theft, and murder of any foreign person with the gall to actually not like it when we show up with guns to teach them all about democracy. I've heard it said that quitters never win and winners never quit, but never winning while never quitting seems rather stupid.

Wilt Alston [send him mail] lives in Rochester, NY, with his wife and three children. When he's not training for a marathon or furthering his part-time study of libertarian philosophy, he works as a principal research scientist in transportation safety, focusing primarily on the safety of subway and freight train control systems.

The Best of Wilton D. Alston

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