We Are All Hamiltonians, We Are All Jeffersonians

Andrew Sullivan —  Jul 16 2012 @ 8:02pm

Stanford historian Jack Rakove reviews Michael Lind's new book, Land of Promise:

[T]he overall argument depends on the juxtaposition of the Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian themes. In Lind’s story, the great economic transformations—or what Joseph Schumpeter famously called the "creative destruction" of capitalism—race three or four decades ahead of the capacity of the political and legal systems to deal with their vastly unsettling consequences. During this uncertain interval, Jeffersonian-style politicians flourish. They offer nostalgic visions of defying the rush of progress, much as Jefferson purportedly reacted against the specter of the first industrial revolution, and appeal to a simpler vision of authority where older institutions, more respectful of traditional decentralized power, can still operate. But at some point a crisis intervenes—the Civil War, the Depression, and our current Great Recession—and then Hamiltonian solutions have their day. These solutions are avowedly nationalistic in character. They rely on central institutions to accommodate economic change with more prudent, effective, and just notions of public regulation.

He finds this argument too simplistic and, echoing Jefferson, points to the messy reality of American politics:

[I]n the realm of political economy, the idea that Americans should be either natural-born Hamiltonians or Jeffersonians is a primitive way of explaining how the energy of economic activity pulses through our political and legal system. That system is open to influence and manipulation at every level, and it has no effective way of directing the surges of political calculations and commitments that drive our polity. The costs of our ingrained constitutional inefficiencies are often all too easy to measure, as our current impasse in Washington readily confirms. But perhaps Americans work best when the divided nature of our institutions encourages its opportunistic manipulation.