Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Is Alexander Hamilton's ideal of a modern commercial republic still relevant today?

 


Alexander Hamilton was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. He served as secretary to the Treasury from 1789 to 1795 during the presidency of George Washington.


I knew little about Alexander Hamilton’s contribution to American economic policy before reading Samuel Gregg’s book, The Next American Economy: Nation, State, and Markets in an Uncertain World, 2022. Gregg suggests that America faces a choice between a form of state capitalism – top-down interventionism focused on achieving political objectives such as greater economic security for specific groups and “national security” – and a free market economy. He argues that in making the case for free markets it is helpful to take another look at the ideal of a modern commercial republic as espoused by Alexander Hamilton.

Centralization of powers

Prior to reading Gregg’s book, I knew that Hamilton had argued successfully for greater centralization of government powers than prevailed in the original confederation. On that basis, I had entertained the idea that he might possibly have been responsible for much that is wrong with the U.S. today.

Gregg presents a more positive view of Hamilton’s contribution. He suggests that integration of the states into a more unified commercial republic made it easier for Hamilton to apply principles of free trade among the states and between the U.S. and other countries.

Gregg’s line of reasoning poses a challenge both to libertarian globalists, who see national governments as the source of barriers to the functioning of free markets, and to economic nationalists who want governments to prevent foreign economic competition because they see it as a threat to national sovereignty. He challenges libertarian globalists by suggesting that “failure by the government to smooth the economic ups and downs which are part of life in a market economy risks opening the door to political movements that have no particular regard for human freedom”. He challenges economic nationalists by suggesting that tariffs and other measures that protect of American industry from foreign competition are harmful to Americans.

 It isn’t necessary for libertarian globalists, like myself, to abandon utopian thinking in order to see merit in effective unilateral action by national governments to promote free trade. At a national level, the case for free trade rests on it providing individual citizens and their descendants with the prospect of better opportunities than would otherwise be available to them.

To eliminate the excesses of statism, it is necessary for political leaders to exercise statecraft (or what Adam Smith and David Hume referred to as “the science of the legislator”. As Gregg puts it Smith and Hume recognized that:

 “the knowledge furnished by … integration of moral, political, and economic inquiry needed to be brought to bear upon society by statesmen and governments in the interests of its improvement”.

Gregg notes that although Edmund Burke’s involvement in economic policy was “attuned to political realities” he leaned strongly towards promoting greater commercial freedom within Britain’s empire and between Britain and other nations.

America’s Founding Fathers, including Alexander Hamilton, were also influenced by Adam Smith and David Hume.

Hamilton’s vision of a commercial republic

Samuel Gregg explains how Hamilton advanced his vision of a commercial republic in his contributions to the Federalist Papers and in his role as secretary to the Treasury. Hamilton’s vision of a modern civilized nation combined republican government and a private enterprise economy, with merchants subject to the discipline of competitive markets. He hints that character traits that make for commercial success – industry, innovation, economy, self-restraint, honesty, prudence – are also republican virtues.

Hamilton argued for free trade between the states and for revenue tariffs only on international trade. He suggested that tariffs “force industry out of its more natural channels into others in which it flows with less advantage”. He maintained that trade policy should be driven by national interest and was adamantly opposed to use of trade sanctions as an instrument of foreign policy.

What next?

Samuel Gregg ends his book by acknowledging that he doesn’t know whether there is a real possibility that an American commercial republic could emerge to shape America’s future. He hopes that it could on the basis that he can “see no reason why America cannot embrace the habits, incentives, and disciplines associated with markets while also grounding them in the language, norms, and virtues of the American experiment”.

Since 2022, when Gregg’s book was published, it has become clearer that the U.S. is likely to continue, for a few more years at least, down the path towards greater international trade protectionism.  The choice that the two major political parties are offering voters in the 2024 presidential election certainly does not include a candidate offering an alternative to higher trade barriers.

Unfortunately, the adverse impacts of increased trade protectionism in the U.S. cannot be guaranteed to result in a strong impetus for policy reversal. The U.S. economy is sufficiently large and diverse that increased barriers to international trade are likely to have relatively minor adverse impacts by comparison with those that would occur in most other countries if they followed similar policies.

It looks to me as though trade liberalisation is unlikely to occur in the U.S. until influential politicians come to see merit, from a foreign policy perspective, in supporting multilateral efforts to encourage trade among countries that have more than minimal regard for free market principles.

Meanwhile, Samuel Gregg’s book will hopefully be widely read in other countries where some current political leaders may be more receptive to Alexander Hamilton’s vision of a commercial republic based on free market principles.

Conclusion

Samuel Gregg’s book, The Next American Economy, urges Americans to adopt the ideal of a modern commercial republic, as originally espoused by Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton argued for the U.S. to adopt, unilaterally, the principle of free international trade on the grounds that this would serve the economic interests of Americans and promote republican virtues.

Unfortunately, American political leaders do not currently seem to be in the mood to re-endorse Hamilton’s vision of a modern commercial republic.

Hopefully, Gregg’s book will be widely read in other countries where some political leaders may be receptive to messages about the contemporary relevance of the role that free market polices played at an early stage in the economic and social development of the United States.