Brett Williams's Reviews > The Spirit of American Government

The Spirit of American Government by James Allen Smith
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While historically relevant, Smith's no match for the Founders.

Smith's 1907 book is of great value for a variety of reasons: He challenges common assumptions; his work marks initiation of the "progressive movement" leading to modern liberalism (as opposed to classical liberalism); he has some exceptional insights on changes in production between early and modern (1907) capitalistic systems (emancipation was for him a business-driven cost savings, as hiring freed labor was cheaper than buying slaves and housing them), and his arguments against the Founders - for most cases - show how right they were.

Influenced by abuses of Robber-Barons in the late 19th century, Smith is an angry voice looking for someone to blame. His book is said to be the first revisionist spin on our Constitution and Founders, perhaps too sacred before Smith's attack (which was already in the air). In the end Smith simply wanted a different form of governance - a form the Founders made explicitly clear they opposed, though Smith almost always makes their position one of subversion and ulterior motives. Smith's suspicions appear initiated by the Constitutional Convention's secrecy, underhandedness by the Federalists, and it sets the tone of his entire view. While Smith raises a number of valid arguments, much of his book merely postulates, or reads the minds of the Founders and their "true" intent, then (as is so over-worn today) he repeats this muse over and over. Like torturing a lie long enough until it claims to be the truth. Often, however, Smith correctly states the Founder's intent, then recasts it as evil: "[Their aim was] to eliminate as far as possible the direct influence of the people on legislation and public policy". Thankfully. Thus does Smith display time-after-time how naïve he is to the ills of "true democracy" - e.g. the immediate servicing of its passions, resulting in society-wide grief following the forced union of Socrates and hemlock, for example. Cooler heads realize too late both the purpose of Constitutional delays and cost of circumventing them. For Smith these Constitutional blocks are only to protect a rich and powerful minority, thwarting majority rule, confusing concerns for long-term stability with selfish concerns of a few. His position that wealth or influence of the Founders denied them any capacity to see past their own concerns was like saying Teddy Kennedy legislated only for the rich. Resolving errors in excess capitalism with a medication of pure democracy would be to apply the wrong prescription, only to make the patient worse. Smith asks if the Framer's intent was to check government or the people, ignoring the answer is both.

Painfully lacking are comparisons of a republic (which is what we have) to a democracy; the Bill Of Rights; Federalist / Anti-Federalist debates over central issues. Through these debates among Founders we see the brilliance (on both sides), intelligent compromise, and occasional shortcomings resulting in the final work. Above all, though highly charged and followed by real animosity between some, rational thought succeeded. Smith, on the other hand, sounds too much like modern American popular liberalism (and religious fundamentalism) where emotion trumps rationale in appeals not to be too deeply investigated.

At the very end of his book Smith takes a turn for the more radical, redefining democracy. He writes, "[Democracy] demands control of the state so the end product of industry may be equally distributed." Noting this is not "a mere scheme for redistribution of wealth... It is fundamentally a theory of social progress." Given Smith died in 1926 he had no opportunity to read Hayek's 1944 "Road To Serfdom."
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Finished Reading
August 15, 2014 – Shelved

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