28 August 2011

Rothbard on Bryan

Murray Rothbard on the rise of William Jennings Bryan and Bryanism in the Democratic Party.

"Poor Grover Cleveland, a hard-money laissez-faire Democrat, was blamed for the panic of 1893, and many leading Cleveland Democrats lost their gubernatorial and senatorial posts in the 1894 elections. The Cleveland Democrats were temporarily weak, and the Southern-Mountain coalition was ready to hand. Seeing this opportunity, William Jennings Bryan and his pietist coalition seized control of the Democratic Party at the momentous convention of 1896. The Democratic Party was never to be the same again."

That may require some explanation. The notion of a "pietist coalition" is key to Rothbard's understanding of US political history. The pietists were and are a certain subset of Protestant groups -- generally from those denominations that see themselves as most fiercely anti-papist, anti-hierarchal, etc. -- and they believe Christians must prepare the way for the coming of the Lord by creating just social conditions first, i.e. Jesus' return shall be "postmillennial." Thus, the state (as Rothbard conveys the pietists' view of it) must be controlled by pious folks and so organized as to hasten that glorious day.

The era of Andrew Jackson -- the President that Rothbard sees as most embodying his own laissez-faire ideas -- was also the era of the Second Great Awakening -- the revivalist movement that brought pietism in this form to the US in a big way. Pietists wanted to control both people's personal lives (through the prohibition of alcohol and Sunday closing laws for example) and the counrtry's economic life, through control of the money supply and tariffs on foreign trade. The great political divide was then, between the Democrats, who were laissez-faire on both personal and economic matters, and the Whigs or later Republicans, who were statist on both sets of matters.

Cleveland is the last figure in US political history to whom Rothbard extends any sympathy. The rise of Bryan meant the pietists had taken over both parties, and everything has been pretty steadily downhill ever since.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.