Chester A. Arthur, 21st President (1881-1885)
The best presidents are the ones you never hear about.
There were eleven presidents between Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson. How many can you name? Some people will get Theodore Roosevelt; he is, after all, on Mt. Rushmore. A few will recall twentieth-century presidents Taft and McKinley; few will get the other eight. Who remembers Benjamin Harrison or Rutherford B. Hayes? They are forgotten for the best of reasons: they were virtually irrelevant.
The span between the Civil War and World War I was one of those historically anomalous periods when the deeds of the rulers took an insignificant back seat to the deeds of the ruled. Even the use of the word ruled is almost a misnomer. During this time, the US population was less subject to rules from its government than any population had been for centuries.
Imagine what it must have been like to pick up a newspaper and not read about a politician. Imagine government spending about 7 percent of a burgeoning gross domestic product (it’s currently over 40 percent). Imagine no income tax and gold-backed money that appreciated in value as the economy grew more productive. We have to imagine because, tragically, no one living has experienced such freedom; contemporary civilization does not even afford a glimpse of it. More tragically, humanity has adapted to its chains.
Think about the difference between doing something you want and something you have to do. Compare your enthusiasm and energy. That difference is the key to human happiness and progress. Ask people what makes them happy. They’ll list a variety of things, but doing what one wants to do makes almost all lists. That requires freedom and the qualities of character, energy, and enthusiasm to take advantage of that freedom. It works no differently for society as a whole.
The trend lines for US economic growth and real incomes have been negative for at least two decades, with the latest quarter showing growth marginally above zero. The economy and the government run on debt, now so great it will never be repaid. America has become an amalgamation of groups who do not like each other. Many don’t even like themselves. Opioid —painkiller—addiction is skyrocketing. A sputtering economy, debt, painkillers, pain, myriad other pathologies, political splintering and the hate, distrust, and anger everywhere evident are symptoms of rampant unhappiness. It’s no coincidence that Americans are less free than they’ve ever been. Take away freedom and you engender misery.
NOT A GREAT PRESIDENT: LLOYD L. LOCHNESS
The American experiment engendered skepticism among eighteenth and nineteenth-century European elites. How would people live if nobody was telling them what to do? The history of Europe was a history of people telling other people what to do, backed by force and violence. Anarchy, chaos, and reversion to monarchy were the common predictions for America. There was a certain chaos to American life, but it was the chaos of unshackled energy. There will always be people who won’t take advantage of the freedom that Americans claimed as their birthright. The best sort of people, though, took advantage of it in astounding, unprecedented ways.
Best sort of people was not a matter of pedigree. Rather, it flowed from what they did and how they lived. Often hailing from inauspicious circumstances, they ignited the explosion of ingenuities, innovations, and inventions, big and small, that propelled America from a nation of farmers and tradesmen to the world’s industrial powerhouse in a little over a century. The Industrial Revolution kicked that explosion into overdrive during the presidencies of the forgotten, and therefore magnificent, eleven.
Shabby excuses for intellectuals and pampered aristocrats sniff at material goods, material progress, and materialism in general. The millions who emigrated from Europe and Asia to America had no such compunctions. Just as electricity powered many of the new inventions, freedom fed a high-powered current of human energy. The cornucopia of material goods, the labor-saving and life-enhancing inventions, and the abundance of opportunities unleashed ambition and industry that were dormant and suppressed in the home countries. Innovation unlocked American agricultural fecundity, which proved an irresistible magnet for those fleeing the rest of the world’s frequent famines.
If you want a clear view into a soul, discover its true feelings about freedom, energy, and happiness. Nobody condemns them, but words and deeds belie rote endorsements. Nothing should have overjoyed so-called humanitarians more than to see the “common” men and women for whom they professed such concern escape famine, squalor, stagnation, pestilence, persecution, and war, and build better lives for themselves and their families. By and large, the reaction wasn’t joy, but malicious resentment. The humanitarians couldn’t directly criticize rising living standards and life expectancies, the newly emerging middle class, the fortunes, the philanthropy, or the self-evident dynamism, optimism, and vigor. Instead, they attacked the capitalism they should have loved—but, tellingly, loathed—at its tap root: freedom.
The immigrants wanted to be here and jumped at the chance to build better lives. Knowing that what they earned was theirs, and that the money in their pockets was good as gold, put extra spring in their steps. No surprise, then, that the first major sallies against freedom and happiness were the income tax and the central bank. They worked, not because they accomplished their advertised objectives (they didn’t), but because they inflicted misery. The income tax funded the US’s unnecessary participation in World War I, and the Federal Reserve blew up and popped a 1920s’ bubble, leading to the Great Depression. Unfortunately, depressed was an apt characterization for a nation that had once been optimistic, confident, and vigorous.
Misery loves both company and more misery. The New Deal’s choking constriction of freedom—the birth of the transfer state and ever-increasing taxes, debt, and regulation—prolonged the pain. The second world war in thirty years saw history’s greatest horror and carnage. The New Deal and war established the leviathan blob and confederated global empire we’ve come to know and loathe, but Franklin Delano Roosevelt is considered one of the greatest—if not the greatest—presidents.
The extraordinary “ordinary” people and giants who propelled America’s burst of freedom, energy, optimism, and achievement are as forgotten as the magnificent eleven presidents who mostly stayed out of their way, and who never make Great President lists (with the exception of Theodore Roosevelt, the kind of “activist” statist the historians love). Happiness has succumbed to the entitlement mentality; snarling demands; never-celebrated tax freedom days months into the new year; dream-destroying volumes of regulations and laws; endless confrontation and war; state functionaries, cops, and soldiers rebranded as heroes; depravity hailed as liberation; a population sated with mindless, Brave New World-style entertainment, diversion, and drugs, and our oligarchic overlords’1984-style surveillance.
The road to happiness bypasses politics and government. Physical energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. Human energy equals human freedom. Our current is running down like an old battery. Only freedom will recharge it. When someone proposes to curtail your freedom, substitute the word “happiness.” When they say it’s for your own good, they’re selling enslavement, misery and death. “Ye shall know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16). Let’s quit pretending they are humanitarians with “good,” albeit misguided, intentions. They are malignant murderers of humanity’s mind, body, and spirit.
See also: “They Said That? 5/3/17“
THE GOLDEN PINNACLE OF FREEDOM, ENERGY, AND HAPPINESS