Magazine | May 18, 2015, Issue


The Germ of Corruption

In his review of my book A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of American Political Corruption (April 20), Matthew Spalding states that I offer a “neo-anti-federalist account” of corruption, and that the Bank of the United States heralded an era of “living constitutionalism,” facilitating a “slippery slope” of “rampant corruption.” This inaccurate characterization elides key points of my theory and ignores most of my research.

The Anti-Federalists thought the new government was too powerful and removed from the people, whereas I am concerned with the process by which government authority increases. This self-consciously Madisonian approach is hardly the stuff of Brutus or Federal Farmer. At one point I even recommend Hamilton’s quasi-monarchical plan, given the powers the government eventually acquired.

Moreover, my treatment of the Bank explicitly avoids constitutional hermeneutics. My modest point is that because the Framers did not anticipate the Bank, they did not build institutions to ensure it would behave well. Even so, I aver that the Bank was hardly corrupt in the grand scheme, and I celebrate Hamilton’s “sound and sure management.” It is a relatively benign metaphor for my theory: an early indication of a process that would eventually cause problems.

Per Spalding, I see the Framers as the “fathers of big government.” I would never make such a claim. My analysis of the early Republic has less to do with the (small) size of government or the (modest) level of corruption; rather, it outlines the early development of a methodology that, “perfected” over time, would eventually yield corruption.

The early Republic takes up only about a tenth of my book, which focuses primarily on the progressive era and beyond. This is when government truly broke free of its restraints. Spalding glosses over the bulk of this research and misunderstands the role that the early Republic plays in my analysis.

Jay Cost

Matthew Spalding responds: Jay Cost’s fine book is best when it describes the corruptions of the Gilded Age and the rise and proliferation of modern liberalism and interest-group politics. But a key question for both history and future policy is, How did we get here? Cost is right that the progressive movement was “a reimagining of American republicanism,” and what comes after the New Deal is “an inflection point” in the story. But throughout he presents Hamilton’s bank and its early embrace of expansive government as “a microcosm of the argument in this book,” which leaves the general narrative on a downward  slope from the very beginning. This suggests that an extended but limited republic may not be possible after all, just as the Anti-Federalists predicted. The alternative is a fundamental break in thought and practice between the Founders’ constitutionalism and the progressive project. This analysis also helps us see the possibility of a Madisonian solution to our current dilemmas rather than accept an inherent corruption in republican government that is here to stay.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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