Amity Shlaes and the Challenges for Free Market Scholars
By Alberto Mingardi
In 2018, Amity Shlaes had an impressive essay in the City Journal. I’ve read it only now because it was published on the City Journal’s website. That is quite apropos, given the controversy surrounding US history at the moment.
Shlaes’s thesis is outlined in the very first lines:
Free marketeers may sometimes win elections, but they are not winning U.S. history. In recent years, the consensus regarding the American past has slipped leftward, and then leftward again.” Freedom is under appreciated in academia, equality is over appreciated: this is building a narrative that emphasizes political fights for equality at the expense of the springs of economic opportunity.
Shlaes focuses on top political figures. Her hero, to whom she devoted a splendid biography, is Calvin Coolidge, Coolidge is described in the article as a staunch fighter for economic freedom, who put “markets first,” understanding their power in creating prosperity. He reversed the quite inauspicious beginning of the 1920s through tax cuts which worked as they are supposed to, according to the supply-side playbook. A sort of anti-hero is Herbert Hoover (“Hoover thoroughly intimidated business and markets, blaming them for hogging too much of the money”) and an even bigger anti-hero is Lyndon Johnson, who simply “assumed growth”, thinking that free enterprise would produce its marvels whatever the incentives.
The essay finishes with a plea to “fostering of new institutions that will, in turn, nurture economics thinkers who dare to acknowledge the merits of markets.” I’d be interested in Shlaes’s view, two years after her piece, about how we are doing toady. Has the pandemic weakened or strengthened those institutions? Can the intellectual movement for free enterprise flourish after Covid19? Or is it substantially more feeble and less cogent now, both in the fields of history and economics?
Editor’s Note: Shlaes recorded a podcast with Law & Liberty focused on her Coolidge biography.