Politics & Media
Jun 03, 2024, 06:27AM

Coolidge Heads Prevail

100 years ago this week, our capitalist president made Native-Americans citizens.

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Arguably the best president the U.S. ever had—and a staunchly laissez-faire capitalist Republican—Calvin Coolidge was also the president who made reservation-dwelling Native-Americans full citizens of the U.S., 100 years ago this past Sunday. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, but both left and right have worked hard in recent years to make it seem as if respect for indigenous, colonized, or marginalized populations can only arise from the left.

Back in Coolidge’s day, not so terribly long ago despite the public’s amnesia about all things political, it seemed natural for populations that had been brutally subjugated by (among others) the government to lean toward the less government-loving of the two major political parties, namely the Republicans—especially with a big-government, Constitution-scorning, imperialist, Progressive racist like Princeton president-turned-U.S. president Woodrow Wilson typifying the Democratic alternative.

If the right, now as then, truly loves freedom, it certainly shouldn’t begrudge Native-Americans some regional autonomy and freedom to open casinos or use peyote. Ironically, the rest of us might end up having to flee to the reservations to find freedom someday, the way things are going in the taxed, regulated, policed, and surveilled wider country.

Wittgenstein rightly noted that people have trouble seeing the family resemblances between their own customs and others’, and seeing the similarities is even more difficult when people are given some huge incentive not to see them—such as the power and profit one could derive two centuries ago by claiming not to detect any coherent land ownership claims in the traditions of the Native-Americans or, say, Australian aborigines. (Some people say the Palestinians face a similar lack of imagination, though terrorism and war complicate that moral scorecard, perhaps hopelessly.)

One of the best ways to overcome such failures of moral vision is through abstractions that easily apply to all manner of people and cultures—abstractions such as property rights and markets. However, abstraction, from philosophy to free-market economics, has gotten a pretty bad rap lately. People are always hungry to ditch graphs, constitutions, and basic ethical principles in favor of fighting furiously over the current, local, concrete grievance, whether ethnic, sexual, traditional, geographic, or personal.

That’s not completely crazy, and we all know roughly how we got to this combative place evolutionarily and historically—not to mention how many illusory and dangerous abstractions are on offer—but ditching the abstractions altogether can lead to an endless series of wars of all-against-all in which no mediation or rational common ground is possible. Better to say (for example) that property rights override all than to end up like feuding factions in Syria with an ever-churning kaleidoscope of unresolvable historical disputes and moral customs.

So, no matter how many academic and media figures have told you that people warm-hearted enough to worry about oppressed indigenous peoples must also oppose cold-hearted capitalism, don’t be surprised quiet nice guy Coolidge was also the man who said, quite rightly, in a speech to an assemblage of newspaper editors (the sort of gathering that would probably boo such comments today): “[T]he chief business of the American people is business.”

For good measure, in the same speech he added this retort to the anti-capitalists of his day: “Wealth is the product of industry, ambition, character, and untiring effort. In all experience, the accumulation of wealth means the multiplication of schools, the increase of knowledge, the dissemination of intelligence, the encouragement of science, the broadening of outlook, the expansion of liberties, the widening of culture. Of course, the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence. But we are compelled to recognize it as a means to well nigh every desirable achievement.”

In short, prosperous markets, absent government putting its thumb on the scale, crony businessmen cutting special deals with lawmakers, or campaigns by government against disfavored subsets of the population, tend to benefit everyone. When property rights are violated, it doesn’t vindicate some other philosophy such as Marxism that invites us to violate them even more, all the time. It means we should combat the property rights violations.

I met a former member of the radical (even terroristic) Native-American group AIM, the American Indian Movement, who had campaigned to be the Libertarian Party presidential nominee: Russell Means, who was probably also, though I haven’t double-checked, the only actor to appear in both Last of the Mohicans (as Chingachgook) and Curb Your Enthusiasm (as Wandering Bear). He might even have gotten along well with the right-leaning Mises Caucus faction of the Libertarian Party, given that he too was skeptical of immigration.

I suppose you can understand Native-Americans being wary of letting just anyone show up and trudge all over your land. You know a good fix for that, though, if recognized and defended by good-hearted people in all places, times, and cultures? Property rights, which should be the most secure and solemnly respected aspect of citizenship, if we insist on having a government at all.

Then, let people travel as they please, so long as they stop when a property owner—not just some angry random citizen or government representative but the real owner of a parcel of property—whether Native-American, white, black, Hispanic, or otherwise, and whether he’s sole owner or part of some big voluntary joint enterprise, says, “No trespassing.”

That simple principle could’ve prevented so many historical tragedies that have had lingering negative effects, from racial violence to lost profits. Governments love both racial violence and the destruction of profits. The rest of us, like Silent Cal, know they’re bad for business.

—Todd Seavey is the author of Libertarianism for Beginners and is on X at @ToddSeavey


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