Saturday, July 25, 2009

Should I Support Free Silver?

Here's an anachronistic political question I've been curious about for a while: if it's 1896 in America, should I support Free Silver?

I've been inclined to say yes, because the distributive implications of Free Silver sound pretty good. Poor farmers get their debts inflated away, while incredibly rich Gilded Age industrialists see the real value of their assets fall. Plus, modern-day gold bugs are total cranks propounding a dogma that would bring great misery upon the world. But I don't know how well that applies to the "sound money" people of 1896. Surely it'd be better to have a modern central banking system, where you smooth out the business cycle by making inflationary moves in a recession and deflating the currency when the economy rises. But supposing it's 1896 and we don't have the Fed for another 17 years, do I vote for William Jennings Bryan?


Petey said...

"But supposing it's 1896 and we don't have the Fed for another 17 years, do I vote for William Jennings Bryan?"


Things worked out OK over the long run, but the long run in 1896 involves lots of stuff that happens after your death.

I'd guess that progress happens more quickly if Bryan wins in 1896, so yes, you vote for him.


I think the case for Democrats first become indisputable in 1896. That seems the birth of the modern political alignment to me.

The more interesting historical question for me is whether or not I should have been an Andrew Jackson supporter at the time.

ikl said...

That one is easy. No. Jackson was awful. J. Q. Adams opposed Cherokee removal which was really horrific. This should trump all other considerations.

Much less importantly, getting rid of the Bank of the United States was also probably a bad idea from what I understand. And the spoils system was also pretty bad for the country.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Yeah, I'm really historian, but I've always kind of wondered why Jackson deserves to be on money. Maybe before too long we'll be able to replace him with one or the other black guy.

John B. said...

Yes, you should vote for Bryan, unless you want to crucify mankind on a cross of gold.

As for Jackson, I would definitely support J.Q. Adams instead. He was a fine diplomat and one of the more conscientious American politicians of the early 19th century. In addition to his opposition to the Cherokee removal, Adams probably would not have appointed Taney to the Supreme Court.

Arbitrista said...

I'm generally in the "Vote for the Whigs/Republicans" camp until around the 1896 election. "Free silver" isn't what really bothers me about Bryan - it's more his intense agrarianism, anti-urban/anti-industrialism, and religious fundamentalism. But McKinley was a pretty loathsome corporate tool, so I'd probably have pulled the lever for Bryan but not been particularly happy about it.

Probably the only Republican in the 20th century I would have voted for would have been T.R. in 1904.

And yes, Jackson was a monster and Henry Clay was one of the most impressive American statesmen who never became president, so 1828 and 1832 are easy.

ikl said...

I wouldn't have voted Democratic until the 20th century with the possible exception of Cleveland (although Harrison and Blaine seem like they also would have been OK) because of slavery / civil rights issues. Bryan vs. McKinley is a pretty grim choice. I actually might have been tempted to vote 3rd party even though I'm usually against such things. I wouldn't have voted Democratic regularly until Roosevelt, although a few of the Republicans back then were still pretty good as well.

Not sure that there is any good reason to believe that Bryan knew what he was talking about in terms of economic policy. Nor am I convinced that inflationary policies were such a good idea.

Getting Jackson off of money would be a much better symbolic project than most of what is introduced of that sort in Congress.

eric said...

As you know, Neil, this is one of those fascinating questions where what seems to have been the right thing to do ex ante is called into question by events ex post.

Which is to say, going into the election, gold is chronically deflationary, and some kind of reflation is devoutly to be desired. So you support Bryan.

Only, right after the election, gold becomes inflationary owing to new mines and new methods of extracting it and the Bryan platform looks excessive. So you shouldn't have supported Bryan.

Actually, it's a bit more complicated; the idea of some reflation was probably a good one, but silver at 16:1 probably wasn't so good, owing to the market rate.

Say, have you read this fine, fine book? I know where you can get an autographed copy, cheap.

Steven Attewell said...

No. You should be a down-the-middle Populist and support the Omaha platform, which calls for " a national currency, safe, sound, and flexible, issued by the general government only, a full legal tender for all debts, public and private" and free silver. The important difference is that Bryan never signed onto the Sub-Treasury and public works.

And historically speaking, go for John Quincy Adams over Jackson, then Clay over Jackson.

(in the larger scheme of things, yes, inflation is good).

Petey said...

I just don't find the Andrew Jackson / John Quincy Adams question as easy as everyone else.

I'm well aware of the problematic aspects of Jackson, but given that I'd have enthusiastically voted for Jefferson in '00 and Bryan in '96, I'm not sure how qualitatively different a choice Jackson would've been in '28...

"I've always kind of wondered why Jackson deserves to be on money"

If you want him off the greenback, first change the name of the JJ Dinners and then float the currency change a generation later.

David said...

You might be interested in the article: Hugh Rockoff, "The Wizard of Oz as a Monetary Allegory," Journal of Political Economy, 1990, vol. 98, no.4 (Beyond the obvious stuff about the Wizard of Oz it argues that monetary policy was too tight in the era and that silver was a good solution.)

If you don't have access let me know, and I'll email you a copy.

wkdewey said...

Go read Sean Wilenz's The Rise of American Democracy for the "traditional" view of Jackson which has some merit. He was no more of a racist than the average American at the time (Clay was even more anti-Indian, and there were lots of other presidents who screwed the Indians too). To 1830s Americans he was for democracy--hence the name of the party--while Quincy Adams and the National Republicans/Whigs had a more elitist tinge. Of course democracy was only for white males, but even that was a source of a controversy. I don't know if Jackson could be called "left wing" but most left-wingers of the day supported him.

The Democrats at the time were relatively pro-labor, and above all against wealthy bankers. They were anti "big government" but that was in the days when most government projects were pro-business and there was no such thing as social welfare programs. They were also more inclined to keep religion and morality out of politics. Regarding slavery neither party had a great record but the divisions were sectional rather than partisan at the time. Jackson, though a slaveholder, took on the slave interests in South Carolina when they tried to secede. There was a significant antislavery faction within Jackson's Democratic party, which would eventually desert the party and later join the Republicans.

Mac said...

Let's grant that Jackson wasn't any worse for the Indians than the alternative -- though in JQA's case that's probably untrue. Jackson basically started a depression with his anti-banker policies. Van Buren just inherited the Panic of 1837, like Hoover inherited the Depression from Coolidge. We might not have even had a Free Silver question if Jackson hadn't killed the Second Bank of the United States.

John said...

The idea of trying to figure out who you should have voted for in centuries old elections seems like a fool's errand. I'd say that Jackson's Indian policy was sufficiently awful to justify voting against him, and the same can be said for Democratic policies on slavery and reconstruction later on. And the Democrats' leftish economic ideas were generally bad ones.

But it's really silliness - the Whigs have some pretty unattractive characteristics too, like their tendency to nominate empty suit generals and their elitism.

Now, of course, I'll atempt to do it anyway -

In 1896 I think the best reason to vote for Bryan is foreign policy - Bryan was an anti-imperialist, and he campaigned in 1900 on that basis. If he'd become president, we'd almost certainly not have fought a war with Spain in 1898, which I think would be a good thing, given that that war was entirely a power grab. But Bryan is really problematic in a lot of other ways, so I might vote for McKinley anyway.

I think I'd certainly have voted for every Democrat since FDR. I'm not really sure about Smith/Hoover - Smith proved to be about as right wing as Hoover, and a Smith victory would have entailed the Democrats becoming the party saddled with the depression, and I'm not sure what the long term consequences of that would be. I'd probably cast a hopeless protest vote for LaFollette in 1924, and Debs in 1920, given how pitiful the other choices were. I'm not really sure about 1916. Wilson had done a lot of good in his first term, but also some bad, especially on race, and "he kept us out of war" was a dubious prospect - but I think Hughes would have become embroiled in the war, too. Hughes (or his secretary of state) negotiating the treaty of Versailles and such might work out better, though. Probably TR in 1912 and 1904.

For earlier, Clay in 1844, Scott in 1852, Fremont in 1856, Lincoln in 1860 and 1864, obviously, and Grant in 1868 and 1872. I don't think 1848 makes any obvious differenceif Cass or Taylor wins. Van Buren in 1840 would probably, in retrospect, have worked out better than voting for Harrison (and getting Tyler). 1876-1892 seems completely worthless. I'd probably vote for Republicans as marginally better on race - I'd certainly vote for James G. Blaine, the plumed knight of Maine, if only for his awesome nickname.

Probably vote against Jackson thrice. Before that nobody really got to vote, and I have a hard time choosing between stupid, arrogant federalism and stupid, incompetent Jeffersonian foreign policy in 1804, 1808, and 1812. Eh

Anonymous said...

FWIW, no less than Milton Friedman thought that bimetallism (although probably not Bryan's version) would have been better for the US than the gold standard in that era. IIRC, he believed that the only thing that eventually made the gold standard tolerable was the discovery of the cyanide process, which was quite inflationary.