View From a Height
Commentary from the Mile High City
Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Executive Compass With its Own Magnetic North 

Previously, I mentioned the Executive's Compass, required reading for my "Values in a Global Marketplace" course next quarter. One of the quotes in there, on the section about equality, rang a false note:

Benjamin Franklin saw no limits to the state's claim. "Private a creature of society and is subject to the calls of that society whenever its necessities shall require it, even to its last farthing."

Now, I wish I could report that those ellipses hid some ringing endorsement of great estates and vast empires of wealth. The fact is, O'Toole pretty much has captured the spirit of the quote. It appears in a 1783 letter to Robert Morris. But the context of that letter is something quite specific. It's not a political letter. It's not a letter endorsing a specific tax policy, or some controversial construct in the Articles of Confederation. It's not from The Federalist.

No, it's a letter from Paris, where Franklin was Ambassador and head of the European US diplomatic corps, back to the US, bemoaning the fact the Franklin doesn't have the money to pay or reimburse his diplomats. He starts off complaining about the lack of funds, goes on to criticize tax dodgers who are apparently ungrateful to a government that just won their freedom for them, and then goes off the rails claiming that any private property in excess of minimal needs is a societal construct that society can appropriate as it sees fit. When you read the letter, you can see Franklin working himself up, getting red in the face, saying something he may or may not have meant, and them calming down and getting back on point.

Franklin had signed a document seven years earlier pledging his "life, fortune, and sacred honor" to the success of the Revolution. He had famously said that "we must all hang together, or we shall all hang separately." He had spent the last seven years representing the country, defending, indeed inventing its reputation. As a businessman, he understood how critical it was to pay debts on time. And here, some welchers, some tax dodgers who weren't willing to pony up when things were a little tough, were risking grave damage to that reputation. One senses a little more than a little righteous indignation that his own countrymen would be so dishonorable and so reckless.

Moreover, it's clear that he's talking about the willingness of the citizenry to contribute to the institutions of society as a whole. These would certainly include basic governmental responsibilities such as defense, a diplomatic corps, a judiciary, and an effective administration. That they would include radical redistribution of wealth is extremely doubtful.

Franklin was a tremendous advocate, a great diplomat, very persuasive. He was a sharp politician, a clever scientist, and inventive inventor. But he wasn't much of a political philosopher. He was back in Philadelphia by the time of the Constitutional Convention, but didn't contribute to the Federalist. This even though he wrote a nice little piece comparing the anti-Federalists to the Israelites who wanted to turn back to Egypt when they realized they had forgotten their Columbian coffee. It would seem to be somewhat in character to occasionally let his writing get ahead of his head. So before we turn him into some proto-Leninist, arguing "from each," let's make sure we see the full context.

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