The Magazine

Hamilton's Virtue

How Aristotle's philosophy led to the American economy.

Dec 11, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 13 • By MARK BLITZ
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Aristotle and Hamilton

on Commerce and Statesmanship

by Michael D. Chan

Missouri, 236 pp., $44.95

Critics of America make endless complaints. Our liberty is selfish license that corrodes community. Our equality is a fraud that barely veils vast gaps between the undeserving rich and the undeservedly poor. Our silly arts seek a common denominator ever lower and more vulgar. Our faith is narrow-minded, irrational, priggish, and hypocritical. Our sciences threaten to destroy or degrade us. Our mad consumption leaves nothing for the future. What's more, we spread our corruption globally through imperial might wrapped in the delusion that it is liberal justice.

Hearing all this, one would think that American life is solitary, poor, nasty, and brutish, and our power soon to be thankfully short.

These concerns are excessive because they project the worst possibilities as if they were actual or inevitable, and not counteracted by better ones. Freedom is enterprise and responsibility, not only license. Equality is equality in rights whose exercise leads unsurprisingly to inequalities in wealth. Faith and reason can be generously allied. Outposts of beauty and intellect stand against our encroaching wilderness. Science properly guided is beneficial. Limiting or transforming tyrannies abroad serves foreign citizens as well as our own.

Although these criticisms of America are excessive, they are not altogether absurd. Most mirror old concerns, theoretical and practical. Democracy means vulgarity, and we are democratic. Abstraction corrodes habit and seeks general sway, and we are based on universal principles. Unchecked individual ends demand unlimited technological means, and our desires seem unbounded. Commerce may allow opportunity but, in time, it favors those already wealthy.

So, although the United States is a living answer to the excesses of these worries, we are successful only because our policies and principles take them seriously.

Michael Chan's practical purpose in Aristotle and Hamilton is to defend America by showing that we are not as bad as excessive criticism makes us seem. His vehicle is to show how Alexander Hamilton believed that American commerce and manufacturing would enhance not just prosperity but also our security, union, virtue, and a liberal public good that would support the arts and sciences and end slavery.

Chan also has two theoretical purposes. One is to recast the debate about the relative importance of liberal acquisitiveness and so-called republican virtue in the American founding. He shows, through Hamilton, that commerce and virtue need not contradict, and reminds us of the slave-owning self-interestedness often disguised by Virginians' republican blather.

His other, related, academic purpose is to narrow the gap between ancient and modern (post-Machiavellian) thinkers. He does this by showing that Aristotle was friendlier to commerce than he appears, and Hamilton friendlier to virtue. For each, the economic is subordinate to the properly political, and the properly political an arm or element of excellence.

The salutary effect of Chan's work is to increase or reaffirm one's admiration for his three protagonists--Aristotle, Hamilton, and the United States of America--by showing where each is consistent with the others. Hamilton's political sagacity is, in Chan's presentation, especially impressive, almost startlingly so. As best one can tell, he was correct about almost every important issue. The one exception is national expansion, where Hamilton's reasons for opposition were good (he feared that more land would mean a continuing agrarian economy) but manifestly not good enough.

The crux of Chan's discussion is virtue. That countries devoted to commercial acquisitiveness would diminish their citizens' characters was once the chief complaint against them. Today, despite a generation of discussion, the complaint (lodged in these terms) still seems slightly quaint. It enters the list with which I began mostly indirectly. Yet the problem of virtue is vital to whatever is reasonable in each of our current concerns.

Immorality is also a major fault that Islamic religious tyrants find with the West. Moreover, their view that we are soft and weak encourages their hopes or fantasies of fundamentalist Islamic reconquest and rebirth. So by exploring and challenging "the virtue-commerce antinomy," Chan exposes both the classical core and virulent contemporary expression of unease or distress with acquisitive liberal democracy.

Chan discusses Hamilton's view of the link between virtue and commerce--or, more broadly, the political goals of his economic recommendations--under five headings. He summarizes his position in advance by claiming that "Hamilton recognized a need for ancient as well as modern prudence in the practice of politics." The advantages of commerce outweigh disadvantages such as vicious luxury and moral licentiousness. I will report Chan's main points, but cannot do justice to the subtlety and intricacy of his arguments.

First is the contribution that commerce and manufacturing make to national prosperity, a contribution that depends on equal freedom: "True liberty, by protecting the exertions of talents and industry and securing to them their justly acquired fruits, tends more powerfully than any other cause to augment the mass of national wealth." Indeed, the American "spirit of enterprise," writes Chan, "is in itself an inexhaustible mine of national wealth." Hamilton believed it "easier and more humane" to arrange matters so that interest and ambition, rather than fierce courage and self-renouncing public spiritedness, are the major supports of the public good.

Hamilton also argued that vigorous commerce aids national defense. The Revolutionary War led him to see that "only a nation with a manufacturing base and an advanced system of public finance" would win wars, because war has been revolutionized by the modern "arts of industry and the science of finance." In addition, manufacturing would especially benefit from technology, for Hamilton believed it particularly well suited to the use and invention of machines.

Hamilton also thought that national commerce would help to cement the federal union and produce "a distinctly American economy." It would serve our mutual wants, and tie manufacturing to agriculture, as long as statesmen helped citizens to see that their enlightened self-interest required such a blend. Commerce also would "promote a gradual assimilation of temper and sentiments among citizens."

The political goals commerce serves are connected to Hamilton's belief that "commercial virtue" is "necessary for a prosperous, orderly, and just nation." The traditional view of the moral superiority of farmers is incorrect. Farmers' agitation for debt relief and easy money shows that they are more self-interested than pure. Indeed, the agrarian South and West depended on slavery, an institution more corrupt than anything commerce and manufacturing fostered.

By contrast, commerce and manufacturing give regular work to many not usually engaged in business, and furnish great "scope for the diversity of talents and dispositions among individuals." They make men more industrious and inventive, and expand their choices. Manufacturing, especially, gives the able opportunities for spirited and useful enterprise. And because a commercial nation depends on sound money and banks, it also encourages "punctuality, thrift, industry, responsibility in fulfilling contracts, and prudent financial management."

Finally, Hamilton thought that commerce would provide resources to enhance "public splendor," liberality, and national greatness. The "moral horizon of American politics" is more than "the ceaseless pursuit of security and prosperity." Liberality would replace the ancient republics' "excessive devotion to . . . military glory."

Hamilton's challenge here "was to reconcile magnanimity or the longing for splendor among great men with the natural rights of mankind, or consent." Commerce would allow the ambitious to "build great commercial empires" and practice liberality grounded on agreement, not slavery and plunder. Indeed, consent and affection, as opposed to fear, served "not only to limit but also to invigorate the powers of government."

The chief "enlarged plans of public good" that Hamilton had in mind for the United States were to promote industry, secure the independence of the new world from the old, end slavery, and advance the arts and sciences. Beyond his own efforts through foreign policy and state abolition societies, Hamilton thought that industrial, mechanical, and commercial development is the best economic alternative to slavery, and further undermines it by "softening and humanizing" mores, especially those of masterful men. Commerce also provides leisure to cultivate the arts and sciences and resources to communicate enlightened opinion. Here, government needs to support institutions such as a national university where there is little prospect of immediate economic gain.

Chan makes clear how, in Hamilton's eyes, commerce and industry serve political, ethical, and intellectual ends greater than wealth alone, and are coherent with prudence and virtue. Chan's discussion is a highly intelligent contribution to the theoretical and practical issues he faces, and makes telling and sometimes novel use of The Federalist, Report on Manufactures, and Hamilton's other works.

To address these matters more completely, of course, we would need to consider additional questions. One is the problem of religion or religious toleration, especially important in light of Islamic opposition to the West. Hamilton's acquisitive, energetic, commercial, manufacturing republic is no friend to the dominance of a single religion, or the dominance of religion simply. It weakens communal rootedness and strengthens secular excitement and opportunity. This dilutes religious attachments, even beyond the effect of legal tolerance.

Is this attenuation something that liberal political Founders expected, desired, or ignored? Did they believe, say, that the kind of faith Tocqueville noticed would survive or grow, or would even this have surprised them? Aristotle's virtue seems largely secular, if not wholly so, not merely pre-Christian, and therefore friendly to pride and magnificence, but also secured without excessive reliance on the gods.

Is this secular emphasis also true of modern liberalism? To fully grasp the effect of commerce on virtue, especially today, we should, in addition to other questions, examine the link between virtue and piety, or morality and faithful obedience. How, in particular, did Hamilton see the effect of his economics on religion, and the effect of religion on morality? Chan touches on this question near the end, but does not explore it.

Also connected to this problem is how Hamilton would have demonstrated the rationality of natural rights. This is unclear in Chan's presentation. Belief in humans' natural equality provides a substantial foundation for freedom, property, and responsibility. But this equality is secured best as a natural truth, not a mere opinion. Only in its rational universalism is this belief a sufficient check on--and indication of superiority to--an obedient faith whose sway, however vast, cannot accord with reason.

Natural rights do not tell us all that reason can about natural excellence. Consent based on equal rights is always in some tension with intellectual virtue. The task of closing the gap between ancients and moderns is limited not just by differences of belief and circumstance, but by the variety of natural truths among which prudence must, in practice, steer. To explore this question you would need to pair Aristotle or Plato with someone other than Alexander Hamilton, who, as Chan informs us, did not pretend to be philosophic.

I was a member of Michael Chan's dissertation committee, a fact I reveal in the hope that kind (or moralistic) readers will now attribute my mistakes to accidental prejudice rather than incorrigible foolishness! The excellent book he has shaped from his thesis is a bulwark against the degrading of American principles. It is also a safeguard against complacent patriotism.

Mark Blitz, Fletcher Jones professor of political philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, is most recently the author of Duty Bound: Responsibility and American Public Life.