Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton.
Bureau of Engraving and Printing
longread / money

Inventing Alexander Hamilton

The troubling embrace of the founder of American finance.
Neo-conservative claims on Hamilton came to a head when Brooks, in a June 8 New York Times column on economic issues in the 2008 election, announced outright that he and like-minded others were “Hamiltonians,” who hold the rational balance among radical populists, tinkering liberals, and knee-jerk anti-government conservatives.

Hamilton’s reputation has bloomed on the liberal side, too, with the Brookings Institution’s “Hamilton Project,” which is dedicated to proposing “pragmatic policy responses that will create new opportunities for middle class affluence, bolster economic security, and spur more enduring growth.” Emphasizing Hamilton’s immigrant status and impoverished background, the project describes Hamilton as a representative of American traditions of opportunity and upward mobility. “Broken Contract,” a widely discussed paper by the project’s policy director, Jason Bordoff, published in the September issue of Democracy, sets out an agenda clearly inspired by this vision of Hamilton. An essential promise of American democracy—families who work hard and prize education can expect their children to advance economically—is in danger of being broken, Bordoff argues, but the extreme solutions coming from the left and the right will fail. He proposes instead maintaining mandatory forms of social insurance, making heavy investments in training and education, and increasing individual responsibility. The Hamilton Project’s advisory council boasts Democratic Party luminaries such as Robert Rubin, Roger Altman, and others redolent of both the Clinton-era pragmatism and New Deal liberalism espoused by Bordoff.

That the Hamilton revival admits conservatives and liberals alike gives it obvious appeal. But if opinion-shapers really want to strengthen democracy by enhancing competition, opportunity, and mobility, Hamilton is not their man. Nor did he want to be. Neo-Hamiltonians of every kind are blotting out a defining feature of his thought, one that Hamilton himself insisted on throughout his turbulent career: the essential relationship between the concentration of national wealth and the obstruction of democracy through military force.
View source