I periodically get asked who should be in the White House.
Since I’m a policy wonk rather than a political pundit, I generally sidestep the question.
Though it probably isn’t too hard to figure out my preference if you peruse what I’ve written about previous presidents.
And to further demonstrate my independence, it’s time for me to endorse another Democrat.
Yes, you read correctly. The person I want in the White House is….(drum roll, please)…the 22nd and 24th President of the United States, Grover Cleveland.
He’s mostly famous for being the only President to serve non-consecutive terms (he won in 1884, lost in 1888, and won again in 1892). And perhaps also for marrying a 21-year woman while in the White House.
But he should be remembered instead – and with great fondness – for his belief in classical liberal principles.
Let’s start with this blurb from his Wikipedia page.
Cleveland was the leader of the pro-business Bourbon Democrats who opposed high tariffs, Free Silver, inflation, imperialism, and subsidies to business, farmers, or veterans. His crusade for political reform and fiscal conservatism made him an icon for American conservatives of the era. Cleveland won praise for his honesty, self-reliance, integrity, and commitment to the principles of classical liberalism. He relentlessly fought political corruption, patronage, and bossism. …He also used his appointment powers to reduce the number of federal employees, as many departments had become bloated with political time-servers. …Cleveland used the veto far more often than any president up to that time.
Perhaps his most glorious moment came when he rejected the Texas Seed Bill.
After a drought had ruined crops in several Texas counties, Congress appropriated $10,000 to purchase seed grain for farmers there. Cleveland vetoed the expenditure. In his veto message, he espoused a theory of limited government:
I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the general government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit. …the lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people support the government, the government should not support the people. The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune. This has been repeatedly and quite lately demonstrated. Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood.
Wow, can you imagine any President saying these words today?
President Cleveland’s steadfast behavior and sound principles have garnered him some well-deserved praise.
Writing for Investor’s Business Daily back in 2011, Paul Whitfield opined about Cleveland’s track record.
If free-market advocates could resurrect a U.S. president to deal with today’s problems, many would choose Grover Cleveland. …He vetoed hundreds of spending bills, refusing to succumb to political temptation whether it was wrapped in patriotism or sob stories. …Union military veterans had become a powerful special interest group. Expenditures on their pensions increased about 500% over 20 years… When Congress passed a bill granting pensions to veterans for injuries not caused by military service, he vetoed it. …He vetoed 414 bills during his eight years — 1885-89 and 1893-97 — in the White House, forcing Congress to curb its appetite for spending.
President Cleveland even had a libertarian approach to overseas entanglements.
Cleveland had a simple approach to foreign policy. He said America should “never get caught up in conflict with any foreign state unless attacked or otherwise provoked.”
Let’s go back even further in time. Here’s some of what Lawrence Reed wrote in 1996.
I give high marks to those presidents who actively sought to uphold the Constitution, and who worked to expand the frontiers of freedom. I’ll take a president who leaves us alone over one who can’t keep his hands out of other people’s pockets any day of the week. Honesty, frugality, candor, and a love for liberty are premium qualities in my kind of president. The one man among post-war presidents (post-Civil War, that is) who exemplified those qualities best was Grover Cleveland… Cleveland took a firm stand against a nascent welfare state. Frequent warnings against the redistributive nature of government were characteristic of his tenure. He regarded as a “serious danger” the notion that government should dispense favors and advantages to individuals or their businesses. …Disdainful of pork barrel politics, he felt that those who would use and gain from such projects should pay for them. …He rightly argued that tariffs stifle competition, raise prices, and violate the people’s freedom to patronize the sellers of their choice.
The article points out that Cleveland wasn’t perfect.
Indeed, the squalid Department of Agriculture was elevated to the Cabinet during his tenure.
But, on net, he pushed for liberty. Heck, look at this quote from President Cleveland, which Lawrence Reed shared in an article from 1999.
When more of the people’s sustenance is exacted through the form of taxation than is necessary to meet the just obligations of government and the expense of its economical administration, such exaction becomes ruthless extortion and a violation of the fundamental principles of a free government.
Wow. Taxation to fund beyond limited government equals “ruthless extortion.” That warms my libertarian heart!
Robert Higgs, the great economic historian, shared another great quote from President Cleveland.
Cleveland believed in keeping government expenditure at the minimum required to carry out essential constitutional functions. “When a man in office lays out a dollar in extravagance,” declared Cleveland, “he acts immorally by the people.”
Let’s begin to wrap up with some wisdom from Burton Folsom, who wrote about President Cleveland for the Freeman back in 2004.
For a U.S. president, one test of this courage is the willingness to veto bad bills— bills that spend too much money or that contradict Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution. In that test of character, perhaps no president passed more convincingly than Grover Cleveland… During Cleveland’s first term (1885–1889), he vetoed 414 bills, more than twice the total vetoed by all previous presidents. …Over half of Cleveland’s vetoes involved pensions to Civil War veterans. Congressmen, especially Republicans, were increasingly trying to funnel taxpayer dollars to unqualified veterans in hopes of capturing “the soldier vote.”
Sadly, politicians today not only go after the “soldier vote,” but also the “farmer vote,” the “elderly vote,” the “urban vote,” etc, etc, etc.
And we don’t have principled leaders like Grover Cleveland with a veto pen.
Let’s look at some historical budget data to understand how truly lucky the nation was during Cleveland’s era. During the 1880s, in his first term, total primary spending (which is total outlays minus expenditures for net interest) averaged just 1.7 percent of GDP.
And this was before the income tax was enacted. After all, there was no need to have a punitive levy when the fiscal burden of government was so small.
P.S. Barton Folsom was the narrator of the superb video from Prager University on government-controlled investment.