Saturday, March 3, 2007

Economic patriotism for Montana

Boswell reports the venerable Samuel Johnson as saying, "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." This quotation has been thrown around a great deal, particularly in America's heated internal debates about how to respond to the threat of terrorism.

We will leave aside the fact that this has never been our favorite quip by Johnson, since it reportedly was misdirected at one of our heroes, the liberal father of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke. Johnson disliked Burke, in no small part, for the latter's advocacy of allowing the American colonies their independence -- and the fact that Burke was more than a match for Johnson's intelligence probably inspired some reflexive dislike.

Taken in isolation and used in a modern context, Johnson's remark has the effect of reverse psychology: if one expresses patriotic sentiments, one is, by definition, a scoundrel with scoundrelly ideas. Some Republicans, while perhaps not immediately thinking of Boswell and Johnson, may be having that reaction to Governor Schweitzer's comments reported in an AP article in today's Billings Gazette.

To the extent that Republicans are saying that Montana has a bad business climate that should be unattractive to anyone wanting to relocate to Montana, the governor is exactly right. Any Republican who fits this uncomfortable shoe should be made to wear it.

There is a danger, however, that his appeal to a sort of economic patriotism for Montana will sound as though he is saying "if you say that this or that tax or regulatory issue needs revamping, you aren't being a good Montanan" -- and to the extent that he is trying to stifle Republicans through such a comment, he is indeed playing the role of the patriotic scoundrel.

Having followed this legislative session closely, Montana Headlines can say with fairly assured confidence that the overall Republican message has decidedly not been that Montana is a bad place to do business.

The Republican underlying message can rather be summarized in a couple of points:

1. Montana once had a very bad tax and regulatory climate that discouraged business growth -- images like that can linger long after, and we aren't going to allow anything to take us back to those days.

2. Montana's business climate is indeed very good -- just look at the bulging state coffers and the minuscule unemployment rates.

That good business climate is the result of tax and regulatory changes enacted by a series of Republican legislatures and governors -- mostly over the loud protests of Democrats. We don't want to endanger any of the gains made.

3. Montana's business climate, while very good, still needs significant improvement.

Senate Minority leader Corey Stapleton, R-Billings, is quoted extensively in the same article, and in the course of those comments, shows why his colleagues chose him for his current leadership position. Rather than allow himself to be drawn out by the governor's accusations, Stapleton calmly sticks to the facts of history, and points out that Democrats are now embracing (and even claiming credit for -- the ultimate compliment) what they once opposed:

"Now everyone accepts (the tax cut) and says it is a good thing," Stapleton said.

While the governor says that "It's the same tired rhetoric for the past 20 years," Stapleton replies with the obvious:

Stapleton said Republicans need to "make a big squawk" to push tax relief through the Legislature. And each time they do, he said, the business climate improves.

Democrats seem not to notice that by saying that Republicans have been using "the same tired rhetoric for 20 years" (the governor is hardly alone amongst Democrats in saying this, so it would be wrong to single him out for criticism), they are saying that Republicans were wrong in their assessment of Montana's business climate for those 20 years. Yet the fact that they readily embrace the idea that Montana is now booming contradicts that very assertion.

The governor asks us to "please be helpful," and we quite agree. Any "sky is falling" Republican rhetoric about Montana's business climate is misplaced and harmful. We also believe that the Democrats would be wise to take Stapleton's comments to heart.

Don't make us squawk -- we don't enjoy it any more than you do. Just help us cut taxes.


Ed Kemmick said...

I don't think it's right to say that Johnson disliked Burke, and it's certainly not right to say that he meant his famous comment for him. Burke was a member of Johnson's closest circle and could hold his own in conversation with Johnson as well or better than any other man. Johnson may have been unfair to him on occasion, but that is true of anyone with whom he had his verbal duels.

As for the quote, Boswell reports only that, "Patriotism having become one of our topicks, Johnson suddenly uttered, in a strong determined tone, an apophthegm, at which many will start: 'Patriotism is the last refuge of a soundrel.'" Boswell, trying to guard his master from censure, hastens to add, "But let it be considered, that he did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak for self-interest."

It is only after adding those softening words that Boswell says he himself certainly did not believe that all patriots were scoundrels. Pressed by someone else in the party to name an exception, Boswell said he "mentioned an eminent person," identified in a footnote as Burke.

To which Johnson replied: "Sir, I do not say that he is not honest; but we have no reason to conclude from his political conduct that he is honest. Were he to accept a place from the ministry, he would lose that character of firmness which he has, and might be turned out in a year."

So, as usual, what we have is Boswell impertinently bringing up the name of a personal acquaintance, baiting Johnson as he always did. Johnson's answer was more an effort to refute Boswell than to criticize Burke. He could have been much more harsh, but only said as much as needed to be said to win that particular point.

Ed Kemmick said...

Did you happen to read Mark Tokarski's take on the same story? It's 180 degrees from your opinion. I'd like to see you two address each other's points. Here it is:

Mark Tokarski said...

I think you're hanging on a thin vine in assuming that the current economic boom has anything to do with policies put in place these pas thirteen years. You've got no evidence! All you know is that we are prospering right now, but I don't see where you've a clue why. You're basing your entire argument on unexamined assumptions. It's energy prices driiving us, as they did back in the 1980's when taxes were higher and regulations stiffer. Take a look at the early 1980's in Montana, when oil peaked at $40 per barrel, and tell me there are no similarities.

And energy prices will come down again. A rational policy maker woul seek to ensure that we cash on on this boom, and capture a few of these dollars before they leave, as leave they will.

You guys remind me of Indian rain dancers taking credit for what is inevitable.

Hallie said...

I knew that, Ed.


Montana Headlines said...

Ed, thanks the the corrections/clarifications on Johnson and Burke. I revere both men and their legacies -- my less in-depth knowledge of their relationship allowed me to generalize incorrectly from having heard that Johnson's famous comment was directed at Burke.

Given the great similarities that the two have from the perspective of a couple of centuries, I had assumed that the remark reflected personal rivalry. I like your explanation of the account better.

Having been out of town without my laptop (kind of nice, actually), I'm behind the curve, but will respond to Tokarski's comments.

Montana Headlines said...

I decided to make my lengthy response a separate post here on M.H. I tried to leave a comment on Piece of Mind to this effect -- but haven't seen it show up yet.

Mark Tokarski said...

I haven't seen it either - I'll check the queue - we don't censor, edit, or even delay posting over there.

Mark Tokarski said...

There's nothing in the queue over there. Honest - we want to hear form you!

Montana Headlines said...

Mark, I've tried a couple more times without success. Maybe it's a problem with my browser. In any event, my reply is on this website as a "part II" post.