In the book, Shlaes makes an explicit connection between Coolidge’s rough-and-humble upbringing in Plymouth Notch, VA, and his bootstraps optimism about commerce and markets. The Coolidges believed that responsibility, hard work, and a virtuous life were bound to pay off, in large part because they experienced it in their own lives.
On this, Robinson offers a wonderful follow-up (around the 31-minute mark), observing that some have connected Lyndon B. Johnson’s similar “hardscrabble upbringing” with an entirely different perspective, namely his “championing of the federal government as an instrument for lifting the poor of the nation.” Why, Robinson asks, did the early struggles of each of these men lead them to entirely different conclusions about economic empowerment and poverty alleviation?
At this point, given the status-quo boilerplate of our current political discourse, one expects Shlaes to answer by driving a wedge between The Individual and The Collective — something about Coolidge believing in the power of the individual, and Johnson believing in the power of the state.
Though I wouldn’t disagree with that assessment, and though it’s heavily evident in Shlaes’ initial set-up, she answers by pointing to a different feature, one that’s often neglected by progressives and free marketers alike: the power of connectedness:
It was [Coolidge’s] own experience. He saw that commerce improved things. He was very modern in his scholarship of networks. The single tragedy of his town was that the train went everywhere else – it didn’t go to Plymouth [Notch]; it was left out of the network…off the grid. And he went to North Hampton and he saw that North Hampton was a county seat…and he saw the value of networks and connections…And later, he was a great champion of aviation, because airplanes connected people.
For Coolidge, “access to the network” wasn’t about being entitled to static material products and services, as it was for LBJ; it was about being connected to the economic community. And indeed, for all our talk about the importance of individual virtue, personal responsibility, and value creation, crucial though they remain, we mustn’t forget that it is access that allows these features to be shared and utilized across communities and societies. Without the channels to serve and collaborate with our fellow man, all of our virtue and service capacity will be kept to ourselves, and life will be all the more grim because of it.
Markets empower individuals because they empower community collaboration, and back and forth and so on. Where disconnectedness persists, struggle is bound to follow.
You can purchase the Poverty Cure series on Amazon here.