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Alexander Hamilton: Founding Father, Economist … Climate Activist?

By BETH HARPAZ

If Alexander Hamilton were in charge of the economy today, he’d be making plans to “euthanize the fossil-fuel industry and build out a vast clean-energy sector,” writes Professor Christian Parenti (John Jay College), author of Radical Hamilton: Economic Lessons from a Misunderstood Founder

Parenti says Hamilton’s 1791 Report on the Subject of Manufactures has been ignored because it calls for the type of government regulation that neoliberals, free-market advocates, and Wall Street disdain. “By today’s narrow standards,” Hamilton’s message of government subsidies, tariffs, investment, and even public ownership of industry “is heretical.” 

But Parenti says that’s precisely what’s needed to respond to climate change. The transition to green energy is “going too slowly.” Only government intervention can force “a simultaneous deindustrialization, putting an end to fossil-fuel use, and a green reindustrialization, building the new energy economy.” 

Hamilton’s world required a different type of transition, from small-scale production of food and consumer goods to industrial manufacturing. Hamilton wanted the government to subsidize industry, build infrastructure, limit exports of precious raw materials, and embrace protectionism. He also called for a strong military, both to maintain order in a chaotic world, and because defense spending, then as now, creates demand and drives innovation.

But Hamilton’s vision of government policy spurring economic development was opposed by Southerners like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Their wealth derived from agriculture and slave labor. Industrialization and an activist government threatened their way of life. Indeed, under Jefferson and Madison’s presidencies, the country’s economic development was neglected along with national defense. That opened the door for England’s attacks in the War of 1812.

The U.S. was so ill-prepared that the British even overran Washington, D.C., setting fire to the White House and the Capitol. Only because England was overextended in imperial conflicts elsewhere did they not succeed in reconquering their former colonies here, Parenti says.

“If the lesson of this history for the era of climate change is unclear,” Parenti says, imagine “ferocious tree-toppling winds, surging street-flooding tides, floating cars,” while a government responds with nothing but “chaotic default and ruin.”