All American Suck-Ups

The year was 1965. John D. MacArthur wanted his own turnpike exit.

OK, it wasn't personal. It was for access to Palm Beach Gardens, his new 4,000-acre development north of West Palm Beach.

Still, it was a reporter's job to ask him whether there wasn't something audacious about the request. So I did, though MacArthur -- a multi-millionaire insurance executive and a political reactionary, not to mention Helen Hayes's brother-in-law -- could be brusque and intimidating, especially to a 24-year old.

But I was emboldened because MacArthur liked me. I was the reporter for the five-person Palm Beach County bureau; he had asked for me when he called the office a few weeks earlier -- the night he ransomed the DeLong Ruby, stolen a year before from the American Museum of Natural History by Jack (Murph the Surf) Murphy. MacArthur had even dropped the ruby into the palm of my hand for a few tantalizing seconds.

At any rate, back to the turnpike question. Of course, he had an answer at the ready: “I am a citizen petitioning my government for a redress of grievances,” he said. “It's my Constitutional right”

No, I didn't have the gumption to say, “Not having your own turnpike exit is a grievance?” But when I thought about it later, I was glad I hadn't. Who is anyone to define another's grievance? He who grieves has a grievance, and he who grieves about having to pay taxes, or being prohibited from dumping his toxic goop in the river, or not having his own turnpike interchange has every right to petition his government to redress that grievance.

All of which came to mind last month when I read the exchange between National Review's Jonah Goldberg and the Prospect's own Ezra Klein over the pluses and minuses of expansive government, in which Goldberg proclaimed that Europeans and Canadians were more likely to embrace government programs because of their “long traditions of sucking up to the state and throne,” in contrast to us independent-minded Americans.

Klein had the better of the argument, but by responding to Goldberg's specific points, he was far too kind. The trouble with Goldberg's assertion was not in its details but in its central assumption, which is patently false. Americans suck up to state and throne as eagerly as anyone. Maybe more. We always have.

“As early as the depression following the Revolutionary War the debtor farmers of the back country had used their political power in the legislatures of many states to secure legislation to improve their condition,” wrote historian Ralph Henry Gabriel -- nobody's idea of a left-winger -- in 1940's The Course of American Democratic Thought.

In later years the poor men of the North and West supported that demand for free land which eventuated in the Homestead Act of 1862. Struggling manufacturers as early as 1816 had asked of Congress and had secured a protective tariff. Of all the utopian dreams which had flourished in American history none was more fanciful than the idea that the citizens of the Republic could be persuaded from politics when they believed that political activity could further their private interests.

To put it more bluntly if less gracefully: In pursuit of their own wealth, Americans have always sucked up to state and throne with great gusto. And why shouldn't they? As MacArthur knew, the Constitution gives everyone the right to petition the government for any reason at all. In a culture that honors personal wealth and power, only a fool would refrain from using that right to enhance personal wealth and power. And we are not fools.

Besides, America is a government project. Columbus was not working for private enterprise. Neither were Lewis and Clark. Neither were those cavalrymen, bugles blaring and banners flying, who rode to the rescue of beleaguered pioneers in hundreds of Western movies (their commander was sometimes played by John Wayne, proving that the gods -- or at least the moguls -- of Hollywood understood irony) and only somewhat less often in the actual 19th-century West.

And of course it should be remembered, those troops didn't just happen to be in the neighborhood. According to John D. Unruh, Jr.'s The Plains Across, in the decades before the Civil War, most of the U.S. Army was in the West because the pioneers kept yelling for help from the government. Had the folks in the wagon trains not sucked up to state and throne, the West might have been lost.

The West was a WPA project even before it was won. Those states out there are square because state and throne (or throne's American counterpart, Congress and the Executive Branch) surveyed the land, divided it into counties, townships, and sections, eliminated and/or contained its original inhabitants, and all but gave it away to white settlers only too happy to suck up for it.

They were, of course, only too happy to keep sucking -- to make sure that state and throne straighten and control their rivers, irrigate their land (and charge them below-market rates for the water), allow them to graze their cattle and chop down trees on the public domain (again, charging less than the market would), create a system of farm-to-market roads, give away the minerals under the public's land, and sell the land above those minerals for pennies an acre. American Westerners being perhaps the most determined suckers-up the world has ever seen, most of that beneficence endures.

Not that their Eastern brethren were or are slouches when it comes to using the public weal for private gain. Even before the first wagon trains rolled out of Independence, MO, Eastern entrepreneurs were taking advantage of the relatively new device known as the corporation, a government grant of privilege. The British may have invented the corporation, but Americans moved more quickly to expand it, and to eliminate the inconvenience of having to get each one separately created by the legislature.

East and West, all Americans still rely on the state for succor and subsidy. Pace Ross Perot, that giant sucking sound is less the echo of jobs moving to Mexico than the noise of prominent Americans seeking privileges from the government -- stronger and longer patent and copyright protection, limits on lawsuits and liabilities, new ports and airports, wider highways, and increasingly inventive tax breaks for selected citizens.

Reasonable people may debate whether any or all of the above is wise policy. They may not dispute that all of it involves sucking up to state and throne every bit as much as Social Security and the Clean Air Act do, or as much as a universal health insurance system would.

As much as, but not the same as. There are differences between these two approaches to state-sucking. The first approach, the one whose existence is denied by conservatives such as Goldberg, uses government to enrich the individuals who know how to position themselves near the public fount. The second, the one those same conservatives deride as statism, thinks the government ought to protect, and to provide opportunity for, the general public, including those unable to get their mouths anywhere near the spigot.

This does not necessarily render the first approach evil and the second noble. Individual enrichment is as American as both apple pie and sponging off the government. As Ralph Henry Gabriel put it, Americans have always viewed “freedom in terms of economic opportunity.” But Gabriel also knew that by the end of the 19th century “the old-time individual entrepreneur, who worked shoulder to shoulder with his help, had been replaced by the large corporation as the significant factor in industrial and commercial advance.”

So while the middle class is hardly averse to sucking up to state and throne -- think of the tax deduction for mortgage interest -- these days the most successful suckers-up are the large corporations and such unincorporated cousins as private equity funds and assorted free-lance financiers and developers. In other words, this discussion is less about ideas and values than it is about interests. Forget the fine points. Follow the money.

That's what MacArthur did. He got his exit, of course, and Palm Beach Gardens is now a thriving city, home to almost 50,000 people, 12 golf courses, and the headquarters of the Professional Golfers Association of America.

MacArthur died in 1978, but not before arranging, with the help of the government, to shelter much of his wealth from taxation by creating the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, making sure it would be led by fellow-conservatives such as his friend Paul Harvey, the broadcaster who for years was the spokesman for MacArthur's Bankers Life and Casualty Company.

But MacArthur's son and grandson did not share his politics. Harvey and his allies are long gone, and the Foundation is roughly as far to the left as its founder was to the right. If there's an after-life, MacArthur must be looking down -- or up -- furious that there are limits even to the powers of multi-millionaires who, like all real Americans, suck up to state and throne every day of their lives.