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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Unsanctioned Voice: Garet Garrett, Journalist of the Old Right

This is a curious book about a curious man. It’s not a biography in a normal sense, but a biographical essay based on the limited material left behind by Garet Garrett, the journalist, novelist, and powerful voice speaking up for individualism and free markets as the New Deal eclipsed them.

Bruce Ramsey, an editorial writer for the Seattle Times, has already edited three collections of Garrett’s journalism. But Garrett’s own papers were mostly destroyed except for one year’s worth of a journal; just one small book had been written about him in the 1960s by an author who had access to many people who knew Garrett directly. Ramsey had to go to such unobvious sources as biographical works by or about the likes of journalist Gay Talese, newspaper magnate Randolph Hearst, and financier Bernard Baruch to get much useful secondary information.

What Ramsey had access to, and condenses and explains with skill and affection, is a lifetime of printed journalism and commentary on his times from Garrett, a clear writer and interesting thinker. From that, Ramsey paints a fascinating and complicated man who championed classic American political (and other) virtues.

Garrett is remembered by modern libertarians as one of their forefathers in the prewar “Old Right.” Garrett was a fellow traveler, friend, or mentor to many figures important in the early growth of the modern American libertarian movement, from FEE founder Leonard Read to novelist and polemicist Rose Wilder Lane to Richard Cornuelle, early functionary of the libertarian support organization the Volker Fund.

As Ramsey demonstrates, Garrett was too individual a thinker and writer to be slotted in as simply an early modern libertarian. He’s best seen as an eclectic constitutionalist, for “an America-first foreign policy, economic laissez-faire and a gold-backed dollar.” But Garrett was not categorically for free trade and had a soft spot for national autarky, which he saw as both an economic and foreign-policy good. He was against legal gambling, free banking, and free immigration (and not just prospectively—he believed the American spirit of individualism had been sullied by the pre-World War I immigration of a European proletariat).

Garrett was born in Illinois in 1878, and by age 18 (at most) had launched a lifelong career as a journalist and editorialist in the Midwest and later Washington, D.C., and New York. He got an early start studying the worlds of twentieth-century business and finance, and had a gift for winning the respect of highly placed men and difficult interview subjects such as Bernard Baruch and Henry Ford.

The most educational part of Ramsey’s book to those who only know Garrett by his later political essays on the death of a free America (kept in print through much of the past 50 years by various libertarian and conservative publishers) consists of discussions of the series of novels Garrett wrote in the 1920s. All are set in the world of business and industry. His belief in the virtue and efficacy of individual effort was at the core of his social philosophy. He once wrote, “I have never seen a good farmer with a good wife in a state of failure,” which sums up his attitude toward how one succeeds.

Garrett’s intellectual approach differed from the systemic rationalism of such libertarian founders as Ayn Rand and Ludwig Von Mises. He once wrote to his friend the socialist Lincoln Steffens that “there is not one damned thing I am sure of . . . it is much more important to believe something than that what you believe should be right.” His shock at how quickly the individualist America he thought he knew from pre-New Deal days embraced creeping socialism led him to declare, “I am too humiliated to have an opinion about anything. Everything I believed about my own people was wrong.”

He came to think that Americans of the postwar era were, sadly, getting exactly the type of government they wanted and that the original Americans belonged to a different breed entirely. This sense of loss led to the grim mood of the early libertarian movement—the realization that believers in limited government and free markets were fighting to reverse a defeat, not preserve a system. As the title of Garrett’s most famous essay put it, “The Revolution Was.”

A major theme of Garrett’s intellectual life was especially prescient: an understanding of the importance of gold as a monetary standard, that bankers and government “must be limited by something they cannot control . . . the gold standard.”

Ramsey sums up why American, and certainly libertarian, historians should remember Garrett: “Because he stood against state dominance at home and state intervention abroad, and showed that the two are connected.” Alas for Garrett’s cause, his relevance is as strong as ever.