An Important Distinction

Master of the Senate, the third volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, opens with a lengthy history of the world’s greatest deliberative body from America’s founding up to Johnson’s time. On page 44, describing the end of a lengthy period of Senatorial stagnation in the early 20th century, Caro writes about how leadership deliberated:

The “Senate Four” or the “Big Four,” as they were known, still met in summer at Aldrich’s great castle in Narragansett, near Newport – four aging men in stiff high white collars and dark suits (Aldrich, being at home, might occasionally unbend to wear a blazer) even on the hottest days, sitting on a colonnaded porch in rockers and wicker chairs deciding Republican policy – a policy that was still based on an unshaken belief in laissez-faire and the protective tariff.

Caro is a masterful biographer and a fine writer, but he is sometimes a little confused on economics. Protective tariffs are government interventions in the market, and therefore the precise opposite of laissez-faire. Then, as now, Republican leaders were much more pro-business than pro-market. This is an important distinction to make. Failing to make it can lead to egregious — and avoidable — errors.

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