The title of Joseph Stiglitz's compelling piece in the November/December issue of the Washington Monthly pretty much says it all: "Slow Growth and Inequality Are Political Choices. We Can Choose Otherwise." Those who have read my book would not be surprised to learn that I wholeheartedly agree with its analysis. But Stiglitz makes one move that I find highly objectionable. A small point that he makes in passing concerns an historical analogy. "At the foundation of our democracy," Stilgitz writes, "was the middle class—the modern-day version of the small, property-owning American farmer whom Thomas Jefferson saw as the backbone of the country."
I cannot get on board with this comparison. The key to the yeoman ideal that Jefferson celebrated was that these agriculturalists were self-sufficient. Being farmers, they depended upon no one for their daily bread, and could consequently freely vote their consciences without fear of reprisal. This economic independence was absolutely necessary, in Jefferson's view, to the maintenance of a republican form of government. Today's middle class is something far different. Members of this group make their living with wages and salaries, and are entirely dependent for their sustenance on commerce and technology. This arrangement has many virtues, but one among them is not the quality of embodying a Jeffersonian ideal.
Stiglitz's claim exemplifies the trend noted in David Sehat's forthcoming book, The Jefferson Rule: How the Founding Fathers Became Infallible and Our Politics Inflexible. The book traces the role that the idea of the founders has played in political discourse. Tracing the trope back to Jefferson himself, Sehat does a great job of showing that these men have served less as a noble ideal that Americans seek to exemplify than as a political football that competing parties use to further their own agendas. Though today we associate the veneration of the founders primarily with conservatives, Sehat demonstrates that all parties have sought to associate their own ideas with this powerful symbol. Stiglitz's passing comment also shows that appropriating the founders is as American as apple pie.
[The original post has been revised to reflect the change in jacket design and subtitle of Sehat's book since it has been released.]