The New 10 Dollar Bill And The Legacy of Alexander Hamilton

U.S. treasury officials on Wednesday announced that a redesigned $10 bill will feature a woman alongside Alexander Hamilton. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew will announce the selection later this year, and circulation of the new bill is expected to begin in 2020.

This announcement gives me a chance to reflect on our most philosophically important founder. As Israel’s national heritage is freedom from slavery at the hands of Pharaoh, America’s national heritage is freedom from monarchy at the hands of King George. It is not surprising then that we Americans have long been characterized by a healthy distrust of unfettered central government. The anti-federalist philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, of the Democratic solution of Andrew Jackson—and of today’s Tea Party—have been to make the federal government as weak as possible.

The problem is that for all of Jefferson’s elegant theories and writings, his hyper-small government ideas have failed to materialize in the real world anywhere. In contrast to the weak federal government of Jefferson’s preferred Articles of Confederation, for two centuries strong federal government has been the rocket of our progress. It’s not popular to praise our government, but I’m going to do it anyway.

  • Before Social Security, most seniors died in poverty. Now, less than 10% do.
  • Before the GI Bill of the 40s, there was virtually no middle class.
  • In 1920, before our network of public health programs came into being, nearly 500,000 cases of measles were reported. Now, nobody gets measles.
  • Medicare is the most efficient health insurance program in the country.
  • Before the Clean Air Act, the air was twice as polluted as it is today. Before the Clean Water Act, half as many waterways were swimmable or fishable as today. China and India have no such protections for the environment, to the detriment of nearly every newborn child there.
  • Before the Federal Reserve, depressions (as economists define the term) were commonplace, but now they literally never happen.
  • The Civil Rights Acts and the Community Reinvestment Act have made economic advancement possible for most (though not all) racial minorities.
  • The FDIC put a stop to most bank runs, a
  • The US Postal Service, which is chronically underfunded, allows commerce to take place in places that private mail couriers don’t serve.
  • There is no telling how many commercial products exist today because of NASA.

The material abundance we enjoy today can be credited to Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists, who accurately concluded from the Articles of Confederation that weak federal government creates its own set of problems—many worse than those arising out of the monarchy that preceded it. The federal government under the Confederacy could not raise taxes or regulate commerce.

Recognizing that most economic problems are national rather than state in character and demand strong federal action, the Federalists gave to Congress unlimited power to regulate interstate commerce. The genius of Hamilton were his Federalist Papers, in which he argued that the solution to the problems that come with powerful government should not be to weaken government but to make government more accountable with the powers it had. Out of that philosophy, we have our system of checks and balance, which—albeit imperfectly—have lasted to this day and allowed us to take for granted the things I listed above.

For those reasons, I believe it is appropriate to make such a progressive addition to our national currency alongside the founder whose ideas have contributed the most to our modern ideas of governance.


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