A Startling Warning from Old Ben

How to Reduce a Great Republic to Chaos

By Nancy Spannaus

Jan. 11, 2022—The imminence of Benjamin Franklin’s upcoming birthday (Jan. 17, 1706) led me to rummaging through some of his voluminous writings, looking for something appropriate to the crises of our time. After all, Ben was not only a preeminent scientist but played an indispensable role in founding our republic. My attention was particularly drawn to one of his satirical masterpieces, entitled “Rules by Which a Great Empire May be Reduced to a Small One.”

A Startling Warning from Old Ben
Benjamin Franklin in 1767, as painted by David Martin

Ben wrote this document in September of 1773, in the heat of the Revolutionary conflict centered in Boston. It was first published in London’s The Public Advertiser, but later circulated widely and was reprinted throughout England and the colonies. The British government never directly referenced this work, but responded with rage, and ironically carried out precisely the prescriptions which Ben’s anonymous author outlined as the way to lose the American colonies. The rest is history.

But as I continued my search, to my utter surprise I found that later on, soon before his death in 1790, Ben apparently had drafted another document of this sort, one never published but oriented toward potential problems to be faced by the American republic. The document was not signed, of course – nor was his original. But everyone knew who wrote it. In this case, the subject seems right up his alley. After all, Ben was the sage who commented after the Constitutional Convention that we had created a “republic, if we can keep it.”

The title of Ben’s hitherto-unpublished article was “Rules by Which a Great Republic May Be Reduced to Chaos.” I found the content of that piece so compelling that I am reprinting it in full.

Ben’s Document

Mid-January 1790

In the midst of the celebrations upon the constitutional founding of our Republic, I find myself thinking toward the future. There can be no question but that we are destined to become a great nation, burgeoning with population, and graced with unprecedented progress in science, technology, education, and all those qualities which will make us a blessing for all mankind. We have created a fœderal government whose powers will allow us to do this, at the same time that we perfect our representative democracy, including by ending the abominable institution of slavery.

Yet, I see a lurking danger that would take us in the opposite direction. Indeed, I have come across a shocking document which proposes measures that would change our course, and deliberately reduce our great republic to chaos. One has to suspect it was written by a small group of financiers dedicated to depopulating our planet, for this is what it would do.  I must warn future generations of this threat.

The appropriate title for this document would be “Rules by Which a Great Republic May be Reduced to Chaos.” It reads:

As it is clear that the newly established republic of the united States of America, under the leadership of the esteemed George Washington and his Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, threatens to inspire unrealistic hopes of universal prosperity, progress, and peace, thereby upending the natural order of things, we propose the leaders of America take the following measures immediately.

  1. The first steps must be taken in the area of national œconomy, for that is the area which most people, including Americans, ignore in favor of their personal situation alone. It may take a long time, but patience is essential. The key shift can be taken without fanfare or even notice – the shift toward making money, rather than producing goods. This can occur in the quiet of our corporations and with the cooperation of the major Wall Street banks. But of course, you must take care to shape popular opinion in a manner conducive to the ultimate aim: a propaganda campaign in favor of a consumer œconomy rather than one based on dirty industrial plants will be especially useful. In the meantime, take care to bury all evidence of the emphasis that was placed on government-supported manufacturing in the creation of the country.
  2. From this shift, it flows logically that you should get the united States to begin to remove their industries overseas. Hamilton’s idea that all nations should be self-sufficient in necessities[1] is outdated and constrains our freedoms, especially profit-taking, which is the true road to happiness. After all, things can be produced more cheaply there, and those who lose their jobs at home can be consoled by the fact that they can find cheap goods at the markets. You must tell those who complain that they are being ignorant and selfish – just trying to raise costs for everyone else. They should have gotten an education to join those who don’t have to work with their hands. 
  3. Rule number three calls for abandoning expensive new technologies, which people like Hamilton have the audacity to say actually would make production in this country more efficient, cleaner, and cheaper than imports produced abroad, and want the government to support! You must oppose this idea. Advanced technologies[2] require long-term investment in the sciences and the arts, and investing in universal scientific education. Who would pay for it? The government would probably put the burden on us. So, in the name of freedom, you must insist on waiting for market conditions to be ripe, and let people pursue their business as they wish.
  4. Complementary to this shift in investment priorities, you must ensure that there is no rigorous regulation of the financial or corporate sector. The strictures against speculation and for being guided by concern for the General Welfare which Alexander Hamilton recommended can sometimes be evaded by clever businessmen, but the way has to be cleared for “financial innovation” on a large scale. This will lead to enormous wealth for some, and great risk of impoverishment for many, but isn’t that the free enterprise system?
  5. While this new financial approach takes over in our corporations, efforts have to be made to implement it in the Congress as well. Any ideas of long-term planning or protections against the inordinate pursuit of private profit have to be banished in the name of “fiscal responsibility,” if not a “balanced budget.” Focus on the debt – you can scare people out of their wits! One step on the way would be to insist that all Congressional outlays (excepting defense) submit to a “pay-as-you-go” rule. Forget – no, destroy — those Hamiltonian ideas of productive credit and a National Bank, which show how wise investments pay for themselves: impose discipline.
  6. Some people will argue that there are some internal improvements that the Federal government must fund. Forget it! Critical to the shift in Congress must be a reduction of Federal involvement in supporting and upgrading the nation’s infrastructure. Use Tom Jefferson’s argument: Such spending is an infringement on the liberties of the states and the people! Of course, accidents will happen; they’ve always happened, and people will die as a result. But they shouldn’t complain. And given a high enough rate of return, private enterprise will build what absolutely must be built.
  7. This next rule is critical. It is inevitable that there will be a popular backlash against these measures. Americans seem to be incurably optimistic that government can be an instrument to promote the General Welfare. Austerity is never popular. So, a scapegoat must be found for the difficulties your policies have created. The solution is simple. Undoubtedly, there will be nations aspiring to build up their own economies, outside of our financial control: they must be identified as the enemy. Accuse them of being undemocratic, of stealing your technology, of aspiring to overtake us in crucial areas of technology, of causing our popular misery and lack of good jobs.
  8. But don’t rely on mere accusations. It is essential to counter this “threat” militarily, and to get other nations to join us by whatever means necessary. There should be no limit to our expansion of the military budget (Leading citizens make a lot of money this way.), nor to the punitive economic measures we take against these nations, even if they also have a negative effect on our own economy. The people must be told that we are defending “democracy,” and while the civilian budget must be brought under control, military spending cannot be touched.
  9. While it is unlikely that there will be major resistance to this “patriotic” approach, no effort should be spared to ensure that significant opposition does not arise. It is a cardinal rule that maximum emphasis should be put on divisive social issues – legalization of drugs, abortion policy, and group identity, for example. This will create maximum social conflict, and distract the bulk of the population from the cause of the economic problems that face them. And in this climate of political chaos, there will be no limit to what leading financiers can do …

Can This Disaster Be Stopped?

At this point, the discomfiting Franklin document breaks off.  Perhaps he never finished his thought, or simply couldn’t face the horrible implications of the implementation of such a policy: deindustrialization, despair, demographic collapse, poverty, civil unrest, and constant war. But what he did convey should scare the pants off us today. Look at how far we have come toward implementing those economic policies, how Congress has by and large fallen in line, and how the mobilization for confrontation with Russia and China, along with those so-called hot button social issues, is dominating our political agenda while leading financiers and monopolies make out like bandits.

A Startling Warning from Old Ben
The Brent Spence Bridge over the Ohio River at Cincinnati is one of the beneficiaries of the 2021 Infrastructure bill.

Yes, there were some initial steps taken toward desperately needed Federal support for our economy over the past few years: industrial policy is no longer a dirty word. The Infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction (sic) Acts were significant moves in that direction. Even within avowed Conservative circles, there have been surprising shifts, with the emergence of the group around the American Compass. This small thinktank played a significant role in pushing for the Chips and Science Act of 2022, which aims to re-shore the microchip industry. According to Executive Director Oren Cass, their efforts have also resulted in the Heritage Foundation supporting industrial policy, and the American Enterprise Institute turning against tax cuts.

More ambitious, and on target, has been the work of the National Infrastructure Bank Coalition, which has mobilized an expanding group of local lawmakers and activists nationally to fight for the establishment of a $5 trillion infrastructure bank, capitalized Hamilton-style with government bonds. As of the conclusion of 2022, there were 19 cosponsors (all Democrats) on the National Infrastructure Bank Act (HR 3339), introduced by Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill), in addition to a wide swath of endorsements by legislative, industry, and political groups and state legislatures. (For a total run-down, see the NIB Coalition website.). Davis is expected to re-introduce his bill soon in the current Congressional session.

But a look at the national economy reveals a dangerous similarity to the scenario which Franklin was warning against. The nation’s major financial powers are running amok, with bank profits reaching a 14-year high, and corporate giants like Apple, Amazon, and the energy companies making record profits, while a majority of American households are living paycheck to paycheck. The issue of financial regulation and action against price-gouging have been taken off the table, as Wall Street and big corporations are judged instead by the diversity of their workforce and “green” investments. And the Federal Reserve seems determined to further increase bankers’ profits, cut real production, and throw the economy into a recession (or depression) by its allegedly anti-inflationary high interest rates (It used to be called usury.).

Alexander Hamilton set guidelines for a prosperous economy, which are being violated today.

Military budget levels are off the charts, while both parties claim there is not enough money to invest in strengthening the nation by modernizing infrastructure, raising wages, and solving glaring problems like the housing shortage. And now a group of rabid budget-cutters in the House is threatening to hold the government hostage until it gets slashes in all but military spending. This will threaten the small advances that have been made toward positive Federal intervention in the economy.

And this is not to mention the dangers inherent in the military standoffs in Ukraine and the South China Sea.

The alternative to disaster would seem to be clear: A return to the American System policy which Franklin, Hamilton, and their allies conceived when they brought our constitutional government into being. The question is: Will Franklin’s warning be heeded?

[1] See the Report on Manufactures.

[2] I’m assuming these involved processes like steam power at the time, but would apply to nuclear fission and fusion, and high-speed rail today—Nancy Spannaus