50th anniversary of Ike's farewell address

It's often cited for the misleading "military-industrial complex" warning - something that Eisenhower never meant as a warning against the military but rather a warning against all top down efforts by government - but there is far more to the speech that illustrates why Eisenhower is often wildly underestimated as a president.

Ted Bromund in Contentions:

I was struck by just how rarely it is that the U.S. elects a president who finds inspiration in prudence. Like Will, I'm not persuaded by Peter Feaver's argument that Obama is meaningfully similar to Eisenhower: the attitudes of the two presidents toward federal spending, to take just one obvious and vitally important example, could hardly be more different.Of course, a president doesn't have to be prudential to be great. Still, the overlap between greatness (or near-greatness, in Eisenhower's case) and prudentialism is striking. The only other president who has, to my knowledge, been described at length as philosophically prudential is Lincoln, by William Lee Miller in his Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography. Miller's style takes being casual to a new and to me slightly irritating level, but it's a fascinating read nonetheless. As Miller puts it: "The mature Abraham Lincoln would exhibit ... a combination of the moral clarity and elevation of ... the prophet, with the ‘prudence' and ‘responsibility' of a worthy politician. ... Prudence as a virtue [does not] exclude, as pragmatism tends to do, general moral ideals and larger moral patterns beyond the immediate situation. ... Prudence as a moral virtue made a bridge to intellectual virtue."

But as Eisenhower might have noted, and as Miller does note, the entire tradition of prudence has been devalued, in favor of the more desiccated concept of pragmatism. As a more recent president put it, the question is simple: "What works?" And Eisenhower's address helps explain why. As he noted, the threat to American liberties was posed not so much by big government as such but by top-down direction of all kinds. Much of this originated in the federal government, but not all of it: there was also a risk of becoming "the captive of a scientific-technological elite." Such an elite, with its progressive pretensions to expertise and fixing things, is inherently hostile to concepts of prudence and balance, which imply that many problems can at best be managed, not solved.

Ike may have been the last US president to take prudence seriously as a virtue. Three thousand page bills are not prudent - or even wise - if one considers the unintended consequences that are probable. Eisenhower may have expanded the power of government incrementally, but he was always cognizant of consequences and trade offs.

Besides, give me politicians who eschew trying to "fix" a problem for the much more practical desire to "manage" challenges and I will show you a better government.




It's often cited for the misleading "military-industrial complex" warning - something that Eisenhower never meant as a warning against the military but rather a warning against all top down efforts by government - but there is far more to the speech that illustrates why Eisenhower is often wildly underestimated as a president.

Ted Bromund in Contentions:

I was struck by just how rarely it is that the U.S. elects a president who finds inspiration in prudence. Like Will, I'm not persuaded by Peter Feaver's argument that Obama is meaningfully similar to Eisenhower: the attitudes of the two presidents toward federal spending, to take just one obvious and vitally important example, could hardly be more different.

Of course, a president doesn't have to be prudential to be great. Still, the overlap between greatness (or near-greatness, in Eisenhower's case) and prudentialism is striking. The only other president who has, to my knowledge, been described at length as philosophically prudential is Lincoln, by William Lee Miller in his Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography. Miller's style takes being casual to a new and to me slightly irritating level, but it's a fascinating read nonetheless. As Miller puts it: "The mature Abraham Lincoln would exhibit ... a combination of the moral clarity and elevation of ... the prophet, with the ‘prudence' and ‘responsibility' of a worthy politician. ... Prudence as a virtue [does not] exclude, as pragmatism tends to do, general moral ideals and larger moral patterns beyond the immediate situation. ... Prudence as a moral virtue made a bridge to intellectual virtue."

But as Eisenhower might have noted, and as Miller does note, the entire tradition of prudence has been devalued, in favor of the more desiccated concept of pragmatism. As a more recent president put it, the question is simple: "What works?" And Eisenhower's address helps explain why. As he noted, the threat to American liberties was posed not so much by big government as such but by top-down direction of all kinds. Much of this originated in the federal government, but not all of it: there was also a risk of becoming "the captive of a scientific-technological elite." Such an elite, with its progressive pretensions to expertise and fixing things, is inherently hostile to concepts of prudence and balance, which imply that many problems can at best be managed, not solved.

Ike may have been the last US president to take prudence seriously as a virtue. Three thousand page bills are not prudent - or even wise - if one considers the unintended consequences that are probable. Eisenhower may have expanded the power of government incrementally, but he was always cognizant of consequences and trade offs.

Besides, give me politicians who eschew trying to "fix" a problem for the much more practical desire to "manage" challenges and I will show you a better government.




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