by Fred E. Foldvary
George Washington is called the “Father of America” as the general of the American Revolution and the first president of the United States of America. America’s mama is Great Britain, the mother country. America’s aunt is France, sister nation to England, as the French military helped the US become independent of Britain. Then who is America’s uncle?
There are several candidates, including Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. There can be several uncles, but the one man who I think is most deserving of that title is Benjamin Franklin. This year is the tercentenary of Benjamin Franklin, who was born on January 6, 1706 in the old Julian Calendar and January 17 in the current Gregorian calendar. The United States mint has issued two commemorative silver dollars to celebrate the 300th anniversary. Franklin is also pictured on the U.S. $100 bill.
Benjamin Franklin was shown on the first postage stamps issued by the United States in 1847. Franklin was on the five cent issue and Washington on the ten cent stamp. Franklin frequently appeared on U.S. stamps since then, because the Continental Congress appointed Ben Franklin to be the first Postmaster General of the United States, in 1775. On April 1, 2006, the USPS will issue a set of four stamps commemorating Franklin.
Franklin was accomplished in many fields. Fluent in five languages, he was a scientist, printer, writer, statesman, and economist. A signatory of the Declaration of Independence, in 1776 he was sent to France to represent the United States, and Franklin was a key player in creating the French-American alliance. He later became a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and signed that document also. Franklin was also active in the abolitionist movement to abolish slavery.
Among Franklin’s works is an autobiography, which he left unfinished. Financial analyst and economist (and descendent of Franklin) Mark Skousen and his wife Jo Ann have completed the work using letters, essays, and other sources, with the title, The Compleated Autobiography, by Benjamin Franklin. Among Franklin’s sayings is, “"The system of America is universal commerce with every nation; war with none." Would that it were so!
It is not so well known that Franklin was America’s first great economist. The March-April 2006 issue of the Australian magazine Progress features an article on the economic thought of Benjamin Franklin. While he was in France, Benjamin Franklin became acquainted with and agreed with the economic school of thought called “Physiocracy,” meaning the rule of natural law. The Physiocrats recognized that the economy would prosper best with laissez faire, an economy with free trade. To have an unhampered market, taxes must not burden production, and, explained the Physiocrats, this could be accomplished with public revenue from land rent, which would collect the economic surplus rather than hamper the earnings of labor and investment.
Franklin also recognized that government does not have the foresight to regulate commerce. He theorized that there could be increasing returns from population increase. In 1769 he wrote, "Positions to be Examined Concerning National Wealth," in which he said war is robbery.
Benjamin Franklin also had a very practical attitude towards clothing, or lack of it. He like to take nude air baths in the morning in his room, and preferred to not wear anything when he did his writing. He slept nude with the window open.
As the United States of America is now troubled by war, terrorist threats, economic instability, burdensome taxation, and intrusive law, we would do well not just to celebrate Benjamin Franklin the man but pay close attention to his brilliant thought. We can do no better than to heed uncle Ben’s advice on living, governance, and economics.
This article first appeared in the Progress Report, www.progress.org. Reprinted with permission.
Dr. Fred Foldvary teaches economics at Santa Clara University and is the author of several books: The Soul of Liberty, Public Goods and Private Communities, and the Dictionary of Free-Market Economics.