Much has been written over recent weeks about the inherent conflicts of interest between the business interests of Donald Trump and his position as soon to be President of the United States. While these conflicts are real, it is important to consider the political philosophy at the time of the founding of our nation and the fact that the constitution, while rightly barring the President from accepting any “gift or emolument” while in office, stopped short of barring business conflicts of interest.
The founders envisioned a citizen government. That sentiment also was not a simple passing fad. It endured and was spoken of later by Abraham Lincoln as a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”.
Leaders at the time of the founding were not professional politicians who spent their entire working lives living off of the taxpayers. Rather, they were farmers, merchants, businessmen, writers, physicians, and of course a significant number of lawyers. But even the lawyers made their livings in the private practice of law, not as professional politicians. The concept was that citizens would spend a limited time in government, and then return to their lives as private citizens, living under the same laws and rules that they helped to create.
Consider George Washington, a landowner and farmer by trade. The founders never envisioned a system wherein George Washington should be required to sell off his lands, abandon his farms, and later hope to be able to resume a private life devoid of these interests when his time in office ended. Indeed, such a system would in fact reward a President who presided over a decline of the economy, by allowing them to “sell high” at the start of their term in office and “buy low” at the end of their term after having ruined the economy. But the founders also recognized that conflicts of interest can occur, with the truly dangerous ones being the influence that they sought to curb through the Emoluments clause in the Constitution. This was a compromise between the dangers of influence and the value of a citizen government whose actions would later impact the lives of the office holders after they would return to private lives as individual citizens.
Today, the large majority of people in the United States express a belief that the government is out of touch with the people. Call for divestment of interests by elected office holders would exacerbate this problem, creating incentives to do harm to the economy while in office while also reinforcing the modern professional politician class because it would disqualify those who had the integrity to work for a better economy while intending to return to private life.