Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Contours of American History I

I'm almost done reading William Appleman Williams's 1961 Contours of American History. Williams is considered a New Left historian (how "new" he is I don't know, the book is 47 years old and he died in 1990). I disagree with his ideological orientation, especially his hatred of property rights and his intense dislike of the laissez- faire policies of the Jacksonian period through about 1900. For instance, he refers to the 19th century laissez-faire philosophy as "reactionary" even though he develops the argument that the mercantilist or corporatist philosophy that originated in feudal England is preferable. In other words, he calls a 100 years old philosophy reactionary, but he does not so call, and instead praises to the heavens, a 400 year old philosophy, not considering that it might be reactionary to re institute a 17th century mercantilist model in 1900. Moreover, he expressly notes that real wages and standards of living were going up in the late nineteenth century and that there was a large degree of innovation. Yet, he insists that laissez-faire was a failure because of business "depressions". This was the corporate argument made at the time by economists such as DA Wells, but Williams does not question it.

One question that I am left with is why the left has so obsessed on restoring mercantilism or even feudalism, and accuses anyone who disagrees with the anti-property and anti-individualist stance as "reactionary". This is an illogical, almost insane, position. First, emphasis on individualism and property rights led to innovation and increasing living standards. Second, it is reactionary to advocate an older philosophy, not a newer one, and mercantilism is older than laissez-faire. Third, Williams has no interest in applying his significant and imaginative intellect to attempting to ascertain why laissez-faire was attacked.

That said, this is one of the most brilliant books I have ever read. Williams said it all in this sense:

1. He outlined how elitist economic interests have advocated mercantilism from the pre-Revolutionary War period through the Federalist era and then renewed them in the Progressive and New Deal eras. He falls down in the Jacksonian period in that he ignores the mercantilist impulse in the Whig philsophies of Abraham Lincoln and the American System of Henry Clay.

2. His exegesis of the frontier hypothesis is wonderful. He points out that Americans traditionally saw expansion to the frontier as a source of economic bounty. This was the famous argument of Frederick Jackson Turner. Then, he pushes the argument further, and this is where I got really excited. He argues that the emphasis of late nineteenth century business executives on large scale industry and state support for large scale industry was a function of the expansionist argument. John R. Commons too argued that "expansion of markets" is crucial to explaining labor relations, but Williams puts the expansionist vision into brilliant historical context. Globalization (he does not use that term as he wrote in 1961) and the emphasis on large scale business is a function of the expansionist impulse, and he documents that well. Thus, Americans have been obsessed with creating big business because they believed that "expansion" creates wealth. The Japanese don't have quite the same obsessions.

3. He argues that the New Deal was the fulfillment of Progressivism. I find this much more believable than the claim that there was a gulf between Progressivism and the New Deal. This leads to the question: if Herbert Hoover was a Progressive, how did the New Deal differ from what Hoover proposed? The National Industrial Recovery Act was essentially the implementation of fascism in America, but the Supreme Court overturned it. Hoover still favored a degree of individualism and property rights, and Roosevelt went a bit further than Hoover wanted to in the social democratic direction. The outlines of most of what Roosevelt did were already discussed in the Progressive era. Roosevelt's most extreme syndicalism was overturned. Hoover did not support the NIRA, which didn't go into effect in any case.

4. Williams outlines the new order as syndicalist, and it is. Economic interests, namely labor and management, were reflected in the new feudal or corporatist order. I quote these two paragraphs

"It is of course essential to evaluate the combined significance of these decisions within the framework of the syndicalist approach that had been present in the Progressive Movement from the very beginning of the 20th century and which the New Deal consolidated...In that system, the citizen was almost wholly dependent upon the definition of public welfare that emerged inside the national government as a consensus among the leaders of the various functional-syndicalist elements of the political economy. The possibility that Hoover had projected in 1921-22 had emerged as reality: the United States was 'a syndicalist nation on a gigantic scale'.

"Yet the citizens' political activity was carried on within a framework that was organized on an entirely different basis: i.e., geographic boundaries which had only the most causal and accidental relationship to the syndicalist structure of the political economy. That discrepancy left the citizen without any effective, institutionalized leverage on the crucial and centralized decisions affecting every phase of his life."*

What Appleman has done is conjoin the special interest theory of regulation with the historical narrative. Syndicalism recreated the mercantilist system of the Federalist period and earlier (and a little later) but it also created a free-for-all whereby those with the best representation would be able to extract the most wealth from the political system. Mancur Olson did not write until a bit later. His point was that special interests gain economic rents through structural advantages.

Although Appleman spiritually supports mercantilism, he does so despite a factual base that points in the opposite direction. The mercantilist model is not appropriate to the modern world because it is not responsive; it does not respond to change; it leads to bureaucracy; and it is not democratic. Most of all, it leads to oppression of less represented groups by better represented groups.

*William Appleman William, The Contours of American History. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1966, p. 448.

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