Monday, May 26, 2008

The Search for Order

Robert H. Wiebe. The Search for Order 1877-1920. New York: Hill and Wang, 1967. 333 pages. (Newer edition available from for $12.60, used from $3.00).

Perhaps the most scintillating paragraph in Robert Wiebe's Search for Order is on pages 279-80. Inadvertently, Wiebe suggests a rationale for Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal in the context of Democratic Party strategy circa 1920. Although Wilson won in 1916:

"Two developments nullified his advantage. Beneath a facade of victories, the organization of the Democratic party had improved only slightly during the previous decade. After capitalizing upon the Republican divisions around 1912, Democrats had been unable either to integrate their party or to secure its finances. Even the election of 1916 had depended upon transitory factors: an immediate return on New Freedom legislation, an impression of friendliness to progressive latecomers, and an image of peace. Without an enduring base such as Republicans enjoyed, the Democrats could hold their majority only by an uninterrupted flow of benefits distributed with the utmost skill. War disrupted the makeshift pattern of success, and a rapid deterioration followed. The loss of both houses of Congress in 1918 presaged an approaching disaster."

The institutionalization of redistribution of wealth via New Deal ideology beginning 12 years later, in 1932, led to a 50-60 year Democratic ascendancy that paralleled the Republican ascendancy from 1860-1932.

Robert H. Wiebe is a masterful historian who combines intellectual, political and business history in this wonderfully written book. This book serves as a good backdrop to Nancy Cohen's recent Reconstruction of American Liberalism 1864-1914 which I previously reviewed. While Cohen emphasizes the Mugwumps and academic antecedents to Progressivism, Wiebe emphasizes Populist and Social Gospel influences.

Progressivism was in large part, as Cohen argues, an assertion of professional interests in fields like law, medicine and academia. It is this thread of professional interest that links the Mugwumps, Progressives, New Deal Democrats and post-World War II liberals. As well, big business appealed to government to protect it from competitive forces in the late 19th century, and this state-government alliance can be traced through American statism's various transformations. This insight flatly contradicts the popular conception of the New Deal as antipathetic to the feelings of business executives. Indeed, Alfred Sloan and other leading executives of the 1930s fought aspects of the New Deal. However, this was necessary for Roosevelt to implement the radically pro-business inflationary program that he established in 1932 and that has in recent decades resulted in the flattening of real wages and inflation of asset values.

In his final chapter entitled "Doorway to the Twenties" Wiebe notes that following World War I:

"A bureaucratic orientation now defined a basic part of the nation's discourse. The values of continuity and regularity, functionality and rationality, administration and management set the form of problems and outlined their alternative solutions. A few recognized the fact and accepted it. 'There will be no withdrawal from these experiments' (Republican) Elihu Root announced in 1916, referring specifically to the regulatory commissions. 'We shall go on; we shall expand them, whether we approve theoretically or not; because such agencies furnish protection..."

Wiebe notes that the new bureaucracies were ineffective in fighting the 1918influenza epidemic (pp.296-8):

"Although medical science could not meet the emergency, millions of educated Americans dutifully awaited the doctor's word, donning the same masks and cleansing the same foods in a remarkable display of coordinated faith..."

In other words, while Progressivism failed to produce outcomes that worked in improving social welfare, it did succeed in establishing a high degree of social control and in subsidizing big business:

"In particular, national progressivism had been predicated upon the existence of the modern corporation and its myriad relationships with the rest of American society. Chronologically, psychologically, this network had come first."

And, of course, big business welcomed the governmental subsidies:

"Somewhat more slowly, private leaders had come to believe that they also could not function without the assistance of the government, increasingly the national government. Only the government could ensure the stability and continuity essential to their welfare. Its expert services, its legal authority and its scope had become indispensable components of any intelligent plan for order. And what they sought could no longer be accomplished by seizing and bribing. The nineteenth-century formula of direct control--taking an office for yourself or your agent, buying a favor or an official--now had very little relevance to the primary goals of society's most influential men, whether in business, agriculture, labor or the professions. They required long-range, predictable cooperation through administrative devices that would bend with a changing world. Nor were they thinking about a mere neutralization of the government, the automatic reaction many had given to the fist flurries of reform. They wanted a powerful government, but one whose authority stood at their disposal; a strong, responsive government through which they could manage their own affairs in their own way..."

(p. 298)"...Government bureaucrats looked to the private groups in their bailiwick as a natural constituency, men with whom they must develop good relations and from whom they expected regular support. These groups reciprocated, looking in turn to the bureaus for essential services and acting as their lobbies--just as long as the effective power of decision remained in private hands...In the twentieth (century), the national government parcelled an increasing amount of its power to private groups; and these then exercised it through the national government itself. Progressive legislation sketched the outlines for that new system."

This transformation was assisted by World War I.

Wiebe begins this masterful book with a discussion of the depression of the 1870s:

" was a strange depression. The longest in the nation's history, in human terms it proved one of the mildest. The same falling prices that deterred investors facilitated commerce..."

America in the 1870s was still largely rural. Island communities "moved by the rhythms of agriculture", and (p. 4) "If there was an American philosophy in the seventies it was a corrupted version of Scottish common-sense doctrines, taking as given every man's ability to know that God had ordained modesty in woman, rectitude in men, and thrift, sobriety and hard work in both...small-town America took its stand against 'the credit system, the fashion system,and every other system tending to prodigality and bankruptcy.." The railroads disrupted this agricultural, rural world by heightening expectations and increasing income inequality. The Granger laws, passed mainly in the Midwest, were an attempt to address resentment toward wealthy railroad owners by setting rates and regulating business conduct.

Railroads such as the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, the Great Northern, the Southern Pacific and Northern Pacific united the nation and created a unitary market but (p.12) "America in the late 19th century was a society without a core."

The expansion of markets was not matched by expansion of business expertise. In banking, for instance (p. 21):

"A few institutions in the major cities experienced a phenomenal growth during the eighties in part from the demand for commercial banking facilities...Yet the apparent leaders, like their industrial counterparts, presided over vast mechanisms that had developed beyond their control...With intuitive methods for gauging the business cycle and rule-of-thumb measures for evaluating credit risks, they relied on stabs of shrewdness, not long-range wisdom, in conducting their affairs. Bankers at all levels strained to comprehend an increasingly complex, impersonal operation."

The difficulties business had in competing led to (p. 23):

"The classic sequence from tooth-and-claw competition to gentlemen's agreements to pools to trusts to holding techniques for cooperation rather than supplanting the old joined them to form a more intricate mosaic of business practice...the more complex the consolidation, the greater the internal confusion it tended to bring."

Wiebe writes (p. 25) that finance became an important field around 1890 and that JP Morgan guided many other financiers through the late 19th century: "Led by JP Morgan, whose imaginative policies in railroad cooperation had already won him fame during the eighties, a handful of financiers, almost all of them private investment bankers, took charge of the new surplus....Morgan enjoyed such respect that a caravan of domestic followers gladly marched to his beat."

As well, "the continuous need for credit as a matter of course made industrial executives vulnerable to bankers' direction...companies were showing interest in the benefits of an enforced peace." Nevertheless, in the 1890s 40% of the American railroad mileage had gone into receivership (p. 26). The investment banking community took over the railroads, reorganized them, and appointed managers who looked to Wall Street "for strategic guidance".

The expansion of markets led, according to Wiebe, to the end of the "island community" (p. 44). The growth of big business and the apparent concentration of wealth led scholar Richard T. Ely and evangelical minister Josiah Strong to argue for a social role for religion. Henry Demarest Lloyd attacked Standard Oil and moved into more radical causes, calling himself "a socialist-anarchist-communist-individualist-collectivist-co-operative-aristocratic-democrat". Lloyd's rhetoric sounded suspiciously like Herbert Croly's, 20 years later (p. 64) : " The new religion--man the redeemer...this divinity of democracy--the creative will of the people which is to be substituted for the old God." And Henry George argued for a 'single tax'. There was a sense of crisis, that "great corporations were stifling opportunity". There was a strong desire for self determination and community autonomy. There were, asserts Wiebe, Christian capitalists as well as Christian socialists. Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward was a Utopian novel, set in the year 2000, when society would be rationally designed and peace and goodwill would reign. Investment banks were abolished in Bellamy's world, and everyone would retire in middle age. All industry was to be run by the state. Everyone lives in small communities held together by fraternal cooperation.

The rural feeling of the threat of big business coupled with the fear of immigration and labor violence and strikes led to populism and the Populist or People's Party (p. 84):

"All of the community movements assumed that a natural, local society required the destruction of unnatural, national powers. As the Populist platform suggested, government would again become a function of men's everyday lives only after a direct democracy had dissolved a distant, corrupt government; technology would serve the communities only after nationalization had removed an oligarchy of railroad, telegraph, and telephone companies; power would belong to the people only after a silver currency, a decentralized postal savings system and subtreasury notes had replaced Wall Street and the national banks.."

By the early 1890s the Populist Party had captured 15% of the popular vote. Its downfall was its support for Democratic Party candidate William Jennings Bryan in 1896. When his free silver candidacy lost, the Populist Party lost credibility. In 1896 the Republicans became the party of sound money, of gold, and the Democrats became the party of silver, of inflation. A few Democrats, among them Woodrow Wilson, broke off from the Democratic Party in 1896 and fielded their own Gold Democratic candidate. Corporate America felt threatened by Bryan (they did not conceive of the advantages inflation offered them until after Lord Keynes wrote in the 1930s).

Along with a number of other authors in this field, Wiebe points out that the late nineteenth century saw a "revolution in values" (chapter nine) in that the expansion of markets shifted Americans' perceptions of wealth. In the day of the "island economies" of small town America, the relationship between morals and economic was perceived to have been that godliness and ethics led to economic prosperity. But in the expanded marketplace of big business, the relationship between morality and economic activity seemed to have been severed (p. 133):

"Now a perverted world was enabling men to perpetrate monstrous hoaxes in the name of the old morality. It had been natural enough to account for business success and nature in terms of individual virtue and vice; it was quite another matter to permit the corporations ill gotten profits because the Supreme Court adjudged them 'persons' within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment...No just God had given Rockefeller his money, whatever the man said. Yet for those who had customarily thought of wealth as a token of grace, re-arguing the case brought only frustration...From the seventies through the First World War, the nature of social change dominated their inquiries...With few exceptions the individual, who absorbed earlier and later generations, received only perfunctory attention."

In the 1870s and 1880s, economists believed in the wages fund theory and many combined it with social Darwinism. Some advocates of social Darwinism, such as Andrew Carnegie, argued for philanthropy. Wiebe, a product of mid-twentieth century statism, is somewhat sarcastic and condescending about the ideas of Sumner and David A. Wells, which are more viable and elastic than those of Keynes.

One response, the Social Gospel of Reverend Washington Gladden in his book Applied Christianity, was to argue for a boycott of monopolies and for employers to love employees. Another response was utopianism. In Looking Backward Bellamy argued for "the principle of fraternal co-operation...the only true science of wealth production" and a "people's economy supervised by an immaterial government". As well, Henry Demarest Lloyd argued for "cooperation to replace competition, nationalization under under an invisible government, a classless society living by the Golden rule." As a practical matter, Bellamy stated that he favored the nationalization of industry.

The utopianism of Bellamy and Gladden led to a combination of philosophical idealism and biology. Franklin H. Giddings and Brand Whitlock used biological metaphors to describe society and cities. They emphasized progress in stages. In 1883 Lester F. Ward (p. 141) argued that society had evolved in four stages.The academic Richard T. Ely argued that society would evolve through seven stages "to reach its destiny in industrial integration, essentially a Christian cooperative commonwealth." Wiebe states that following Comte, the most popular number of stages was three.

In the end, argues Wiebe, a bureaucratic mentality prevailed. The bureaucratic approach emphasized "recognizable, everyday problems" (p. 147) and eliminated biological analogies, relying instead on mechanical metaphors. This approach emphasized "scientific method", relying on statistics and a belief that "society was a vast tissue of reciprocal activity" (p. 147). Rather than discuss human psychology and focused instead on behavior (p. 149):

"Now education implied the guidance of behavior in harmony with social processes."

According to Wiebe (p.149),

"the bureaucratic orientation did not reach its peak of success until the nineteen twenties...By degrees the philosophy of urban political reform had moved from simple moral principles guaranteed by the proper forms of government to complex procedural principles advanced by the proper administration of government...A similar transformation occurred in social work. The original settlement workers had entered the slums and served the poor as moral acts. Over time...they became immersed in the endless, interrelated problems of a whole city's life."

Wiebe adds Arthur Bentley's bureaucratic analysis of government, The Process of Government, Frederick W. Taylor's scientific management and John Dewey's combination of pragmatism with a bureaucratic "theory that made individuals the plastic stuff of society."

It is evident from Wiebe's description of Dewey that modern "liberalism" (more accurately termed social democracy) is a betrayal of Dewey's ideas, particularly of his pragmatism:

"Throughout his writings ran a limitless faith in the scientific method as the means for freeing people of all ages to learn through exploration and through social experience."

But Dewey's ideas, while elegant, failed to anticipate the dominant impulse of interest groups and their extraction of rents from the state. The idea that social democratic institutions have led to rationality is laughable. Yet, instead of remaining loyal to the pragmatic impulse of William James, which would require a reassessment of failed ideology, today's social democrats ("liberals" or "progressives") continue to chant a rote commitment to failed ideas.

There is certainly a link between the bureaucratic ideas of Taylor and the classical liberalism of William Graham Sumner (p. 156):

"In a certain sense, bureaucratic thought reverted to the visions of the original classical theory, substituting an internally derived dynamic--a social process-for the externally justified balance of a John Fiske or a William Graham Sumner. Both theories, at least, sought to create unity out of diversity...the acknowledgment of society's inevitable pluralism raised difficulties that would plague bureaucratic through for years to come."

Advocates of Progressivism (which is the early twentieth century manifestation of Wiebe's bureaucratic approach) such as Walter Lippmann and Walter Weyl saw consumerism as the ultimate outcome of the bureaucratic society (p. 158).

Progressivism led to a" a strikingly different conception of government" which involved the replacement of economic with political criteria (p. 160):

"Trained, professional servants would staff a government broadly and continuously involved in society's operations. In order to meet problems as they arose, these officials should hold multiple mandates, ones that perforce would blur the conventional distinctions among executive, legislature and judiciary. Above them stood the public men, a unique and indispensible leader. Although learned enough to comprehend the details of a modern, specialized government, he was much more than an expert among experts. His vision encompassed the entire nation...Corps of servants received his general directives and translated them into their particular areas ...As the nation's leader, the public man would be an educator-extraordinary...In time, after a 'long tutelage in public affairs', the electorate would come to participate directly in certain aspects of government through the initiative, referendum and recall...The theory was immediately and persistently attacked as undemocratic...In fact the theory was not as boldly authoritarian as it sometimes appeared...The latitude he enjoyed in administration existed only because no one could predict the course of a fluid society...the theory purported to describe government by science not by men...As all citizens became rational, they would naturally arrive at the same general answers. Experts, of course, would always know more in their particualar fields, and the public man would always see the whole more clearly; but national rationality would assure consensus on the big issues, the matters of principle."

Wiebe articuately describes the essence of Progressivism. In chapter 7, "Progressivism arrives", he describes the roots of Progressivism in estern urban centers and some midwestern and southern agrarian states. The Progressives believed that a "patchwork government could no longer manager the range of urban problems" (p. 167). Mainstream business interests supported Progressivism (p. 167) "well-to-do merchants, manufacturers and bankers who sought more dependable and rewarding relations with government were moving to the vanguard of urban reform." This was accomplished in establishing utility regulation (p. 168), the secret ballot, the shortened ballot, and increasing the number of appointed governmental posts and the introduction of government budgeting. Their establishment of settlement houses led to an interest in child labor laws. Wiebe emphasizes (p. 169) the Progressives' fixation on improvement of government administration. They envisioned flexible, authority staffed by qualified experts in areas like housing regulation, early childhood education, conservation and public health. The Progressives emphasized efficiency.
In attempting to implement their ideas they linked themselves to businessmen and political bosses (p. 174).

Wiebe makes an important point (p. 174):

"It was the expert who benefited most from the new framework of politics...The more complex the competition for power, the more organizational leaders relied on experts to decipher and to prescribe...Only the professional administrator, the doctor, the social worker, the achitect, the economist could show the way...professors like Frank Goodnow, Leo Rowe and Edmund James were telling the National Municipal League what urban reforms it really wanted"

At the same time, businessmen began to institute systematizedpolitical contributions and lobbying slightly before 1900 as a concomitant of Progressivism:

"The political implications of the desire for continuity turned big businessmen into political innovators, and campaigning was one of the first areas affected. Particularly after 1896, such magnates as John McCall of New York Life Insurance, Henry H. Rogers of Standard Oil and Edward Harriman began both to contribute kmore consistently and to grant funds for a party rather than a man."

The contradiction inherent in Progressive reform, namely, its claim to rationality while at the same time encouraging a larger scale, more rationalized corruption, were apparent from the beginning.

The Search for Order is a fine historical work and anyone who reads it will be richer.

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