Friday, April 10, 2009

The Unity Philosophy Failed Because Laissez Faire Succeeded

In the US, the notion that there needs to be a strong central state began with the Federalist Papers. The Federalists left a considerable degree of decentralized authority with the states, but from the beginning there was ambiguity as to how decentralized decision making ought to be. Centalization was re enforced with the Civil War, which further strengthened the federal government and opened the door to Progressivism. The Progressives were not necessarily centralizers. However, the key federal legislation that came from Progressivism, the Hepburn Act, the Federal Trade Commission, the federal income tax and the Federal Reserve Bank as well as imperialist ventures like the Spanish American War were all centralizing. On the other hand, much of the Progressive legislation, such as Workers' Compensation, housing codes and wage and hours laws respecting women and children proceeded at the state level. The New Deal served as a centralizing force on Progressivism, and may be viewed as the culmination of 160 years of Hamiltonian federalism.

The centralizing trend came about because of conflicts about morals and economic opportunism. As Charles Beard and other Progressives argued, much of the motive for the federal Constitution was economic gain to domestic manufacturers, which Hamilton wholeheartedly supported as did Madison and Jefferson to a lesser degree. But abolitionism and then concern about trusts led to moralizing about the economy. Until the post-bellum era Protestantism had been associated with local community as in John Winthrop's City on a Hill. The states were separate religious communities and did not aim to impose their religious-based moralities on other states. But slavery posed a national moral problem, as did the central bank. Thus Calvinist morality took on a national scope. The notion that the nation was a moral community took hold. Among the advocates of this notion were the late nineteenth century Mugwumps, who were among the first media-based national moral movements. The Mugwumps were mostly Protestant, although there were a few Catholics and Jews among their ranks as well (there were few Jews in America in the 1870s but there was a handful of notable Jewish Mugwumps, such as Simon Sterne). The Mugwumps were not necessarily religious, but they had been religiously trained and applied the morality of their education to the economic problems facing America, for instance, the corruption associated with the railroads, the Greenback inflation and most of all the need for a civil service to counteract the urban corruption of the political boss system. Although the Mugwumps were laissez faire in ideology they were very much the precursor to the Progressives in that they focused on national issues and saw national solutions in terms of the need to rationalize government.

The trend toward centralization thus came out of the Civil War and was re enforced by one outcome of Progressivism: the intensification of Jim Crow laws, especially in the South. As the results of Jim Crow became evident in the early twentieth century, the need to counteract it took hold in a reincarnation of the Civil War in terms of the Civil Rights movement. As well, the Roosevelt administration saw economic problems as resolvable at the federal level. Thus, Social Security, labor law, wage and hour laws, securities regulation, agricultural regulation and public works took hold in the public mind.

This was occurring precisely as it became evident to managers in America's large industrial firms that centralization does not work. This was noted by Alfred Chandler in his book "Strategy and Structure", especially with respect to Alfred Sloan. Sloan modeled General Motors after the federal government, downloading responsibility to the automotive and other manufacturing divisions just before Roosevelt saw fit to centralize decision making in Washington.

As it turned out, Sloan was right, although subsequent generations of General Motors executives dropped the ball. As General Motors re-centralized it failed to be able to compete with innovations of the much smaller Toyota Automotive in the 1950s. These innovations were known as lean manufacturing. As well, Toyota was able to adopt the ideas of Edward I. Deming.

As American industry found that decentralization was necessary to competent management, the federal government became more insistent on centralization. Part of this was due to intensification of the Civil Rights struggle in the 1960s, but part was due to the egos and greed of politicians and academics who oversaw federal policy. Thus, plans like Medicaid and Medicare which could have been experimentally adopted at the state levels, with the best results revealed, were thrown into existence in a slipshod manner at the federal level without the pragmatic advantage of state-based experimentation. Policies concerning health care, social security, pension regulation, health and safety regulation, auto safety, pollution and most of all monetary policy were adopted at the federal level, typically with poor to mediocre results.

The failure of the Great Society Programs; the mismanagement of social security; the crippling effects on inner city blacks of urban renewal and labor laws; the instability due to monetary policy under Richard M. Nixon and the early years of the Carter administration might have given the centralizers pause. But it did not.

Unwilling or unable to grasp the reasons why centralization does not work, they continue to push for dramatic, centralized solutions to America's problems. The result: the sub-prime crisis; the series of bubbles that occurred in the 1990s and 2000's; declining real hourly wages; a failing social security system (or a social security that fails to provide an adequate retirement benefit despite 14% annual contributions by workers and their employers); and declining career opportunities for young people.

Despite these and other failures, the "progressives" continue to agitate for the same failed, centralized approach. This should be called the "pathology of centralization".

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