You can learn stuff at Harvard.

November 20, 2007, 9:04 pm

Apart possibly from that title, this is not a snarky post, but one actually about historical research and stuff, deriving from the paper I gave to the Harvard International History Seminar.

The paper addressed the possibility of considering the U.S. of the late c19 as a “developmental state,” in keeping with the model proposed by Chalmers Johnson in his book on MITI, expanded by various scholars in the volume edited by Meredith Woo-Cumings on the Developmental State, and recently applied methodically to the American case by Ha-Joon Chang in Bad Samaritans.

The basic point is, if the government of a state set as their first priority the economic development of that state and subordinate all other aims to it, and they develop policy in keeping with that aim, they can usefully be considered a developmental state. Johnson put this idea in contrast with what he saw as the typical American model of a regulatory state — a state whose function is to direct traffic, effectively, but not actually to promote development.

But the U.S. in the c19 did make economic development a policy priority — Progressive historians used to point this out with fair regularity, saying that during the Civil War, Republican Congresses passed a set of laws that corresponded to the old Whig, or Hamiltonian, platform — promotion of internal improvements (Pacific Railroad Act), centralization of finance (National Banking Act), protective tariff, and research agendas for economic development (Morrill Land Grant Colleges Act).

There’s a lot of literature on the tariff, and it mostly goes like this: there is a correlation between tariffs and growth in the late c19. Which doesn’t necessarily mean tariffs promote growth. You’d need to disaggregate revenue and protective tariffs, and see what you get (a new paper, still preliminary, does this, and finds protective tariffs go with growth).

I thought I would ask, what about the promotion of research agendas for economic development — i.e., the creation of agricultural and industrial education programs in state universities under the Morrill Land Grant Act? My paper is here.

I got a lot of excellent questions. Some of them will help considerably as I expand this paper into the stuff of a much longer and more narrative book. Here’s some of the more useful ideas I walked away with.

1. The paper doesn’t sufficiently emphasize, precisely because it’s so much second nature to me, that this is an extension of Blessed Among Nations. In that book, I argued the U.S. in this period is best understood as the place where a variety of international trends and currents met (hence the subtitle, How the World Made America). I went further, saying we can best understand the U.S. government as an adaptation to these international factors.

In this book I need to rewind from that conclusion, to which I yet cleave, so I can talk about how we got there. In the introduction to BAN I said there was no reason the U.S. should have continued to have a small government. In fact at 1865 there were all kinds of signs it would not — and one of those signs was the developmental state agenda.

In the paper, I trace the history of the Land Grant Colleges Act from its beginnings through its modification in 1890 and I argue that it was more successful after 1890 than it had been originally. There’s another change I chart, which is that Morrill himself, and some of the other Congressmen most vocal in supporting the law, became ever more insistent that the law should enable the mobility, social and geographic, of Americans. Which is to say, the state universities should really be, as Morrill came to call them, “national colleges.”

The point here is that the Morrill acts follow the pattern suggested in BAN — as they become better adaptations to a more mobile, more internationally competitive America, they become more successful policies.

As I say, this is so much the way I think now it may not have made it into the paper.

2. The Morrill laws also shifted in response to feedback from the periphery. Which is to say, the original developmental state is a fantasy of the metropolitan class, but it then changes in response to movements in the communities it affects. There’s a kind of golden moment — the 37th Congress — when you really do have a developmental state agenda passed by a metropolitan Congress. The South is out, the West is not yet in.

But then after the war, after the South returns and the West comes in, you have pressures to change policies. And as you do, you can’t any longer regard the policy framework as deriving from any coherent philosophy — you can’t any longer regard the policy framework as making up a “developmental state” — now it’s a platform for a variety of political compromises.

Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t promote economic development — it does — it just does it in a much less ham-fisted, and arguably more successful, way.

3. I use terms like the South and the West, and I give them pretty clear definitions. But there are two states that ought to be treated as outliers in these regions, and the extent to which they’re outliers is going to help highlight the regional generalizations I want to make — those are Texas and California.

4. The thing about the developmental state is, it starts in with the developing, but it tends to accrue power to the state, which then becomes self-perpetuating and a site for nationalism. This is definitely true in many cases. Is it true in the U.S.?

That’s a lot, and I could probably remember more if I had time to sit and think about it. But that’s enough for now.

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