A Commerical Republic: America’s Enduring Debate Over Democratic Capitalism
This is the 4th and final entry in our roundtable on Mike O’Connor’s 2014 book, A Commercial Republic. O’Connor was a long-time writer for the S-USIH Blog—one of our original contributors, helping especially with book reviews. A few years ago, after the publication of A Commercial Republic, Mike hung up his history spikes to return to school. For the past few years he has been student at the University of Texas (Austin), where he just completed a Master’s in Public Affairs. After you read these reviews, and today’s reply, it won’t be hard to see how he developed an interest in public affairs, policy, and economic development. [Note: Although Andrew Hartman is not a contributor to this roundtable, he helped put it together.]
The project that eventually became A Commercial Republic was originally my doctoral dissertation. As the capstone of one’s graduate education, the dissertation is a major undertaking; unsurprisingly, then, I received advice about it from all quarters. These recommendations typically took the form of gems that faculty had lovingly polished over the years by giving them in an undifferentiated fashion to each and every graduate student from time immemorial: one should avoid “chasing trends” but should “situate the research in an ongoing conversation”; the writer’s thesis should be “original” but not “too ambitious.” It did not take long for me to gain whatever wisdom I was going to get from these nuggets. Soon they receded from my attention, becoming so much background noise. I was surprised, then, when one of these bromides began to resonate. That one was, “Write the book that you want to read.” That particular task felt less like an exercise in jumping through academic hoops and more like something I could get excited about.
But writing the book that I wanted to read turned out not to be so easy. The main problem here was that the book that I wanted to read bore little resemblance to those that I was encountering in my study of academic history. I had skimmed hundreds of such works methodically in preparation for my comprehensive exams. But I certainly didn’t read them, much less enjoy doing so. To me, reading contemporary academic history often amounted to bogging myself down in controversies whose sides were unclear and whose import was rarely explained to a satisfactory degree. Academic historians often employed needlessly complicated terms with little clarification, made distinctions without accounting for their significance, and expressed their disagreements within idioms so subtle that I often had to read reviews of books I had already read in order to understand their actual arguments. I wanted to write something different.
As a result, I made three commitments when I set out to write what became A Commercial Republic. The first was that I wanted to make sure that anyone could understand the writing without any specialized knowledge, and that the stakes of any disagreements between historical actors and/or writers would be clearly explained to the reader. The second aspect of my approach to writing a book that I would want to read was that I wanted to demonstrate the usefulness of historiography by incorporating it when, and only when, it advanced the book’s narrative, explanation, or analysis. I tried to use debates among professional historians and the evolution of consensus views to illuminate different ways that the reader might look at historical events and personalities. To the extent that such devices performed those functions, I thought that they belonged in the text rather than the footnotes. And to the extent that they did not do that, they did not belong in the book at all.
Finally, I took my point of departure to be an intervention in a public political debate, rather than an academic historical one. Specifically, I set my sights on the conservative celebration of the free market, which I found to be often simplistic and uninformed. In particular, I was bothered by the characterization of federal economic intervention as the illegitimate process of “picking winners and losers” and “interfering” in the natural working of the economy. I found this notion to be almost nonsensical, as governments intervene in markets all the time, both intentionally, as a matter of policy, and inadvertently, as a by-product of performing other functions. Moreover, many of these interventions come about in direct response to the political demands of various constituencies. If it would be too romantic to call these mandates “the will of the people,” they at least represent the legitimate working of the political process. As such, they should not, in my view, be wished away or made subservient to libertarian doctrine. Finally, it was unclear to me what a market without government “interference” would even look like. Would citizens pay taxes? If so, how much would they be? Would the courts enforce contracts? Would the government build roads? Would the military protect economic interests abroad? Would education and health constitute a public concern? The idea of the government performing the functions that most of us take for granted while simultaneously remaining neutral between the economic interests of all relevant parties struck me as both implausible and undesirable.
In the US context, those conservatives who criticize government economic intervention generally point to the New Deal as the point at which the country began its descent into statist economic policy. As an intellectual historian, I contested that interpretation by highlighting the major arguments that American intellectuals and policymakers had advanced for federal intervention in the nation’s economy, including those before the twentieth century. A Commercial Republic covers six time periods, each spaced roughly forty years apart, in as many chapters. In each of these eras, I argued, nearly all significant positions on this subject, even those that claimed to advocate for an economy free of government interference, were in actuality advocating the use of government to bring about a new and different conception of the economy. Rather than economic agnosticism, the nation’s thinkers and policymakers sought particular economic goals, be they national security, the increased protection of private property, greater social equality, the unleashing of entrepreneurial energy, or a host of others. The fact that these goals were generally incompatible with one another meant that they would change as prevailing views shifted or as a new party or movement seized control of the levers of government. A Commercial Republic was intended as a rejoinder to those conservatives who saw a “prelapsarian period in which the government refrained from influencing economic affairs.” (6)
The unintended consequence of consciously seeking not to replicate many of the characteristics of academic history books was that A Commercial Republic did not fit terribly well into any of the categories employed by professional historians. Tim Lacy wonders why he has not read the book in the four years since it has been published. He makes a good point that the title could be more helpful for readers. But the more central reason, I suspect, is that the book did not fit in a proper academic slot and, consequently, did not receive the attention that new entries in a conversation sometimes do. All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I am very appreciative of the editors of the blog of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History for giving space and attention to this book. I thank Andrew Hartman for organizing this roundtable, and Tim Lacy, Stewart Winger and Lawrence B. Glickman for donating to this project that most precious of academic resources: their time.
In his summary of A Commercial Republic, Lacy does a great job of simultaneously highlighting the book’s major themes and detailing some of its more specific points. I very much appreciate his take on the book, down to his entirely correct surmise that Hamilton, Wallace and Rawls are the figures therein whose contributions I most admire. (I would not expect him to remember, though it is true, that my paper at the very first S-USIH conference was on Rawls.) Lacy’s criticisms, also, are also well-taken. The inclusion of more voices from outside the United States would indeed make the book richer. I made no systematic effort to exclude them: Keynes, for example, plays a large role in the chapter on employment, as does Hayek in the one on conservatism. But A Commercial Republic was never intended to be encyclopedic in its scope: in tracing a debate over nearly two centuries, I found myself restricted to only the most influential voices. Of course, “influential” is subjective in this case, and I made what I felt where the most justified decisions. No doubt there are readers who think that I should have made different ones.
Perhaps one of those readers would be Stewart Winger, whose learned criticism of the book is laced with a snarky and dismissive treatment that serves as an example of what I do not miss about academia. For Winger, had A Commercial Republic succeeded it would have represented little more than a survey of received wisdom appropriate for graduate students. But even in these modest ambitions it was inadequate: its “anodyne” thesis, supported by “glosses” of various scholarly and historical texts, is one that I “predictably” cannot even maintain consistently.
Winger’s treatment of my book is characterized by a wealth of well-informed criticism and thoughtful disagreement from which I learned a great deal. But intertwined with that cogent and compelling analysis is a certain amount of needless belittling. The book took ten years of my life to write. No matter how bad one might believe it to be, it—and I—deserve more respect than this treatment demonstrated. I mention this only as a side note and only, quite frankly, because I can. Two years ago, after ten years as a lecturer and adjunct, I stopped teaching history and gave up on the dream of becoming a college professor. At this point, then, I possess a strange sort of privilege: that of having nothing to lose by risking the appearance of being too thin-skinned to withstand a bit of criticism.
Leaving professional history has afforded me a broader perspective on academic life, and from this vantage point I now see that scholarly criticism (particularly in conferences and the graduate classroom) is frequently riddled with commentary that does not enlighten, elucidate, or dissent as much as it merely demeans. Academics themselves tend to justify this behavior by reference to the “clash of ideas,” or they romanticize it over drinks by telling war stories about particularly irascible colleagues. (These professors are typically senior, and always male.) In my view, this is a mistaken response that excuses unacceptable behavior. There are no circumstances under which minimizing people and their efforts serves the best interest of any scholarly ideal.
To return to Winger’s criticisms, his clear disdain for A Commercial Republic clouds the nature of his criticism. To be quite honest, I often found it difficult to locate a disagreement between the two of us: after his introductory section, there are several thousand words of historiography in which my name makes only a few scattered appearances. One point of his, however, is well-raised. “The state does not ‘intervene’ in the economy,” he writes, “because by its very nature, a market economy is a regulatory scheme of the state.” I would quibble with the way this is stated, as it appears to make no distinction between market structures and market activity. The former are unquestionably political and legal constructions; the latter, in my view, are private transactions (assuming capitalism) that are shaped and influenced by the aforementioned structures. But in its essence, this is an idea with which I agree.
So when Winger writes that “whenever we catch ourselves speaking of the state ‘intervening’ in the market, as O’Connor does, we need to recognize that we are captive of an inadequate conceptual paradigm and have already ceded the playing field to the libertarians,” I am somewhat puzzled. I agree that the language is technically inaccurate, in exactly the way that Winger states. But it is quite commonly used, and adopting it reflects a stylistic choice rather than a substantive one. In my book I used the word “intervene” as what seemed to me a more neutral choice than the more loaded “interfere,” on grounds that are similar, if not identical, to those Winger raises. Putting aside what I see as mere terminological or stylistic choices, I am in complete agreement with Winger’s point that “the state does not ‘intervene;’ it just changes its mind.” This is exactly the point I made, much less pithily, in A Commercial Republic, which closes with the following passage.
The impossibility of an economically neutral policy does not suggest that government should restrain itself from influencing the economy. Instead, it means that the influence it will inevitably wield should be subject to some check by the people. Throughout the history of the United States, hegemonic ideas of the economy’s overall purpose have consistently shaped, sometimes substantially, the conditions under which individuals and firms compete…It is the specific nature of government economic intervention, rather than its mere existence, that defines the character of American democratic capitalism. (247-48)
It seems to me, then, that Winger and I are making very similar points. It is true that they are not identical, but I do not believe that his hostility comes from the narcissism of minor differences. Instead, he appears to be decrying the absence of a certain evaluative cadence and rhetorical tone in A Commercial Republic. He is correct to note that these things are missing from the book. That is because I did not want them there. As an historian, I believe that government economic intervention is inevitable. But its proper extent and shape, in my view, are not something that can be determined by historical methods.
Winger does not appear to believe this. He accuses me of adopting a “‘he said, she said’ cable news-style presentation,” that focuses on “the rhetoric of political economy without paying much attention to underlying economic realities.” I avoid “compar[ing] rhetoric to reality, preferring instead to present each side on its own terms.” As a result, there is little that can be said beyond “There has been a lot of debate.” While I find this account to be a misleading and distorted characterization of the book’s conclusions, its presentation of my method is more than fair. Studying complicated arguments that are articulated in a foreign mindset and vocabulary, then presenting the resulting understanding to contemporary audiences is, in my view, exactly what intellectual historians should be doing. As a result, I take Winger’s claim that I “present each side on its own terms,” as the highest compliment.
It seems clear that he did not intend it that way. Winger’s criticisms are shot through with moralistic and essentialist language, which presumably model the way that he believes history, or at least criticism, should be written. My thesis, he claims, is “too kind” to conservatives. Libertarianism itself represents a “betrayal of the American idea” and the Tea Party is “un-American.” He advocates a political “goal” which should be defined within the parameters of “our” desire to be “true daughters and sons of the American Revolution,” before launching into a diatribe about the governor of Illinois. Reading his piece makes it clear that Winger is a well-informed scholar, and I take his substantive points to heart. But a didactic and moralistic book was not the one I set out to write, because it was not the one that I wanted to read.
Lawrence M. Glickman finds more of value in A Commercial Republic than does Winger, but this does not prevent him from offering respectful criticisms and challenges. As he points out, Liberalism is among the most significant themes in the book. As such, one of the important tasks I set for myself in A Commercial Republic was to disentangle two separate ideas that are signified by that term. The first is the political philosophy that emphasizes individual rights against the state and is generally associated with figures such as John Locke and John Stuart Mill, (25-27) while the second is the center-left US public philosophy characteristic of the Democratic Party of the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries. (128-130) When Louis Hartz argued that Americans had always been Liberals he was writing about the former, but when Lionel Trilling claimed that liberalism was “the sole intellectual tradition” for his generation he was referring to the latter. In A Commercial Republic, I demarcated the older form of Liberalism by capitalizing the word, leaving the contemporary American version lower-case. (Other writers follow neither this convention nor any other one. The only consistency I claim is internal.) I also sometimes referred to the first as “classical Liberalism” or “philosophical Liberalism” and the second as “political liberalism.”
I am not interested in determining whether the second should share the name with the first, in the manner of conservatives who hold themselves the “true” Liberals because they are the ones who resist encroaching government power. (This was the basis of at least part of Hayek’s objection to being identified as a conservative.) The definition, or even the lineage, of a word is of less import to me than the worldview that it describes. It is in this regard that I wrote that “American conservatism…reveals itself to be merely an intramural squabble within the country’s Liberal tradition.” (244) Here I was arguably taking Hartz’s line but certainly not Trilling’s. What I meant was that American liberals and conservatives tend to have political arguments in fairly commensurate terms: they debate, for the most part, competing visions of freedom and equality. Each side understands these terms differently, which is why they are debates. But they seldom appeal, and almost never successfully appeal, to values that lay outside the Liberal tradition, such as solidarity, duty or community.
American liberals, for example, typically justify the welfare state by advancing the notion that people who do not have a minimum of opportunity are not truly free, rather than arguing that economic security is a good that the state has a responsibility to provide. And despite the occasional George Will or David Brooks column to the contrary, conservative economic thinking is not based on the small, experimental changes recommended by Edmund Burke, but on a “don’t tread on me” conception of freedom and a somewhat formal understanding of equality in which the state should treat everyone exactly alike regardless of background or circumstances. Americans will twist and turn to justify their preferred political outcomes, particularly those relating to economic policy, in the language of Liberalism, because this form of discourse resonates most strongly with the nation’s political values.
Another of Glickman’s points regards what he calls the “biases of intellectual history.” In discussing my presentation of the rise of the US conservative movement, he raises an objection to the method of intellectual history.
Sometimes…we can find those origins not in books but in the actions and words of business lobbyists, politicians, ministers, and others who did not write tomes on political economy but gave after-dinner speeches and sermons, and influenced the general public in other ways…Often, the popular version appeared before the academic, telling a story that intellectual historians are apt to overlook.
This is a provocative observation. In confronting it I was initially reminded of David Hollinger’s definition of intellectual history as “the discourse of intellectuals.” Under such an understanding, it would not be reasonable to expect intellectual historians to track the influence of popular expressions of ideas, as it is simply not what they do. In the case of A Commercial Republic, I often described texts with such phrases as the “most significant” work or “first influential” expression of a point, in order to avoid making the mistake that Glickman attributes to intellectual historians. For all I knew, someone else had written similar things before, but he/she had not influenced the broader intellectual discourse as much as some later writer. In using these somewhat weaselly phrases, I hoped not only to clarify whatever claims I was making, but also to ensure that they were correct.
But there is undoubtedly something about that response that answers the letter of Glickman’s charge without addressing its spirit. If intellectual historians are systematically ignoring certain kinds of evidence, then this is a problem not to be waved away with a definitional argument. More specifically, to the extent that intellectual history manifests a bias in favor of texts and against political ideas expressed in a more homespun fashion, it will tend to favor elite sources and to discount subaltern ones. Historians of any stripe should always be wary of this trend, and it is incumbent upon all of them to do everything they can to confront and avoid it.
At the same time, however, Glickman’s observation also trucks in a presumption against intellectual history that I do not believe is entirely fair. To take his example as my own, he mentions that I characterize an observation from Henry Wallace’s Sixty Million Jobs as “perhaps referencing Friedrich Hayek.” He points out that “Wallace had doubtless heard this critique from Republican legislators, ministers, business leaders, and lobbying groups like the US Chamber of Commerce long before Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom was published in England in 1944.” No doubt that is true. But it was more than some potential bias in favor of intellectual work that that led me to believe that Wallace had Hayek on his mind. Elsewhere in the same book, he rejected the notion that “democratic planning will lead us unwittingly to…‘the road to serfdom.’” The reference to Hayek’s titular phrase and the fact that The Road to Serfdom had been a publishing sensation in the previous year support, at least to me, the notion that Wallace did intend a reference to Hayek. Of course, even with this added information my attribution is just conjecture and Glickman’s overall point remains relevant. But this example nonetheless suggests that it is just as possible to presume an inadequately small influence of intellectual discourse on public events as it is to exaggerate the importance of intellectualism in the nation’s politics and culture. Matching methods, topics and evidence in a way that will justify the strongest possible conclusions will always be a challenge for historians. But I do not see that it confronts intellectual historians with any greater force than it does practitioners of other historical methodologies.
Finally, Glickman raises some interesting issues regarding the definitions of the terms democracy and capitalism, which he correctly notes that I define “capaciously.” It is true that these intentionally broad definitions can evade some important philosophical issues. A Commercial Republic is not the place to turn for meditations on whether, for example, elements of the US political system such as the Electoral College, the Senate or the Supreme Court make the nation less of a democracy. The definitions that I used were not intended to offer a closely-reasoned argument for the true and correct meaning of these terms, but only to highlight the particular issues that I wished to raise in the book.
In considering the expression of American democracy, then, what interested me was less the form of that government than the justification for it. To that end, I intended the term democracy as one that invokes a theory of legitimacy rather than a specific arrangement of powers. “A government is democratic,” I wrote, “when its rulers depend for their power on the continued support of the people (however defined), when popular approval plays a significant (but not necessarily definitive) role in the formation of policy objectives, and when the people in turn feel justified in using their voice (however expressed) to shape public policy.” (8)
In reaching that definition, the primary issues with which I struggled were those related to some of the massive injustices in the nation’s history, slavery being the paradigmatic example. Could a nation be democratic when it allowed for an institution that systematically denied fundamental rights? My first instinct was to answer “no,” on the grounds that democracy is best understood as the coupling of majority rule with minority rights. “So far as I am aware,” wrote democratic theorist Robert Dahl, “no one has ever advocated, and no one except its enemies has ever defined democracy to mean, that a majority would or should do anything it felt an impulse to do. Every advocate of democracy of whom I am aware, and every friendly definition of it, includes the idea of restraints on majorities.” But how do we know if those restraints are sufficient? Alternatively, at what point do those restraints thwart the majority to such an extent that the government is no longer democratic? Moving in either direction seemed to violate one or another received notion about the meaning of democracy.
I found my solution in John Dunn’s Democracy: A History. This book makes it clear that contemporary usage of the term democracy is loaded with different, and incompatible, meanings. It is quite inaccurate, notes Dunn, to characterize any modern nation by reference to an ancient Greek word describing arrangements particular to the Athenian city-state. “We lose all feeling for political reality when we strive today to see in America or Britain, as they prepare for war or draw up their public budgets, instances of either people governing itself in even a mildly opaque way.” Yet the fact that modern governments do not literally embody rule by the people does not mean that the usage of the word tells us nothing. Instead, Dunn argues, it invokes an ideal. Democracy holds out the possibility that states, in using their immense power to compel behavior, “acknowledge their own permanent potential for effrontery in levying any such demands, and offer a slim measure of apology for the offense inherent in levying them.” The democratic ideal, writes Dunn, allows states to “close the circle of civic subjection.” The state’s accountability to its citizens suggests, in other words, “that it draws its legitimacy from us.”
Yet the grubby practices called forth by the former usage of the term will never match the noble ideals inspired by the latter, and no actual government can be accurately described by reference to an ideal. The result is that most of us constantly employ one meaning or the other as the circumstances warrant, hardly aware that we may be referring to different things. On reading Dunn’s book, I realized that I had been guilty of this error. In questioning the democratic nature of the United States on the basis of its participation in slavery (and other denials of basic rights), I had been confusing democracy as a form of government—which admits of many forms and, perhaps, many injustices—with democracy as a political ideal. In the context of intellectual and political history, the reason the United States has been a democracy is not that its government was always fair or just. It has been a democracy because its defining political and intellectual traditions have involved an appeal to the notion of legitimacy that Dunn describes. To say that a democracy condoned slavery is not to hold that slavery is morally or politically acceptable. It is to say that democracies can do terrible things.
I was less troubled by the definition of capitalism. Here as well, I wanted to capture, as much as possible, the appeals that historical actors made when they sought to justify this arrangement. As such, I defined capitalism for the purposes of the book as “an economic system that presumes the institution of private property and that distributes goods through the aggregated decisions of individuals in the market.” (8) Placing property and the market at the center of the American economic system reflects my view that debates in US political economy have typically turned on the assertion or denial of the claim that they can deliver widespread prosperity more effectively than can other forms of production and distribution. The libertarian right and the socialist left have both influenced these debates by injecting concerns about the heavy hand of government or the illegitimacy of the profit motive. But in its essence, this conversation has concerned the balance of freedom and equality as expressed through development, taxation, monetary policy, regulation and redistribution. It has been, in other words, Liberal.
The three contributors raised many other important points, and I regret that I am unable to address them all. I very much appreciate the attention shown to my work here, and hope, along with Glickman, that this discussion “will set off further exploration of these and related topics.” I thank, again, the organizer and contributors for their time and insights.