Sunday, May 27, 2012

Hamiltonians versus Jeffersonians

Here's a review in the NYT of Michael Lind's Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States. Lind tells the story as a long dispute between small-government and small-business oriented Jeffersonians, and big- organization oriented Hamiltonians. David Leonhardt says in his review:

These cycles have continued, more or less, for 200 years. Lincoln — a state legislator during Jackson’s time who fought for federal investment — was the great Hamiltonian of the 19th century. After the South left the Union, Lincoln, with the backing of Congress, was able to undertake an investment bonanza that Southern representatives had blocked, building rail lines, roads and colleges. Many of these programs would ultimately help industrialize the South.
Lindt advocates the Hamiltonian view, arguing that large-scale investment drives the economy. As the political climate has become more laissez-faire and Jeffersonian since Reagan, growth has slowed too.

The reviewer points out that does not expain why the US has become much richer than other countries that were, if anything, more Hamiltonian. A Jeffersonian culture of small entrepreneurship and risk-taking might have something to do with it.

The book ends on an optimistic note. Leonhardt says:

The notion that the United States has stopped making many large-scale investments that bring great returns is not, in Lind’s view, surprising. American economic history tends to run in cycles. Yes, our roads and bridges are dilapidated. Our broadband infrastructure is not quite world-class. Our schools, including many colleges, can no longer claim to be the finest. But the economic need for change will eventually create the political will for it. “Land of Promise” ends on as optimistic a note as the title suggests, though it also acknowledges that failure is an option.
I doubt I'll get round to reading the book for some time. But it sounds interesting. In a way it is comforting to know earlier debates about "internal improvements" eventually were resolved in a way that resulted in rapid growth. I'd incline more to the Hamiltonian side, although with a suspicion of how it can also produce corporatist complacency and bureaucracy.

For me, though, one reason we have stopped making large-scale investments is social transfers, largely to the elderly, have crowded out new infrastructure investment. Even if you accept the liberal case for government investment - and I do, to some extent, when it comes to infrastructure spending at sensible non-Japanese levels - in practice, liberal ideas about "investment" in social programs tend to be one of the main obstacles to finding the money.

It is also the old debate about state versus market at one remove - big organization versus small organization. And as I often say, I think the size of government debate Is a stale distraction. The market is an excellent tool, with some flaws and limits. It is not the only means of coordination and incentivization. Nor is big government.


No comments:

Post a Comment