pushing on an open door

In a job interview several months ago, I was posed a question that's nagged at me ever since. The interviewer asked me, with regard to my book, what the big deal was about arguing that government economic intervention has always played a significant role in American political economy. Others have pointed this out before, he might have said, and it isn't really even that controversial. A paradigm-shifting book on the subject for sociologists and political scientists came out as far back as 1985. In the history profession, Brian Balogh's A Government Out of Sight was an influential account that documented the presence of the federal government in the lives of nineteenth century Americans. It was published five years before the interview. In claiming the prominent place of government economic intervention as your jumping off point, the interviewer asked, "aren't you just..sort of...pushing on an open door?"

I was well aware of how my book did and did not fit in with the expectations of contemporary academic history, and had anticipated some version of this issue. But the question could have taken any number of specific forms. I was a bit rattled by the one that my interlocutor had chosen, as it implied that perhaps my book need not have been written at all. The truth is that I hadn't written the book to be in conversation with history professors as much as to attempt to address a widespread misunderstanding that I perceived among the general public. Regardless of the professional consensus, I believed (and still believe) that American citizens (especially conservative ones) labor under a widely-shared misconception that the extent to which government plays a role in the free enterprise system is the extent to which citizens become unfree and the nation's economy inefficient. Moreover, politicians pander to this belief when they grandstand against such things as taxes, economic stimulus and transfer payments; their tendency to use these issues to divide citizens one against another is a noxious development that would not be possible without the valorization of markets that has taken hold in the last several decades. In the interview, I summarized these thoughts by saying that while historians might have rejected the notion that laissez faire played a prominent role in the construction of the American economy, many citizens--including essentially all conservative ones--have not.

I am not sure how that answer went over, though I can definitively say that I did not get the job. But I still think that we live in an age of market fundamentalism and that the beliefs that characterize our era would benefit from greater scrutiny than they tend to receive. In the book itself, I summarized this conclusion by arguing that "laissez-faire is neither theoretically neutral nor historically primary" and that "those who object to economic intervention on the grounds that the government should not 'pick winners and losers'...invoke a tradition that simply does not exist." (246)

I am thinking of this now because a recent review of the book on Amazon seems to corroborate my concern about the widespread public understanding of the issue of government economic intervention. (At this point, the book has only received two reviews at the site. For several months, I had only one review there--a glowing one with a 5-star rating. Thank you, Barbara K. Smith!) "It seems to me," the reviewer wrote, "that O'Connor muddles the issue rather than clarifying it. The argument we're having as a nation is whether to be a self-governing or state ruled society, not whether government as an instrument of the state can or can't achieve satisfactory economic growth. Historical evidence is quite clear; it can't." One of the major points of A Commercial Republic is to argue against this sort of essentialism: there are things the government does effectively and things it does inefficiently, and there are economic functions that the government would be well- or poorly-advised to undertake. The argument that each new example of a publicly performed economic function represents another step down the road to serfdom is exactly the point that the book was written to address. I wrote on the last page that "it is the specific nature of government economic intervention, rather than its mere existence, that defines the nature of American democratic capitalism." (248)

I bring this up not to argue with a review, which is very bad form. I wanted only to note an example of an idea that I believe to be widespread, one that motivated the writing of the book in the first place. In such an environment, I do not think that A Commercial Republic is pushing on an open door.