Americans Love Government – As Long as They Can’t See It

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Mr. Balogh is the author of A Government out of Sight: They Mystery of National Authority in Nineteenth-Century America (Cambridge University Press, 2009). He is an associate professor of history at the University of Virginia and Chair of the Governing America in a Global Era Program at the Miller Center of Public Affairs, and co-host of the nationally syndicated Backstory, with the American History Guys.

Despite all the talk about bipartisanship, there are not many issues that Democrats and Republicans agree upon these days.  But here’s one:  the kind of do-nothing government we had before government was energetic.

Conservatives and progressives agree that nineteenth-century Americans embraced the free market and the principles of laissez-faire. On this point, they could all use a history lesson.  Americans have consistently demanded more energetic governance, even during the nineteenth century.

For progressives, the emergence of a more powerful national government during the first decade of the twentieth century was a blessing. A remarkably resilient interpretation of American political development, originally crafted by Progressive Era activist historians like Charles Beard, traced the continued growth of national authority, powered largely by bursts of presidentially inspired reform that crested during the twentieth century through the New Deal and the Great Society. These cycles of reform were the key to building a more powerful state. Progressives applaud these developments as a marked departure from minimalist government of the nineteenth century.

Besides grousing about being relegated to decades without snazzy nicknames, conservatives do not dispute this interpretation of modern American politics. They do, however, question the premise that each growth spurt was beneficial for the nation. For them, morning in America shines brightest when the sun illuminates a society organized by the principles of laissez-faire.

Oddly, both conservatives and progressives agree that nineteenth-century Americans embraced the free market. Conservatives want to harness that past; progressives celebrate America’s liberation from it and credit the growth of national administrative capacity for their victories. Neither ideological perspective takes seriously the possibility that Americans turned regularly to the national government throughout the nineteenth century, or that it played a crucial role in shaping what Americans then and now regard as the “natural” market.

But what if the basic historical premise upon which this debate has been waged is fundamentally flawed? What if the historical foundation for both progressive and conservative prescriptions for twenty-first-century public policy – more government/less government – is based on the wrong set of questions? What if modern-day progressives understood that the national government often proved to be most influential when it was least visible? And what if conservatives acknowledged the crucial role that the national government played in shaping both the market and the legal status of corporations that emerged as the key players in that market during the height of laissez-faire? What if the Gilded Age was exceptional? What if it was anomalous precisely because some public officials sought to achieve something that had never been accomplished before – draw a hard and fast line between public and private activity?

Most significantly, what if our understanding of the nineteenth century allowed for the possibility that the United States governed differently from other industrialized contemporaries, but did not necessarily govern less? Existing rules, routines, and structures of power were always in place in nineteenth-century America – even at the national level. And those rules mattered. They influenced the life chances of millions of Americans.

The challenge to those who wish to understand politics today, then, is to discern how these governing patterns operated and to identify the ways in which they endured and evolved.

In the United States, a national government capable of mobilizing compatible resources in the private and voluntary sectors often yielded more impressive results than unilateral state power. Historically, that is exactly the way Americans preferred it. Where no intermediate institutions stood between citizen and national government, Americans consistently advocated energetic governance when it came to trade, security, and economic development. Where local and state government was up to the task, or where voluntary and private groups might fulfill public purposes, Americans preferred that the national government enable rather than command.

How is it possible that so many scholars, not to mention millions of Americans, could miss this important story? A partial answer begins with no less an authority on governance than Alexander Hamilton. In Federalist 27 Hamilton pronounced that “A government continually at a distance and out of sight can hardly be expected to interest the sensations of the people. The inference is that the authority of the Union and the affections of the citizens toward it will be strengthened, rather than weakened, by its extension to what are called matters of internal concern.”

What Hamilton failed to anticipate was a national government that was often most powerful in shaping public policy when it was hidden in plain sight. Such was the case when the national government created and nourished a corporate-driven market, stimulated expansion by subsidizing exploration and removing Indians, and influenced trade patterns through communication and transportation policies. The national government shaped internal development through an active foreign policy. All of these federal actions touched the day-to-day lives of Americans as much as Hamilton’s more visible policies on the national debt or the Bank of the United States. Even in those instances where the national government entered the fray as a “Leviathan,” its influence was quickly displaced by sagas of heroic settlers fighting back Indians or individually making their way west without assistance from the federal government. For good reason, Tocqueville noted that “in the United States, government authority seems anxiously bent on keeping out of sight.”

Reorienting the contemporary debate from big versus small government to a discussion about how best to solve pressing problems through means that Americans historically have embraced – means that include national governance – offers a great opportunity. Conservatives should concede that Americans have always turned to the national government to solve problems. In fact, conservatives – whether Gilded Age jurists or businessmen eager to establish national markets – have often been the first to advocate energetic national governance.

For their part, progressives should break their lockstep assumption that cooperative partnerships between public and voluntary, or even private, organizations are inherently regressive. Progressives should also master the art of turning the legal and fiscal resources of the national government toward redistributive ends. In short, they should learn how to make government work toward progressive ends, through less visible means.  Programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit, which has redistributed income without generating a visible welfare bureaucracy (or too many complaints from conservatives) are a perfect example. While governing out of sight is no easy task, it is far more promising than reverse engineering the mechanisms through which Americans have governed for much of their history.

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Larry DeWitt - 6/15/2009


Nice summary essay. I just ordered three copies of your new book for our library (Ed B. had already recommended it to me, but your essay reminded me I hadn't done it yet).