The Stakes of Regulation: Perspectives on Bread, Politics and Political Economy Forty Years Later by Steven L. Kaplan (review)
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The Stakes of Regulation: Perspectives on Bread, Politics and Political Economy Forty Years Later. By Steven L. Kaplan (New York, Anthem Press, 2015) 427pp. $130.00

In his landmark study, Bread, Politics and Political Economy in the Age of Louis XV (The Hague, 1976), Kaplan argued that in the 1760s, the French government unleashed the first great experiment in economic liberalism by dismantling regulations governing grain supply. The policy, predicated upon a faith in self-regulating markets to achieve lower prices and a more plentiful distribution of goods, unleashed a crisis with profound political, economic, moral, and cultural effects. In The Stakes of Regulation, published as a companion volume to Anthem Press’ new edition of Bread, Politics and Political Economy (New York, 2015), Kaplan reflects on how scholarship pertaining to his interests has evolved during the past forty years. The result is an impressive historiographical and interdisciplinary discussion of scores of issues raised by the study of markets, food, and economic liberalism.

Kaplan addresses questions of methodology, definitions of key terms, underlying assumptions governing historical interpretations, and accuracy of facts on a wide range of topics. He is wary of ahistorical treatments of the market that abstract its operation from the social conventions in which it is embedded. To this end, he favors sociologists who study “concrete markets” empirically rather those who treat markets as theoretical constructions (42). He looks into French agricultural output as a way to assess whether inadequate harvests, as opposed to factors like government policy, were responsible for dearth. He probes the question of social justice by revisiting the familiar concept of the moral economy, as well as the role of collective action and perceptions of the nature of the “people.” In chapters treating traditional political history of the old regime, he reviews the debate about whether the parlements and royal ministries were agents of progress or obstruction. New perspectives on the intellectual history of political economy illustrate ways in which historians have attempted to explain the social context within which liberalism emerged, and how it was related to pressing issues of social trust, patriotism, reform, and privilege. He ends with a discussion of food [End Page 259] security in international perspective. In his appraisals, Kaplan cites works of economists, sociologists, and political scientists, as well as historians of culture, politics, and society.

Although Kaplan is primarily concerned with reviewing works about the old regime, his interest in theoretical, methodological, and comparative approaches leads him into discussions that transcend the particularities of the French situation per se. He is equally at home assessing the relevance of concepts like Foucault’s “governmentality” or Sen’s “food entitlement” for understanding government policy and liberalism as he is in discussing the eighteenth-century minister Jacques Necker’s critique of deregulation.1 He addresses the culpability of governments in causing famine by reference to Maoist China as well as to liberalizing France.

There is a drawback to the book’s organization. Because Kaplan treats scholarly works in terms of his own interests, he often does not summarize the theses of the authors themselves before subjecting them to his critique. Hence, some of the authors that he considers might feel that they have been misrepresented or that their work has been taken out of context, without a chance to respond. Even though Kaplan states that his goal is to encourage debate, his tone, at times, verges on hectoring.

Nonetheless, anyone interested in debates about the topic of regulation, and historiographical approaches more generally, will find rewarding material in this book. Kaplan’s case is persuasive because most people in the old regime lived in a continual state of fear of hunger (as do many people in the world today); the stakes of regulation versus deregulation for meeting human needs were (and are) enormous. In the great debate about whether free markets made provisioning more abundant or more precarious, he argues that the evidence of the eighteenth century pointed overwhelmingly to deleterious effects: “Liberalization revealed how grim, brutal and inhumane liberty could become in the hands (and minds) of those who seemed indifferent (or loftily, even scientifically resigned) to its impact on the majority of consumers” (393). It...