Journal of Policy History 12.4 (2000) 535-540
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Politics and Structure: Open and Shut Cases
Mary O. Furner
Gerald Berk, Alternative Tracks: The Constitution of the American Industrial Order, 1865-1917 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994). Pp. xi, 243, $16.95 pb.
Colleen A. Dunlavy, Politics and Industrialization: Early Railroads in the United States and Prussia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994). Pp. xiv, 303. $52.50 cl., $22.95 pb.
Paying attention to institutions has liberated policy historians from the pluralist fictions that function dictates interest, and interest predicts belief. In these two elegantly crafted studies of railroad development in the United States and Prussia, attending to institutions also helps to dispel the whiffs of technological determinism associated with the new business history, which predicts a hierarchical, bureaucratic, vertically integrated firm structure for industries with significant economies of speed and scale, within a technologically driven modernization process that comes out more or less the same no matter what the surrounding political environment.
Dunlavy and Berk reject this modernization bias. Dunlavy's deftly managed comparative account of Prussian and American railroads in the 1830s and 1840s contends that the highly distinctive ways that railroads were built and regulated in the two countries--in the American case with a good deal of public investment and extensive state regulation, and in the Prussian case owned by private capitalists under very light regulation--can only be explained in light of the "ambient political structure" (1). Berk insists that the structure of the U.S. railroad industry during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, the way the nation's markets were constituted, and the aims of government regulation were all products [End Page 535] of political decisions, which in turn amounted to choices between alternative visions of a modern industrial order. One choice was the "corporate liberal" vision of a hierarchical society dominated by huge corporations serving a national market, with production concentrated in a few major cities, management bureaucratically thick and specialized, dependent workers, the law successfully adapted to the "facts" of consolidated production, and the state's role confined to legitimation and stabilization, along with just enough redistribution to keep the social lid on. The opposing vision, which Berk attempts to bring back into view, was "regional republicanism," a mixed, competitive, decentralized economy composed of small and medium-sized producers serving regional markets, with government regulation aimed at nurturing individual and community autonomy and preserving the material conditions for republican citizenship.
Despite their mutual objections to modernization theory, Berk and Dunlavy have their own theoretical differences. Berk's analysis stresses the constitutive role of ideology, whereas Dunlavy cites differences in political structure as the source of a contrast between the two countries that many would consider counter-intuitive: what has (erroneously) been characterized as the "stateless" antebellum United States political structure actually intervened considerably more, and more effectively, in railroad construction than did the highly centralized, unitary, illiberal Prussian state. Policy decisions in the Prussian Vormarz were made within the central state bureaucracy, largely by the Finance Ministry in Berlin. Unable to raise the capital for extensive state investment without concessions to political liberalization, the Berlin monarchy was forced to leave construction of the railroads to private capitalists, keeping regulation light enough to maintain investment sufficient to remain competitive in international terms. In the fragmented U.S. polity, early constitutional conflicts shifted what planning capacity there was, and effective control of internal improvements, from the national level to the state legislatures, where societal pressures, including demands for extensive state participation and regulation, found more effective expression than in Prussia. Thus, the United States developed what Dunlavy describes as a less liberal economy.
Choices regarding how and where to build railroads reflected each country's distinctive engineering culture as well as its polity structure. One of the most arresting contributions of Dunlavy's book is her detailed description of the construction of an international pool of readily available technical knowledge, compiled through extensive contacts between railroad companies in each country and the prolific publication and rapid translation of treatises...