Book Review: Cronyism: Liberty versus Power in Early America, 1607–1849

For the past few weeks, economist Patrick Newman has been doing the rounds for his new book (i.e. in the title of this blog post) on American economic history from 1607 to 1849. Well, its not only about American economic history. Its a bit more about the institutional history of the United States before 1850 and how it relates to economic history. It is an amazing book. Unfortunately, I expect many economic historians to ignore or fail to notice it. I hope that this blog post will at least reduce the likelihood of this happening because Newman’s book holds strong explanatory power if one is interested in the link between growth and institutions.

Newman’s argument is actually quite simple. First, there are two broadly-defined camps: the forces of liberty and the forces of power. Already, some may balk at this dichotomy but I would advise them not to. There are many reasons to keep going. The first is that It invokes an older tradition in historical studies that starts with Lord Acton and has been continued by numerous historians on the left and right. The other reasons become evident as one moves along in the book.

The forces of liberty are those that seek to constrain the state and the exercise of power. The forces of power, for their part, are those that seek to be empowered by a strong, capable and relatively unconstrained state. The forces of power, however, invite cronyism because the empowerment also permits personal aggrandizement (e.g. legally protected monopolies such as charters, tariffs, subsidies, grants, patronage).

The founding of the United States was, according to Newman, a battle between both forces with the British being the forces of power. After the Revolution, the forces of power continued inside the Federalist Forces — who basically dominated the constitutional convention of 1787 and the first Congress. Acting a de facto (because that is the title I give him) heir to Murray Rothbard, Newman adopts the position that the foundation of the US was in fact a rent-seeking bargain thanks to the federalists forces (Newman notably edited the lost volume of Rothbard’s Conceived in Liberty on the early republic).

After that, antifederalists and republicans coalesced into a working coalition that reinterpreted the constitution in a way that backfired against the Federalists and led to the Jeffersonian revolution of 1800. Important reforms, which Newman credits as being beneficial to living standards, were adopted. However, the Jeffersonians rapidly became corrupted by power. And here is the second reason to not balk at Newman’s dichotomy of the forces of power/liberty: people can move between camps. In other words, ideological commitment is not inelastic. Some in one camp or the other can switch when the rewards to do so change. However, the key point that Newman makes is that commitment to the forces of liberty is far more elastic than the commitment to the forces of power (which is more inelastic). The Jeffersonians’ commitment to liberty waned and they eventually enacted relatively similar policies to those of the federalists. They too engaged in cronyism. The same ebb and flow reoccurred later with the Jacksonians.

And here comes the third reason not to balk at Newman’s dichotomy: it actually hold pretty decent explanatory power. One common argument among financial and economic historians is that the United States may have sounded like a Jeffersonian project but the policies of the Early Republic and Antebellum were distinctly Hamiltonian (i.e. Federalist). To be sure, there is some evidence to that effect — which is what someone could retort to Newman. However, the old adage that “one in a glass house should not throw bricks” applies here. Revisions to the historical estimates of living standards have gradually swung in favor of the predictions associated with Newman’s model of the forces of power/liberty.

Consider this new article in Historical Methods by Frank Garmon (of Christopher Newport University). Garmon took issue with data from 1798 used by many scholars. In 1798, Congress introduced the a direct property tax to prepare for the possibility of a war with France. As Garmon succintly summarizes: “The law creating the tax consisted of three elements: a flat tax on slaves per head, a progressive tax on houses with rates escalating based on value, and a proportional tax on land based on value to make up the difference in each state’s obligation”. Other scholars, such as my co-author Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson, argued that these features invited corruption during the assessing of tax liabilities. This was particularly true in the south because of the flat tax per slave. Thus, if one tries to use the tax data to estimate economic activity circa 1800, one has to augment it to some degree to reflect the geographically varying levels of corruption. Garmon finds that corruption was not an issue. The disparities pointed out by others (which made sense at first glance) could be largely explained by normal economic factors such as population density (which would affect land valuations etc.). Thus, Garmon argues that there is no need to deflate. As a result, he finds that incomes were roughly 5% lower in the southern states in 1800 (a proportion that would have been smaller in northern states).

Why is Garmon’s result relevant to Newman’s claim? Because any lowering of the 1800-level of income is going to increase the rate of growth from there to 1840 when the commonly-used estimates (produced by R.A. Easterlin) become available. Any increasing in that rate of growth goes in favor of Newman’s model because his prediction because the era from 1800 to 1840 is predominantly occupied with pro-liberty forces (even though there are ebbs and flows).

I am not in full agreement with Newman’s book and his Rothbardian narrative (I am much less fond of Rothbard than he is notably because of the tendency for villains and heroes to exist in his narrative). However, the reality is that Newman’s description (and the Rothbardian narrative he imports and adapts) holds strong explanatory powers.

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