Review of "A Government Out Of Sight"

Brian Balogh’s A Government Out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority in Nineteenth-Century America illustrates how contrary to popular conception of the first century of American as defined by laissez-faire policies, the Federal government used much of it’s purchasing and administrative power to help build the American market in a manner that was largely kept out of sight. The manner in which this was accomplished was through subsidies, legal rulings, injunctions, contracts for labor and goods, the use of the military to encourage western settlement, import taxes and the use of state and local governments as a mediator of Federal policy.

Balogh frames the evolution of the American government as emerging from ideological debates stemming from the Federalist and anti-Federalist political campaigns. Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams on the national level and many others on the state level attempt to govern using classical, small state Republican ideals. However in a vast expanse of land settled by people with tenuous allegiance to the government the appeals to virtue and affect often fell on deaf ears. As they wrestled with traders and settlers who held no or only a tenuous allegiance to the new general government, these leaders found themselves in situations that forced them to adjust these a priori valuations to the matter at hand.

One such example of this given by Balogh is in the years immediately following the revolution. “Tanners, hatters, glass manufacturers, and manufacturers of cloth all clamored for protection against foreign imports. Ever with such protection, they faced competition from better capitalized British agents” (174). Such a policy in favor of national manufacturing, however, was not desired by the much wealthier, aristocratic mercantile elite. In a period of conflict with Britain these interest groups has their greatest wish granted by Jefferson when he declaimed an embargo, however the mercantile interests all but ignored them. Lacking the popular support, military powers and desire to potentially reignite direct conflict – such a policy was dropped. The lessons learned from such an experience were not missed and led to policies oriented towards personal interest and the growth of military capabilities justified perhaps most pithily in the modern context by Thomas Freidman who said that “McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas”.

It was in this context of competing allegiances, to the Republic and to personal interest, that the judiciary began it’s transmogrification of a set of juridical beliefs premised on the commonwealth notion of governance inherited by the British to one of natural rights based individual personhood. As business and government pushed for development of the interior, the value of the “people” was diminished to make way for an increased conception of rule of law and private property. In this context Balogh insightfully points out that states and local governments often fought and won the right to direct development inside the state. It was in this was that the state were able to replace or reform the designs of northern capitalists that sought to specialize farming or manufacture in areas they deemed most fitting to their needs rather than according to those that lived there. Thus while Balogh describes the effects that the economic power of the railroads, the need for greater capital investment for machinery, farmers transition from partial self-sufficiency via crop variety to monocultural practices totally dependent on the market has, he simultaneously seems to ignore the wider implications of having more people involved in market transactions defined by an international scale.

A recurring theme that Balogh references frequently is that much of the taxation powers of the government weren’t “seen” by the people of the time as it was hidden in the price of the imported goods they were purchasing. While during normal times this wasn’t a contentious issue, during periods of conflict with other nations the federal government suspended this “invisibility” and that this was met with opposition and later, during periods of Federally sponsored development the states would assert their prerogative as those knowledgable of a given area to contract out work.

One point that relates to my historical research is the development of the American identity as opposed to the regionally defined one as well as the ideologies and policies of early American Socialist parties. The Knights of Labor are mentioned in passing during the period of the “amorphous stage of the labor movement” however Balogh gives them and their later off-shoots any mention in depth (317). I do not fault him for this as his concern is primarily with demonstrating the manners in which the Federal or “General Government” has consistently played a role in the development of markets and the regulation of commerce, however as his history is institutional and top-down he overlooks how it was that political actors/workers at the time recognized the role the government was playing and desired to take it over to change the tempo of development. Additionally elided are the private corporate security forces such as the Pinkertons whose policing role was in later taken over by national guardsman.

In his concluding section, Balogh lauds the renaissance of an associative order of para-states as being both more pragmatic and attuned to the historical circumstances of America. He sees the attempt of socialists or liberals ignorant of the historical failures of such a policy whereby government takes a more energetic role bound to failure by citing the “spontaneous” growth of professional institutions as regulating bodies. Presumably, all that is needed to counteract the effects of the carceral state and vast economic disparity are paternalistic organizations (which can appeal for federal aid) that redistribute wealth and attempt to alter legislation rather than a government or political party that takes the general welfare clause to signify that it actually cares about the welfare of all the people rather than putting primary concern on it’s corporate citizens. Considering the account that he just wrote that explicitly shows that such organization flourish only on the largesse of business this seems surprising, but as his concern is primarily with the captains of industry and their political counterparts it is less so.