THE GOVERNMENTAL HABIT: Economic Controls from Colonial Times to the Present by Jonathan Hughes

THE GOVERNMENTAL HABIT: Economic Controls from Colonial Times to the Present

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The US economy has slid between two stools, according to Professor Hughes: it is subject to a tangle of ad hoc controls which multiplied because, ""put bluntly, Americans distrust capitalism in its pure form."" Overall national planning has not been tried, and won't be; on the other hand, a free-market system never existed in America, which instead transplanted Tudor England's regulatory practices to the colonies and maintained them after the Revolution. This compact, fertile outline proceeds to examine how such controls have been applied piecemeal in an industrial society. The 19th century produced ""government-sponsored regulation by and for the regulated"" in each sector, keeping ""reins"" on business as a whole. Ironically, the Populists who agitated for such controls intuited that ""competition could not survive unless it was constantly protected from market forces""--now, anti-trust suits attack large-scale production and low prices (IBM, Xerox), instead of the restricted output and high prices that were supposed to be the flaws of monopolistic tendencies. World Wars I and II gave a final impetus to federal controls in general and the ""nightmare"" of the unproductive military sphere; after WW II, economists promised full employment with price stability, then settled for a ""trade-off"" between the two, but got ""stagflation"" instead. This, Hughes argues, is because the assorted controls were intended to check a boisterously expanding economy; they cannot themselves produce growth, and aggravate a downturn. Hughes sees slight prospect of dismantling the system of ""regulated malfunctioning"" in favor of laissez-faire, but he has offered a challenge to economics students lacking historical perspective, and explained to antagonists of ""creeping socialism"" the more precise character of the beast.

Pub Date: Feb. 25th, 1976
Publisher: Basic Books