American Business Historical past: A Very Quick Introduction
by Walter A. Friedman, Oxford University Press, 2020
“Historical past is bunk,” Henry Ford stated greater than as soon as, serving to to cement the impression of business — particularly within the U.S., the place Ford worked — as crass and anti-intellectual.
In actual fact, Ford’s critique of historical past was surprisingly subtle. He complained that historians “wrote what they needed us to consider, glorifying some conqueror or chief” relatively than specializing in extraordinary folks. What’s extra, he stated, “historical past is being rewritten yearly from a brand new standpoint. So how can anyone declare to know the reality about historical past?”
The historian Walter A. Friedman, who, as a lecturer at Harvard Enterprise Faculty, is definitely conversant in Ford’s views on this division, apparently isn’t shopping for, as is obvious from his pithy new ebook, American Business Historical past, which has been revealed as a part of Oxford’s ongoing sequence of Very Quick Introductions.
Be forewarned. There is no such thing as a poetry right here. Neither is there a lot concerning the industrious Puritans, who purged some 80 holy days from their calendar to push their annual workdays above 300. Nor on the connection between freedom and innovation, nor on the nation’s lengthy historical past of mail subsidies for newspapers (the higher to disseminate info). I discovered no point out of America’s salutary absence of titled aristocracy.
However, what would one count on in a mere 138 pages of textual content? The very power of the ebook is all of the issues the creator has ignored. What stays is a concise historical past of enterprise within the very place the place it has achieved its apotheosis. Which Friedman has carried out in a doc quick sufficient to learn on a flight from New York to Chicago.
There’s a lot to consider on this small bundle. His fundamental premise is that Calvin Coolidge was proper when he stated, in an oft-truncated quote, that “the chief enterprise of the American folks is enterprise.”
Coolidge wasn’t the primary to note this; quite the opposite, the creator writes, “By the early twentieth century, america was regularly described as having a tradition dominated by enterprise.” He underscores how uncommon this was by citing the Pulitzer Prize–profitable historian James Truslow Adams, who wrote in 1929 that in America, “in contrast to Europe, the enterprise man…finds himself the dominant energy within the lifetime of the nation and virtually alone in his management over the course of its total life, financial, social, mental, spiritual, and political.” Adams added, “It’s a state of affairs that, as far as I do know, is exclusive in historical past.”
Writing a ebook of this sort can’t be simple. Virtually everybody will declare one thing vital is lacking. However total the creator does a advantageous job of figuring out the highlights. Many readers shall be shocked by a few of these, together with the outstanding innovation growth throughout the Nice Despair. Between 1929 and 1936, “a median of seventy-three company labs had been based per 12 months. Between 1933 and 1940, the variety of staff in analysis and growth divisions of US manufacturing corporations grew from about 11,000 to 28,000,” he writes. “These labs produced many new merchandise, together with artificial materials from DuPont, enhancements in radio at Zenith, and, at Westinghouse and the Radio Company of America, improvements that might result in tv.”
This businesslike narration presents materials within the clear context of a smart thesis, which the creator explains succinctly:
“The place that enterprise got here to occupy in American society was neither natural nor unintended however has been formed by policymaking and by America’s democratic tradition,” Friedman writes. “A central pressure within the historical past of American enterprise has been the hassle by policymakers to allow entrepreneurial power and encourage innovation, on the one hand, and to mitigate towards probably the most harmful parts of capitalism, on the opposite.”
Many readers shall be shocked by the outstanding innovation growth throughout the Nice Despair.
That is indisputably correct. But it appears to me that that is the duty of any rational society (which lets out people who suppress free enterprise altogether). And it factors to an analogous downside confronted by the creator, who should spotlight what’s uniquely American whereas avoiding a too-facile American exceptionalism. The Industrial Revolution, for instance, was hardly a uniquely American phenomenon.
Extra distinctive, maybe, to the U.S. had been its entrepreneurial tradition, openness to newcomers, mobility and adaptableness, and eagerness to democratize in addition to innovate. No place else so completely exemplified Joseph Schumpeter’s remark that, “The capitalist achievement doesn’t usually consist in offering extra silk stockings for queens however in bringing them inside attain of manufacturing facility women.”
Industrial coverage helped. Repeatedly over the course of the ebook, the seen hand of presidency performs a significant function within the progress and form of American enterprise. Tariffs rose and fell, for instance, relying on who was in energy. However for a lot of our historical past, U.S. industries had been protected by them. Andrew Carnegie switched from railroads to metal partially as a result of in 1870 Congress slapped a tariff of $28 per ton on metal imports.
The federal government’s function in utilizing land grants to spur growth of the railroads is well-known. Maybe much less so is an early 19th-century federal funding within the growth of armaments made with interchangeable components, a system with a lot wider ramifications. “Having a assured, up-front supply of funding was important, as a result of at the moment interchangeability was extraordinarily pricey,” Friedman writes. Uncle Sam “was prepared to make such a big funding due to how poorly the US arsenal had fared within the Warfare of 1812.”
Equally shocking, given immediately’s lack of antitrust enforcement, was the federal government motion within the early 20th century that broke up Normal Oil and different company giants. Attend additionally to the story of our mind-boggling industrial mobilization throughout World Warfare II, which is each inspiring (as a result of we did it) and sobering (as a result of a lot of that industrial capability is gone).
Friedman’s ebook seems at a possible inflection level. The coronavirus pandemic has already despatched up cries for all types of adjustments within the nation’s enterprise life, and that of different nations as effectively. It’s even potential that some will occur. As we set about shaping our future in a extra aware method, we should know a bit one thing concerning the previous.