RecensionsBook Reviews

Capitalism in America: A History, By Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge (2018) New York: Penguin Press, 476 pages. ISBN: 978-0-73522-246-5

  • Jeffrey Muldoon

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  • Jeffrey Muldoon
    Associate Professor, School of Business, Emporia State University, Emporia, Kansas, USA

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Cover of Volume 75, Number 2, Spring 2020, pp. 195-416, Relations industrielles / Industrial Relations

Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge’s history of American capitalism is a notable achievement in both writing and synthesis. It starts with an interesting thought experiment, imaging a Davos conference in 1620 with the various great powers speculating which nation would dominate the world in the coming years. Surprisingly, the two choices which would create the modern world would be the backwater power of England and the United States, which did not exist. Their thesis was that the United States more than any other nation on Earth was willing to embrace creative destruction, allowing for their nation to be reborn and reconfigured numerous times. The lists of innovations that America created, improved and implemented would be a length list of accomplishments. Some of these were technological; others were ideas, such as management. America was willing to transform itself because it was born both young and free. It was unburdened by the political legacies such as colonialism and feudalism. While other countries have just one city of focus (such as London or Seoul), the United States has numerous, including, but not limited to, New York, Chicago, Boston and the Bay area. The United States as of this publication holds 20 percent of the world’s patents. This achievement is more remarkable because it is a worthy antidote to much of the literature which has focused on both the short comings of capitalism in general, and the United States in particular. Certainly, the use of chattel slavery was a deep stain on the republic—but it fought an enormous war to prevent its spread and then to end it. While it has a class system and wealth disparity, the use of technology has vastly, increased the utility of the working class and poor. It seems that even the poor has a cell phone and internet. The average person, with his air conditioning, internet, television and car, leaves a life better than many in past history. This is a remarkable accomplishment that needs to be celebrated. Part of the reason why America is so unique is that until recently, for the most part, the American government has opened markets, not restricted them. Even some of the trust busting of the Progressive Era was designed to open markets; the New Deal both constricted markets and tried to grow them. It was not until Nixon and Johnson that the government got into further regulation and the development of a permanent welfare state. These regulations and welfare spending have, in some ways, diminished the power of innovation. Particularly troubling is the state of California, which has been a fountain of growth for more than 150 years, but has chosen anti-growth policies, damaging the state. Mostly, American elites, more than ever before, believe that their values and wisdom are stronger than those of the market, perhaps setting a downgrade of the economic future of the country. However, vast price reduction and the improvement of technology indicates that growth can continue and the period of American exceptionalism is not at an end. The book does have a few issues and weaknesses. Firstly, the command of the literature, especially about antebellum America, is a bit weak. For example, the Jacksonians, viewed here with suspicion, were as premarket as the Whigs, just in a different fashion. The Whigs sought to build an infrastructure of capitalism; the Jacksonians sought to keep engines of capitalism open. Of course, there was an anti-capitalistic stripe to the Jacksonians, but they also wanted to build markets. They were, in the phrase of Richard Hofstadter, “incipient capitalists.” In fact, as Hofstadter pointed out, ruefully one might add, the majority …