Infant Industries

I wasn’t expecting the evolution of the notion of “force” to lead me to Alexander Hamilton, nor was I expecting it to lead to a deeper understanding of protectionism, which seems to be all the rage with the US government at the present moment. Why?

By the 1960s, UNESCO had begun to argue for a more level playing field for information. The thought was that better informed people made better decisions, and increased innovation through improved technologies. In a strong sense, it was a net neutrality argument before the internet existed. The AT discussions of the 1960s and 1970s were also about unequal access to technologies, and in some ways can be divided between large scale, centralized models like R. Buckminster Fuller and decentralized, individualist models like EF Shumacher. In essence, these approaches were developed to promote equality in technological development by disparate means.

It seems as if Alexander Hamilton’s 1790 Report on Manufactures is the nexus of a lot the centralist side. Hamilton’s infant industry argument is remarkably forward thinking regarding economies of scale. Simply put, Hamilton suggested that moderate tariffs coupled with industry subsidies would allow emergent nations, such as the US, to develop a strong technological and industrial base. Otherwise, more developed nations would simply “undersell” local industries and leave the nation stunted and exploited. The approach is controversial at best, with free trade advocates arguing that economic and technological growth proceeds faster without such measures.

Fuller’s Earth Inc. concept owe much to the ideas suggested by Hamilton. Of course Fuller attempted to side-step the issue by suggesting that we’re one planet, not a cluster of nations– centrist approaches might lead to a more prosperous planet, not simply more prosperous nations. What gets missed in the oversimplified centralist/decentralist framing of the problem is the question of where power, in the sense of potential for action, can possibly be found. Hamilton believed that the power of a nation to act in its interests was key; Fuller’s planetary power simply doesn’t exist as of yet.

After Hamilton, the argument developed in interesting ways through Friedrich List. List was a dual citizen of the US and Germany, owning major property in Pennsylvania. His was the theory of political force that Eugen Duhring deployed, that Engels railed against. Recall that Adam Smith had argued that “rational self-interest,” that is to say individualism,  was the best way to promote economic growth. List, in contrast suggested that the health of the nation depended more on the political force of its citizens to marshal development for the common good: “Canals and railroads may do great good to a nation, but all waggoners will complain of this improvement. Every new invention has some inconvenience for a number of individuals, and is nevertheless a public blessing.” List’s National System, and the related American System, guided technological development that created the modern US.

Engels took exception with the idea that “political force” might function as primary with economic force being a secondary manifestation. Marxist theory might point out that canals and railroads are controlled by bourgeois interests, and industrial development benefits the few rather than the many. Marx conflates under the term “labor” both the instruments of production and the raw material/labor involved. However, the idea that the development and control of instruments of production is key to both the capitalist and communist approaches.

So, in essence it’s technological theories (or turtles) all the way down.