Review: “Cronyism: Liberty vs Power in America” by Patrick Newman
Historians as a whole chronically suffer from two major intellectual shortcomings. The first is that the are hopelessly ideological. Far too many works of history boil down to the author fitting the facts of past events as best he can into his own narrative, viewing history as a gradual fulfilling of his own beliefs on how the world really works. Everything is an element in a grand narrative of the author’s design.
The other shortcoming is that historians, by and large, do not understand economics. This applies more broadly, in that the historians can be found lacking in many different important fields necessary to truly understand the past. More than any other, however, historians suffer from a stark deficiency of economic understanding. What economics they do know is often oversimplified at best, and blatantly incorrect at worst. One can see why both of these errors can make some of the historical literature lacking in key qualities.
In his latest work Cronyism: Liberty vs Power in America 1607–1849 Patrick Newman deftly avoids both of these fallacies, and even more impressively, does so in examining a period were historians fall prey to these errors most severely: the American Revolution and its aftermath. Newman, with his sober analysis of the figures, characters, and events that every American schoolchild comes to know (Washington, Jefferson, etc.), combined with his thorough understanding of economics, provides a clear and unsullied account of these iconic decades without the ideological agenda and economic ignorance of many historians.
One of the most crucial ways in which this analysis plays out in the relation to The Articles of Confederation and their eventual replacement, The Constitution. The usual historical account given of both of these documents is that the colonies first adopted the Articles, but it became clear after several years that they were wholly insufficient for a functioning government. In the founding father’s great wisdom, they wrote and adopted the Constitution, which enabled the federal government to accomplish everything necessary for the United States to be the prosperous country we know today.
Newman rightfully shreds these myths and examines both of these documents for what they were: successful attempts at centralizing power in the federal government for the sake of cronyist interests. The Articles, far from being the principled Libertarian documents that they are imagined to be, were the first attempt by statists to bring together power in a centralized form in the thirteen independent colonies. It was only later in the Constitutional Conventions that this goal would be fully realized, and the federal government given the tools to expand and service the special interest groups that politicians were beholden to. Far from being the document meant to limit government that conservatives have long idolized, the goal of the Constitution and the Federalists was to increase government power and influence. In this goal, they were successful.
Newman’s refreshing intellectual sobriety is also apparent in his treatment of the indomitable Alexander Hamilton. In recent years, Hamilton has received a substantial PR boost in the general public (largely due to a well-known musical, no doubt), but he has always been a favorite of the historians, largely because the they tacitly agree with his attempts to expand the power of the Federal government. A wise and shrewd statesman who clearly saw the needs of the country and moved to address them — or so we are led to believe. Newman wastes no time dismantling this ideal picture of Hamilton and displays him for what he is: a glorified lobbyist for Northern manufacturing and banking interests. His famous “Reports” were written in an effort to secure tariffs, subsidies, and other privileges for his friends in big business. Hamilton may have been an idealist, but these were not the ideals of securing peace and liberty for the rest of the world. His ideals were spreading the American empire and its talons as far as possible and enriching his cronyist friends while doing so.
Newman’s thorough understanding of economics seeps through his entire account, allowing him to give grounded explanations for the bank panics and economic interests of the time. This directly carries into another fallacy that Newman avoids, which remains popular among many economic historians: viewing the various bank panics of the 19th century as being as bad or worse than those experienced in the 20th and 21st century. The rationale behind this view is that prices would fall precipitously during these panics, which would have put the economy squarely into the doldrums of recession. Newman, however, points out that this reasoning is flawed. It is true that nominal prices did fall during these 19th century panics, such as the Panic of 1819, but these were only nominal prices. The real prices of the economy are roughly equivalent to their positions before. As Newman points out for both the Panic of 1819 and 1837, GDP growth and the real productivity were mostly untouched by the recessions.
Newman’s prose is always clear, and his explanation of events thorough enough to allow even a novice with a tenuous grasp of history and economics to easily follow his retelling of events. The book is also very thoroughly sourced, with nearly every page and claim having a litany of other authors to reinforce Newman’s account. The time-span the book covers, while possibly seeming arbitrary at first glance (1607–1849) is actually highly intuitive. This time span covers the early colonies, their split from Great Britain, the consolidation of the Federal Government in the Constitution, and the failed counter-movements to fight against this power. Newman’s account ends in 1849 right when another specter of American politics started to dominate the political scene: slavery. While slavery was certainly present in the collective consciousness of the nation, it was not until the 1850s onward that it truly dominated the political discourse, until the eventual secession of the South and triggering of the American War Between the States.
The only critique that I can find with Cronyism is that reading the book can feel overwhelming at points. Newman clearly has a very firm grasp on this time period, and he accordingly relays a plethora of information, facts, and dates at the reader. Consequently, the deluge of history can feel nearly overwhelming at times. However, this is not so much a fault of the author, as it is a necessary by-product of carrying out the task of providing an economic history covering nearly 250 years in 330 pages. It is a minor flaw, but not one that I count against Newman in any meaningful way.
Cronyism: Liberty vs Power in America is essential reading for having a true understanding of this pivotal time period in the history of the United States. Where many other historical accounts are found woefully short of providing a lucid and sober account of this period, Newman accomplishes this task and more. Crony practices have continued to march on to our present age in the United States, and reaches new corrupt heights even today. To have a true understanding of these societal ailments and where they come from, Cronyism: Liberty vs Power in America provides a necessary foundation to diagnose the origins of the economic and politic problems we face today, as well as how they may be rolled back to create a better future.