Academic journal article Independent Review

Politics in Time

Academic journal article Independent Review

Politics in Time

Article excerpt

Why is Silicon Valley in Silicon Valley? Why isn't it in Cleveland or Miami? And why is there "a" Silicon Valley? Why are computer firms, like film studios, clustered in a few places, rather than scattered everywhere, like accountants? Why are the United States and Canada so much richer than Mexico or Argentina? Why are so many more converts to Islam in Africa than in Europe? Why do we use VHS rather than Beta? Why do our cars run on gasoline instead of steam? Why does the Supreme Court find protection for abortion but not for freedom of contract in the Constitution's Due Process Clause?

If pressed, most of us would agree that any adequate answer to any of these questions must include a healthy dose of history. We would say than to understand why the world is the way it is, we need to realize that "history matters." If we are sophisticated, we will probably go on to mention "path dependence," "lock in," and "irreversibility." And if we are thoughtful (and honest), we will recognize that our fancy talk often works a fraud, using jargon to hide the fact that we are merely describing, not explaining.

The prevalence of this fraud-of so many academics' willingness to substitute description for explanation, slogans for analysis-motivates Politics in Time: History, Institutions, and Social Analysis (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004). In this book, author Paul Pierson, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, takes aim at the claim, so popular today, that "history matters." Pierson's quarrel is not with the claim itself; like all sensible people, he believes that a better understanding of history really does lead to a better understanding of politics. But, unlike all too many of the rest of us, Pierson is not content to mouth empty slogans. Hc actually wants to unpack the claim, to examine in detail the ways in which history matters. Moreover, he wants the rest of us to pay attention and to be more careful when we talk about history. Only then, he asserts, will we be able to say something interesting about politics and its impact on our world, which is a product of history.

Economic Historians Explain Just How History Matters

To accomplish his task, Pierson turns to an unexpected source-economic history. He argues that economic historians (by whom he mostly means Brian Arthur, Paul David, and especially Douglass North) have developed a theoretical framework that explains exactly why (and under what conditions) history matters. He calls this framework path dependence.

Pierson realizes the irony of offering path dependence as the cure for overworked jargon. After all, path dependence has itself become such a popular slogan that it has come close to losing any meaning. Indeed, it would not be a stretch to define it as a synonym for "history matters." To avoid this circularity, Pierson urges us to return to the beginning, to consider what Brian Arthur and Paul David meant when they first used the term. Only then will we have a solid foundation on which to develop an explanation of how time and thus history affect politics.

As Pierson points out, this body of scholarship is not an obvious place to begin an investigation into political theory. Arthur and David were interested in a rather narrow topic, far removed from politics. They noticed that some technologies tended to cluster in a variety of ways. Most obviously, some technologies cluster geographically, such as electronics in Silicon Valley. Other technologies cluster in other ways. Most important, users often cluster, adopting a few (or even one) of many viable technologies. Thus, we use the QWERTY keyboard, VHS, and Intel processors rather than the Dvorak keyboard, Beta, or Motorola processors. Arthur and David argued that all of these clusters resulted from the same historical process in which early users' decisions effectively "locked in" certain locations or technologies and "locked out" others. …

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