Managing Modern Capitalism: Industrial Renewal and Workplace Democracy in the United States and Western Europe

By M. Donald Hancock; John Logue et al. | Go to book overview

4.
Industrial Policy in a Federalist
Polity: Microcorporatism in the
United States

SETH BORGOS

When a new term becomes fashionable in political discourse, a certain degree of skepticism is appropriate. Our contemporary taste for novelty is so promiscuous that it is both easy and profitable to repackage venerable ideas and herald them as discoveries. Yet with policy, like other products, a fresh package can signify more than a sales ploy; it can suggest a reappraisal of the product's niche, a reformulation of its contents, even a realignment of the markets in which it is sold. Such is the case with the emergence of "industrial policy" as an issue in contemporary American politics.

Insofar as industrial policy denotes selective government intervention in targeted sectors, firms, or regions, the practice is nearly as old as the Republic. Railroad construction subsidies, protective tariffs, regulated public utilities, and agricultural extension evince some lines of its long national pedigree. But while the concept is not new, it has been framed and debated over the last fifteen years in a way that departs significantly from past practice in the United States. And this becomes particularly clear when the American case is traced against the backdrop of parallel developments in Europe.

From a transatlantic perspective, the American debate has a peculiar flavor because the issue at stake is not just the choice of policies, but whether the nation should have an industrial policy at all. There is an articulate body of opinion in the United States that opposes any such thing on principle; this view is well entrenched not only on the right wing but also, as we shall see, in the political center. And within the larger American public there is a more inchoate sentiment, a sentiment that welcomes specific interventions yet is deeply suspicious of planned and systematic initiatives, especially when they are identified with the federal government.

To state this another way: fiscal and monetary policy are viewed in the United States as neutral ground upon which conflicts of interest and value may be fought, while in the case of industrial policy the status of the field itself is at issue. Industrial policy advocates are not only required to justify their own proposals, but to defend the legitimacy of public intervention. Their adaptations to this hostile political terrain have decisively influenced the shape and outcome of the debate in the United States.

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