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In recent years, the Journal of Policy History has emerged as a major venue for scholarship on American policy history in the period after 1900. Indeed, it is for this reason that it is often praised as the leading outlet for scholarship on American political history in the world. Only occasionally, however, has it featured essays on the early republic, the Civil War, or the post-Civil War era. And when it has, the essays have often focused on partisan electioneering rather than on governmental institutions. The rationale for this special issue of the Journal of Policy History is to expand the intellectual agenda of policy history backward in time so as to embrace more fully the history of governmental institutions in the period before 1900. The six essays that follow contain much that will be new even for specialists in nineteenth-century American policy history, yet they are written in a style that is intended to be accessible to college undergraduates and historians unfamiliar with the period.
“We are, most of us,” Mary Van Kleeck said in November 1957, “getting too old to talk.” Near the end of more than two hours of interrogation by officials of the State Department's Passport Office, Van Kleeck tried to impress upon her questioners the commitment to social research and to social justice that underlay her career. The Passport Office, however, was more concerned about her Communist front and party affiliations, and she was in their offices that Thursday morning appealing their refusal to renew her passport. She was seventy-three years old and retired from public life. She wanted to travel, as had been her practice, to Holland, her ancestral home and the home of her closest friends. “I date way back of you young people,” she told her two interrogators. “I think the work of my generation and our attitudes in international affairs is one of sympathy … to developments in other countries.” But, she continued, “I don't think you people who don't know the period prior to the First World War can possibly see how deep our concern is.”
The year 2003 marks the twentieth-fifth anniversary of the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) of 1978, a late chapter in the development of the American administrative state and the most significant reform of the civil service system since its creation through the Pendleton Act of 1883. The Act made a number of enduring contributions to the personnel system of the federal government. Given the recursive nature of public management debate, there is considerable policy importance in trying to understand the original basis of decisions on legislation that have shaped the federal government over the last twenty-five years, and the CSRA has recently been the subject of renewed interest. More important, the CSRA was a rare and relatively important shift in the beliefs and attitudes—the administrative doctrine—that shape the evolution of the administrative state. Significantly, the debate during the CSRA saw the emergence of deep divisions within administrative doctrine, divisions that continue to shape public management policymaking.
Americans have planned for their downtowns within a continually changing framework of images and assumptions about the nature of central business districts. During each decade since World War II, discussion of downtown problems and possibilities has been dominated by a distinct set of assumptions that has conditioned academic research, federal policy, and local planning. From decade to decade, experts on downtowns have chosen different themes as central to the interpretation of downtown growth, change, and policy needs. As the understanding of the situation has changed, so have the preferred planning solutions and public interventions.
Most public problems can be approached in many ways. Urban noise, the honking of car horns, for example, could be tackled by building effective mass transit and discouraging automobile use, by forbidding the use of horns within city limits and fining violators, by encouraging harmonious social circumstances, or at least stress-reduction education programs, to make drivers less aggressive, by developing horns that target sound waves only at offending motorists, or by encouraging everyone to wear noise-reduction earphones. The problem of sexually transmitted diseases can be solved by encouraging chastity and fidelity as virtues, by strictly criminalizing transmission, or by prescribing antibiotics after the fact. Such varying approaches are qualitatively different. They do not just reflect distinct degrees of statutory intervention. States that adopt divergent solutions may, in a similar fashion, be fundamentally different from one another, not just stronger or weaker versions of an abstract ideal of public authority.
Environmental policy and politics in the United States have changed dramatically over the past three decades. What began in the late 1960s as an heroic effort by an incipient environmental movement to conserve dwindling natural resources and prevent further deterioration of the air, water, and land has been transformed over more than three decades into an extraordinarily complex, diverse, and often controversial array of environmental policies. Those policies occupy a continuing position of high visibility on the political agenda at all levels of government, and environmental values are widely embraced by the American public. Yet throughout the 1990s environmental policies and programs were characterized as much by sharp political conflict as by the consensus over policy goals and means that reigned during the early to mid-1970s. As the twenty-first century approaches, there is considerable value in looking back at this exceptional period to under-stand the nature of the transformation and its implications for the future.
What do we mean by the term “policy history”? In conventional usage, “history” refers to one of two kinds of investigation: the study of something that happened at some point in the past, or the study of how something came to be what it is. It is this second usage—the idea of policy history as an unfolding story of policy development—that I want to examine in this essay. Understanding the sources of policy often requires that we pay attention to processes that play out over considerable periods of time.
Henry David Thoreau's influential essay “Civil Disobedience,” published in 1849, began with a ringing declaration of opposition to government: “I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least’; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe—‘That government is best which governs not at all.’…the character of the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way.” Thoreau's statement summarizes a central thesis in political theory, what has become a historical constant in the minds of researchers seeking to explain the development and parameters of the American welfare state. This thesis is that any power given to the government is subtracted from the liberty of the governed, a concept best captured by the term “antistatism.” Thus, Lipset contends that the United States is dominated by an encompassing liberal culture that honors private property, distrusts state authority, and holds individual rights sacred. Similarly, according to Huntington, Americans live by a creed that views government as the most dangerous embodiment of power. For Morone, American government is a “polity suspicious of its own state.” Hartz, too, asserts that the master assumption is that “the power of the state must be limited.”
Twenty years ago, just as the study of policy was emerging out of the morass of political history, historians of women rediscovered the state. What I will name the policy turn challenged a kind of intellectual separate sphere in which women's history addressed home, family, and intimate life and left to other historians everything else. The policy turn shifted attention from Carroll Smith Rosenberg's “Female World of Love and Ritual” without losing the self-activity and focus on female difference that investigations of women on their own terms had supplied. It answered the “Politics and Culture” debate of 1980, which revolved around the efficacy of domesticity as an arena for power with a resounding move toward the public, political realm—namely, to social politics. The Reaganite assault on the New Deal order and accompanying New Right attack on women's rights intensified investigation into the origins and growth of a welfare state whose strength seemed precarious and whose history was up for grabs—a welfare state that blurred the separation of private and public and constructed, even as it reinforced, unequal social locations.
The U.S. government position on world population growth as it emerged in the early 1960s was a fundamental departure in both content and commitment. We embraced the idea that one of the goals of American foreign policy should be the simultaneous reduction of both mortality and fertility across the Third World. It was not simply rhetoric. As the years passed, we committed a growing portion of our foreign aid to that end. The decision to link U.S. foreign-policy objectives with the subsidy of family planning and population control was truly exceptional in that it explicitly aimed at altering the demographic structure of foreign countries through long-term intervention. No nation had ever set in motion a foreign-policy initiative of such magnitude. Its ultimate goal was no less than to alter the basic fertility behavior of the entire Third World! Whether one views this goal as idealistic and naive or as arrogant and self-serving, the project was truly of herculean proportions.
Historians of the United States have long contended that the study of governmental institutions, including the history of public policy, is no longer central to the teaching and writing of American history. Some lament this development; others hail it as a sign that other worthy topics are finally getting the attention they deserve. Yet is it true? The recent outpouring of scholarship on the relationship between the state and the market, or what an earlier generation would have called political economy, raises questions about this venerable conceit. Indeed, if one were to pick a single word to characterize the state of the field in the history of American political economy, it might well be “robust.”
Here we have a drug that is not like opium. Opium has all the good of Dr. Jekyll and all the evil of Mr. Hyde. This drug [marijuana] is entirely the monster Hyde, the harmful effect of which cannot be measured.
—Harry J. Anslinger, Hearings on the Marihuana Tax Act, U.S.
House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means, 1937
From contesting the power of large corporations to nurturing a stable industrial economy, regulatory policies have been created in pursuit of a wide variety of goals. Likewise, regulatory institutions have been designed to address host of administrative demands, to incorporate organized interests into the policy process, and to compensate for specific problems of implementation. One can analyze each expansion of regulatory authority as an independentevent. However, one can bring order to the history of regulation by identifying particular regimes that have emerged during critical periods in U.S. history. When used in international relations, a regime is commonly defined as “a set of principles, norms, rules, and procedures around which actors' expectations converge.” In this context, regimes are important because they “constrain and regularize the behavior of participants, affect which issues among protagonists move on and off agendas, determine which activities are legitimized or condemned, and influence whether, when, and how conflicts are resolved.” While retaining the emphasis on a value-based governance structure, we can define a regulatory regime as a linked set of policies and institutions that condition the relationship between societal interests, the state, economic actors in multiple sectors of the economy. A regime framework focuses attention on points of continuity in policy and institutional change. It facilitates the discovery of patterns in regulatory policies and institutions and provides a useful explanatory and organizational tool.
When construction began on the urban expressways of the new Interstate Highway System in the late 1950s, homes, businesses, schools, and churches began to fall before bulldozers and wrecking crews. Entire neighborhoods, as well as parks, historic districts, and environmentally sensitive areas, were slated for demolition to make way for new expressways. Highway builders leveled central city areas where few people had cars so that automobile owners from other places could drive to and through the city on the big, new roads. As one analyst of postwar America put it: “The desire of the car owner to take his car wherever he went no matter what the social cost drove the Interstate Highway System, with all the force and lethal effect of a dagger, into the heart of the American city.” In response, citizen activists in many cities challenged the routing decisions made by state and federal highway engineers. This Freeway Revolt found its first expression in San Francisco in the late 1950s, and eventually spread across urban America. By the late 1960s, freeway fighters began to win a few battles, as some urban expressways were postponed, cancelled, or shift ed to alternative route corridors.
In the social-scientific literature on the welfare state, scholars have long argued that the quality and extent of support available to workers outside the market—the citizen's wage—has a direct impact on their standard of living and an indirect effect on the bargaining position of labor within market relationships. In a parallel way, recent feminist scholarship on social policy has pointed out that how—if at all—the state steps in to assist women in their role as mothers when marital relationships break up or never form has a direct impact on the standard of living within motheronly families, and an indirect effect on women's bargaining position within two-parent families by (at least partially) setting the terms on which they will live should they want to exit relationships. Thus, just as analysts have argued that the level of the citizen's wage is revealing about the effect of policy on class inequality, a focus on what the state does for single mothers and their children is analytically strategic for assessing the relationship between policy and gender inequality. The situation of mother-only families reveals the inherent social and economic vulnerability of all women that exists due to their childrearing and domestic responsibilities and their low earnings, which is usually masked when women are in households with wage-earning men.
After more than two decades of “bringing the state back in,” law persists as a neglected stepchild in the history of American state-building. Legal historians have identified a profound transformation in jurisprudence that took place during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but they have said relatively little about how radically new conceptions of law influenced public policy during the 1930s.1 Conversely, historians of public policy have written extensively about American political development, the nature of bureaucratic autonomy, and the uses of economic knowledge in upholding the administrative state, but the role of law and jurisprudence in recasting state power has remained elusive.2 Moreover, as William J. Novak has observed, both groups of scholars remain hamstrung by the inherited wisdom of Progressive historiography, and they continue to subscribe to a familiar litany of cases from Lochner to Schechter that undergirds a grand narrative about law's sole function as an impediment to state-building. As a corrective, Novak has urged historians to consider more carefully the “massive amount of everyday lawmaking” and “structural sociolegal changes” rendered invisible by the court battles of the first third of the twentieth century. Although largely unacknowledged in public discussion and debate, such developments ultimately provided critical support for the consolidation and legitimation of the modern American state.3