Path Dependency and the Republican Party

Let’s apply path dependency to the plight of the national Republican Party and see where it takes us:

Writing in Fortune in the run-up to the 1962 congressional elections, Max Ways asked, “Is Republicanism a Losing Cause?” Arguing at the height of JFK’s popularity that there was nothing wrong with the party’s two main convictions, namely that individual liberty is best served by a strong, yet limited, federal government, and that “market capitalism is a beneficent force in the world,” Ways insisted that Republicans would never “reinvigorate their party so long as they let the Democrats set the terms of battle.”

After a drubbing in the 1964 election, the party was able to set the terms of battle as America’s cities burned and the war in Vietnam headlined the evening news. In Ronald Reagan, the party’s reinvigoration was complete. His ability to communicate the party’s convictions and win elections suggested that Republican dominance of the White House might be sustained. It wasn’t. But even in the aftermath of defeat, in 1992, the party could take solace in Bill Clinton’s declaration that the era of Big Government was over. Perhaps the party had truly won the battle of ideas.

But now the Republican Party has come full circle, and is again in crisis, having suffered defeat in the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. As was the case in 1962, there is no end to prescriptions for saving the GOP. To the accumulating heap of advice, I add this to the pile: Consider path dependency before formulating policy, conducting politics, and making appeals to voters.

California’s Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger famously promised to “blow up” the boxes of a bloated government in Sacramento—and then not much happened. At the national level, Republicans have been promising to repeal, dissolve, and defund laws, agencies, and programs since the 1930s, with little overall success, notwithstanding the odd victory here and there. The yearning to begin anew may be alluring, but there ain’t no going back.

In rhetoric, Republican Party leaders still call for ratcheting back Leviathan, at least on the economic front. Yet, just as Governor Schwarzenegger did, they falter when it comes to actually blowing up the boxes of government. Republicans make poor revolutionaries. At the same time, they seem to have eschewed democratic politics as a means to their ends. Perhaps, in their view, playing politics would constitute an exercise in making “socialism” more efficient, in which they allegedly hold no interest. But by failing to reconcile ideas and ideals with path dependent history, the party is becoming ever more out of touch.

Gaining an appreciation for path dependency may help the party connect with voters: a prerequisite to articulating effectively a vision of a political economy based on individual liberty, limited government, and market capitalism. After all, if no one is listening, it doesn’t really matter what you might be saying.

Another problem: It’s rather difficult to figure out what the Republican Party stands for these days. Since the 1980s, its calls for racheting back Big Government have been long on promising a return to some ideal state and short on mapping a pragmatic path toward reining in the actually existing state. Interestingly, the rhetoric heats up when the party is out of power, casting doubt on the sincerity of those spouting it. When they have occupied the Oval Office, Republicans have had no less a penchant increasing the size and scope of government than the Democrats they accuse of being enthusiasts for socialism. The Bush administration used the crisis of 9/11 to increase government surveillance of private citizens and expand Washington’s interventions overseas. The crisis of the Great Recession served as occasion to bail out Wall Street. Indeed, in economic terms, Republicanism has come full circle, not from the free soil, free labor, and free men days of Lincoln, but from the Gilded Age. Where the rubber hits the road, that is, in terms of implementation, there is little evidence that the Republican Party holds individual liberty, limited government, and market capitalism as core convictions. But let’s stipulate, for the sake of this post, that Republicanism at its core remains grounded in the two main convictions identified by Mr. Ways.

So how might a consideration of path dependency help to right the listing Republican ship?

In a previous post, I applauded Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson for their effective deployment of path dependency in Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and PovertyThey showed that “critical junctures” that disrupt the existing political and economic balance in society launch nations down their respective dependent paths. And once embarked on a dependent path, the weight of history makes it extremely difficult for a nation to change course.

In America, as Robert Higgs has shown, two world wars, with a great depression sandwiched in between, constituted the critical junctures—or critical episodes, as he calls them—that resulted in an immense expansion in the scale and scope of the U.S. government. With the passage of time, the American people have accepted most aspects of Leviathan—especially when it comes to social insurance—as the norm. In Higg’s view, there is no going back because the federal government’s responses to successive crises engendered a sea shift in ideology among the people. Writing in 1987, Higgs doubted that the Reagan Revolution would live up to its billing. And he was spot on.

For an intraparty conversation on the appropriate scale and scope of government to be productive and persuasive, it ought to begin with coming to terms with the state as it “really is” and reflecting on how it came to be (including the many contributions of all postwar Republican administrations to expanding said state).

Take Social Security. Opposed on the Right, it was passed in a form that didn’t please the Left. But over the years, Social Security expanded in scope and size under Democratic and Republican administrations alike. It’s now been around for more than 75 years. Talk of entitlement reform as Baby Boomers age, at least in terms of assessing, funding, and perhaps adjusting future liabilities? Absolutely. But apocalyptic talk of Social Security’s impending bankruptcy as prelude to overhauling this mainstay of middle-class entitlements surely has lost more votes than it has gained. And to what end? Leaving aside the question of individual liberty, replacing mandated contributions to a government plan with mandated contributions to private ones introduces risk for which future retirees seemingly have no appetite. Path dependency does not mean that all doors to reform are shut for all time. But Republicans have little hope of blowing up this box.

So, what to do? First, acquire a deep appreciation for the path dependencies embedded in America’s laws, regulations, policies, and political institutions. Use the exercise to identify potentially winning issues that align with core convictions, as stipulated. Then embrace the democratic process as a platform from which to win hearts and minds and accomplish realistic goals.

Critical Junctures and Path Dependency in “Why Nations Fail”: Implications for U.S. Foreign Aid Policy

Greeted with wide acclaim, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Povertyshould put to bed all debate on using foreign aid to promote economic development on a national level.

Authors Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson effectively deploy path dependency to explain the trajectories of the political institutions that form the core of their argument: Nations with “inclusive” political institutions succeed economically whereas those saddled with extractive” political institutions fail. Citing cases from myriad times and places, the authors demonstrate the relationship between political institutions and economic development. The authors tether their argument to Schumpeter’s idea of creative destruction in the marketplace: No creative destruction, no long-term development. Nations encumbered by extractive political institutions typically privilege monopoly. And so, over time, their economies atrophy.

So far, so good. In deploying path dependency to explain why institutions, once in place, tend to persist, authors add a solid piece of research to a literature that includes persuasive and important studies from Paul Krugman and Robert Higgs (and show that path dependency is an ideologically independent analytical tool). Notwithstanding their clear, concise, and compelling prose, however, the authors do less well in explaining the origins of divergent dependent paths. This is disappointing, because knowing and understanding the point of origin is crucial to understanding the dependent path. Because points of origin are often associated with cataclysmic events, however, one thing is clear: Development economics has no chance of establishing a new point of origin for nations encumbered by extractive political institutions.

Acemoglu and Robinson call their points of origin “critical junctures.” As they explain, critical junctures “are major events that disrupt the existing political and economic balance in one or many societies.” Critical junctures launch nations down their respective dependent paths. Because of small differences in initial conditions, the same critical juncture can send nations in radically different directions. But a lot is murky here in terms of understanding the historical foundation of a particular critical juncture. In many cases, I found myself accepting the facts that the authors present as the starting point and then going along for the narrative ride. Origins happen, and until another critical juncture occurs, a nation is pretty much locked in an institutional straightjacket.

What the authors do show is that we really have very little control over the initial conditions that propel nations down a particular path. And if paths are truly as dependent as the authors insist, it is extremely difficult—especially for outsiders—to get a nation to change course, that is, reform its political institutions. Whatever else they accomplish in elaborating the findings of their research, Acemoglu and Robinson bolster the argument, made by economists from P. T. Bauer to William Easterly, that foreign aid generally does nothing, and really can do nothing, to promote economic development.

Here’s my short list of the most important critical junctures in the book:

  • The Black Death
  • The French Revolution
  • The Glorious Revolution—a relatively peaceful resolution to decades of bloody civil war

If pestilence, famine, and war are requisites for institutional change, what chance do USAID, the World Bank, and the various UN agencies have to affect reform, armed only with dollars and expertise?

Less apocalyptic critical junctures described by Acemoglu and Robinson give no cause for cheer among aid advocates, either:

  • Of more than 50 African nations, only Botswana enjoys inclusive political institutions, and only because its leaders acted on their own initiative and in the face of conventional wisdom to break the institutional chains that have shackled all of the other nations on the continent.
  • Notwithstanding the arguments of the authors, the weight of the evidence suggests that America enjoys inclusive political institutions and Latin America does not above all because of climate, geology, geography topography, and differences in the demography of indigenous populations. (Score a point here for Jared Diamond.) English and Spanish colonists set out from Europe with similar intentions. In contrast to their Spanish counterparts, English colonists unhappily found no gold or silver, and in any case, encountered no large concentrations of peoples to enslave. The indentured servants that they imported in their stead proved to be a poor substitute. Paths diverged.

There is little in these stories to guide contemporary aid missionaries.

Why Nations Fail provides no justification for Washington maintaining its foreign aid apparatus. The general reader might close the book relieved to know that China, America’s greatest adversary in the international political economy, will inevitably falter because of its extractive political institutions. Policymakers and practitioners operating in the aid arena have no similar cause for relief. The authors leave some wiggle room in their conclusion, but in my reading, Why Nations Fail closes the door on using aid to foreign governments to foster economic development.

My New Book

Don’t think I’ve mentioned my book on the history of Pasadena-based Charles Pankow Builders, a “design-builder” of many commercial buildings, mostly in LA, SF, and Honolulu, including the MTA tower at Union Station; it is forthcoming from Purdue University Press in January. It combines a study of entrepreneurship and best practices in construction. Check out its page in the Purdue UP catalog.

It’s gotten some good advance praise by industry leaders, as you can see from its Amazon page.

Of closer interest, perhaps, to this group, I also have an essay (Chapter 4: see TOC) on Columbia “money doctor” Carl Shoup’s financial missions to Cuba (in the 1930s) in “The Political Economy of  Transnational Tax Reform: The Shoup Mission to Japan in Historical Context,” forthcoming in March 2013 from Cambridge UP.

I’ve now cracked open Why Nations Fail. . . . Will get back to you as I make progress.