Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Cohen and DeLong on Hamilton's Report on Manufactures

Hamilton's Reports, posthumous 1821 edition


Stephen Cohen* and Brad DeLong, in their highly readable book Concrete Economics: The Hamilton Approach to Economic Growth and Policy (if you haven't, go buy a copy now), argue that “Alexander Hamilton [was a] major economic theorist. His theory of economic development, first set out in his famous Report on Manufactures (1791), not only reshaped America’s economy but was channeled by Frederich List half a century later to play a central role in Germany’s rapid industrialization, and still later became a canonical text in Japan." Further they suggest that: “This Hamiltonian project was contrary to Ricardo’s canons of comparative advantage as well as Smith’s free markets. It was bold. The direction of economic activity was not commanded, but it was not left unguided either."

While I generally agree with the main points of the book (my major issues are with the notion that technical change was driven by scarcity of labor, and the need to economize labor along marginalist lines), I would qualify a bit the argument on the break with the Smithian/Ricardian classical political economy (or surplus) approach to economics.

Certainly Hamilton is not Ricardian in the sense that he suggests that the pattern of specialization should not follow comparative advantage (a notion not fully developed until Ricardo's own work a few years later, and simultaneously and independently by Robert Torrens). But note that for Ricardo Free Trade was part of a strategy of reducing the rent of landlords, which resulted from the use of lands of lower quality which were the consequence of the embargo first, and then the Corn Laws. In that sense, Ricardian Free Trade was a strategy of industrialization for England (as much as Hamilton's project was for industrialization in the US). It is also true that Hamilton was breaking with the laissez faire tradition of Smith and classical authors in general. But he was not precisely Mercantilist or Cameralist, in the sense that a reading of the Report clearly shows he understood that the wealth of nations derived from the division of labor, and not from the accumulation of bullion and trade surpluses.++

Hamilton believed, not unreasonably, that manufactures were more prone to the adoption of machinery, and indicates that manufacturing countries are more opulent than merely agricultural countries. In other words, he seemed to believe that what is produced matters, and that manufacturing would further the division of labor that was at the heart of the wealth of nations. That is why there is some importance in the Cohen and DeLong book emphasis on Hamiltonian trade management, and the willingness to use tariffs and bounties (subsidies). Note that the conventional view among economists increasingly tries to deny that this was central for Hamilton. For example, Douglas Irwin argues that: "Although the report is often associated with protectionist trade policies, Hamilton’s proposed tariffs were quite modest, particularly in light of later experience. This reflected his emphasis on using tariffs to generate fiscal revenue to fund the public debt; indeed, the country’s finances were his top priority, not discouraging imports for the sake of domestic manufacturers."

However, the Report itself seems pretty concerned with the differences between agricultural societies and manufacturing ones, arguing that: "nations merely agricultural would not enjoy the same degree of opulence, in proportion to their numbers, as those which united manufactures with agriculture." He cites England and the Cotton Mill developed there as something to be emulated, and that it can only be done with a certain degree of trade management (on free trade versus managed trade see this).

Hamilton is explicit on a strategy that we would call today as import substitution industrialization, and argues that: “The substitution of foreign for domestic manufactures is a transfer to foreign nations of the advantages accruing from the employment of machinery, in the modes in which it is capable of being employed, with most utility and to the greatest extent. The cotton mill invented in England, within the last twenty years, is a signal illustration of the general proposition, which has been just advanced.” Interestingly, he does not cite the use of steam engines, which was still not prevalent, but notes the use of the water wheel, and the extensive use of female and child labor (the latter as a positive development). In this regard, he seems more au courant than Adam Smith, with his pin factory, about what would later be termed the Industrial Revolution.

Moreover, Hamilton suggest that manufacturing and agriculture should be complementary, and argues that manufacturers would provide an outlet for the production of the agricultural sector. The Smithian notion of a vent for surplus, but a domestic one is utilized by him. He argues that: “It is evident, that the exertions of the husbandman will be steady or fluctuating, vigorous or feeble, in proportion to the steadiness or fluctuation, adequateness, or inadequateness of the markets on which he must depend, for the vent of the surplus, which may be produced by his labor; and that such surplus in the ordinary course of things will be greater or less in the same proportion. For the purpose of this vent, a domestic market is greatly to be preferred to a foreign one; because it is in the nature of things, far more to be relied upon.”

The relevance of the ideas related to managed trade seem to be again on the agenda with the rise of right wing populist governments, in particular here in the United States, and the skepticism about Free Trade and Globalization.

* Stephen Cohen was the co-author with John Zysman of a very influential book in the 1980s called Manufacturing matters: the myth of the post-industrial economy which is also still worth reading.

++ In the Report on a National Bank he explicitly says that: “it is immaterial what serves the purpose of money, whether paper or gold and silver; that the effect of both upon industry is the same; and that the intrinsic wealth of a nation is to be measured, not by the abundance of the precious metals, contained in it, but by the quantity of the productions of its labor and industry.”

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