Sunday, October 5, 2008

Liberal Developmentalism

I've become very interested in the role of American ideology in our foreign policy. It is interesting to go back and look at what ideas were animating Americans in the past and though it's not a surprise since those ideas are still current in some form they don't necessarily conform to the narratives propagated by conservatives and progressives. Last week I finished reading Robert Kagan's Dangerous Nation which was excellent and looked at the role of ideology in foreign policy from the colonial days up to the Spanish-American War. Now I'm reading Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 1890-1945 by Emily Rosenberg:

The American Dream of high technology and mass consumption was both promoted and accompanied by an ideology that I shall call liberal-developmentalism...Liberal-developmentalism merged nineteenth-century tenets with the historical experience of America's own development, elevating the beliefs and experiences of America's unique historical time and circumstance into developmental laws thought to be applicable everywhere.

The ideology of liberal-developmentalism can be broken down into five major features: (1) belief that other nations could and should replicate America's own developmental experience; (2) faith in private free enterprise; (3) support for free or open access for trade and investment; (4) promotion of free flow of information and culture; and (5) growing acceptance of governmental activity to protect private enterprise and to stimulate and regulate American participation in international economic and cultural exchange.

To many Americans, their country's economic and social history became a universal model. In order to become a modern society, a nation needed extensive capital investment generated by foreign borrowing and by exports; development of educational, transportation, communication, and banking institutions; a steady supply of cheap labor; maximization of individual initiative for people deemed most efficient; wide-open land use and freewheeling enviromental practices; and a robust private business sector solidly linked to capital-intensive, labor-saving technology. This blueprint, drawn from America's experience, became the creed of most Americans who dealt with foreign nations.
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Central to the developmental process were tenets drawn from nineteenth-century liberalism...

Encouraging individual initiative through private enterprise was an important canon of nineteenth-century liberalism. Liberalism, of course, grew up in opposition to artificial, statist monopoly or government-conferred privilege. Freedom, in the American tradition, meant absence of the autocratic state and the full play of competing individual initiatives through private ownership. Private enterprise was free because it was not shackled by an overbearing governmental structure. And celebrants of the American system generally credited private business, above all, with producing rapid industrial development and increasing abundance. To be sure, nineteenth-century government, particularly states and localities, did not remain aloof from the process of economic growth. But government intervened in the economy primarily in order to release the energies of the private sector. Government kept the pump of American business in working order, but it did not raise and lower the handle.

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