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FW: REVIEW: _Southern Paternalism and the American Welfare State_

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  • A.J. Wright
    fyi...aj wright // ajwright@uab.edu ... From: ndn [mailto:ndn@ilt.columbia.edu] Sent: Tuesday, December 12, 2000 4:01 PM To: H-US1918-45@H-NET.MSU.EDU Subject:
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      -----Original Message-----
      From: ndn [mailto:ndn@...]
      Sent: Tuesday, December 12, 2000 4:01 PM
      To: H-US1918-45@...
      Subject: REVIEW: _Southern Paternalism and the American Welfare State_

      Lee J. Alston and Joseph P. Ferrie, _Southern Paternalism and the
      American Welfare State: Economics, Politics, and Institutions in the
      South 1865-1965_. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. xii +
      170 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-521-62210-7.

      Reviewed for EH.NET by Craig Heinicke, Department of Economics,
      Baldwin-Wallace College, Berea, Ohio. <cheinick@...>

      Why was political power in the American South summoned in defense
      of a "...complex system of reciprocal duties and obligations that
      had bound agricultural employers and their workers, the elaborate
      but often unspoken protocol of paternalism..." (p. 1)? What led that
      system to disappear, and why was the defense of paternalism
      abandoned almost overnight, after having persisted for close to a
      century following the U.S. Civil War? In this important book, Lee
      Alston and Joseph Ferrie not only address the complexity of southern
      paternalism, but also carry forward the task suggested by their
      title -- explaining how southern political interests affected the
      timing and expansion of the "welfare state" legislative program in
      the U.S.

      The authors argue that paternalism, also familiar as the
      "patron-client" relationship, reduced transactions costs in
      labor-intensive southern agriculture. Paternalism is said to be
      characterized by an implicit contract wherein landowners provided a
      multitude of benefits to workers. Workers responded by supplying
      "good and faithful labor," including a long-term commitment to the
      landowner. Cheaper to landlords than the available alternatives,
      paternalism thus helped to sustain the agricultural economy of the
      South for nearly a century after the disappearance of slavery in the
      U.S. By contrast, "welfare state" programs would have substituted
      for the landlord-as-benefactor and eroded such traditional

      The book's first two chapters examine the inner workings of
      paternalism, as well as its subtle contradictions in this setting.
      Among other matters the authors consider the provision of medical
      care, protection from racial violence directed at African-Americans,
      and agreements to "stand good" for certain tenants in the face of
      creditors, as devices to ensure self-monitoring by workers. That
      southern elites took great pains to preserve the system is
      demonstrated by the political power invoked to defeat or co-opt
      welfare state legislation such as the Social Security Act (chapter
      three) or the Farm Security Administration (chapter four) that would
      weaken the social ties of the traditional system. On the other hand,
      politicians supported the federal Bracero program that had few
      direct benefits to southern elites but which served to deter
      outmigration to western cotton regions (chapter five).

      The sudden disappearance of this system is examined in chapter six.
      Here Alston and Ferrie argue that "plowing up" paternalism resulted
      when machines invaded agriculture and reduced the costs of
      monitoring and turnover and thus the need for paternalism from the
      landowner's perspective. The unemployment associated with declining
      demand for labor also replaced the "efficiency wage" feature of
      paternalism with one more akin to that of an industrial setting. At
      this stage of political history, southern senators and congressmen
      still held key positions in committees where the legislative agenda
      was set. Despite their continued political power, they began to
      withdraw their opposition to welfare state legislation, as the
      economic imperative of paternalism declined. Once cotton agriculture
      was mechanized, southern politicians began to favor the types of
      programs they had earlier resisted, programs that accentuated
      outmigration. Workers who had benefited from paternalism despite
      their distaste for many aspects of the system (deference by blacks
      to white landlords, for instance), also no longer found a reason to
      buy into the system.

      To make its arguments, the book uses mainly documentary and
      "circumstantial" evidence, and, less often, quantitative data.
      Alternative explanations are considered throughout. Racism and
      ideology, for example, may explain some part of the absence of
      federal welfare expenditures funneled through southern states in the
      1930s. Still, the effort to exclude agricultural workers from the
      Old-Age Insurance and Unemployment Insurance portions of the Social
      Security Act, for instance, requires more than racism to explain it.
      Alternative explanations also make it difficult to understand the
      expansion of federal welfare programs in the 1950s and 1960s and the
      absence of southern resistance to that expansion (pp. 58-59). The
      authors show the inadequacy of such alternative explanations, and
      consistently demonstrate the explanatory power of institutions and

      Among the unresolved questions raised by the book, is the degree to
      which paternalism was a self-conscious attempt to elicit work effort
      and long-term commitment, and the extent to which it was mainly the
      result of custom, its manifestation seen by landlords as their
      "duty." At one point Alston and Ferrie argue that the more landlords
      appeared as beneficent, the more likely they were to receive loyalty
      and hard work in return (p. 24). Yet one wonders how effectively
      landlords could manipulate the system. Perhaps it does not matter.
      Even if workers did not view landowners as charitable, they may have
      responded to seemingly well-intentioned acts with increased work
      effort, sensing that doing otherwise meant risking valuable
      necessities that could not be purchased readily in the market. On
      the other hand, the legitimacy of the system was at stake and any
      sense that magnanimity was false could undermine, even if it would
      not destroy, the foundations of the social system. This tension
      remains unresolved in the book. Since motives are not observed but
      outcomes are, this is perhaps the best that can be achieved.

      An unresolved question of a quite different nature involves the
      effect of mechanization on monitoring costs. How great were the
      reductions in monitoring and turnover costs wrought by the tractor
      and the mechanical cotton picker? If the cost reductions were large
      enough that they led to the disappearance of paternalism, why was
      great energy not devoted to reducing these costs? Perhaps it was.
      After all, after World War II both public and private agents devoted
      substantial resources to reducing the labor content in cotton
      cultivation and to mechanizing the harvest in the South. Alston and
      Ferrie's work suggests the question of how large transactions costs
      were relative to the cost of the pure labor input. The assumption of
      exogenous technology means this issue never receives full attention.
      Some assessment of the matter and measurement of the transactions
      costs savings -- admittedly a difficult undertaking -- might bolster
      their paternalism hypothesis. Yet despite these unresolved
      questions, the authors' clear presentation and careful consideration
      of the evidence produce a convincing argument in the end.

      The range of the historical evidence used by Alston and Ferrie, and
      the inevitable paradoxes that emerge, suggest that interpretations
      of such evidence will vary. My guess is that economists will be more
      sympathetic to the authors' interpretation than others, but
      traditional historians will also find much of merit here, as well
      as, perhaps, some points of contention. My own view is that if
      disagreements emerge, this would constitute a strength rather than a
      weakness of the book: we need a fuller debate over these issues,
      particularly given the relative silence among economic historians on
      the abrupt disappearance of the plantation system compared with the
      attention focused on earlier periods in southern history. Alston and
      Ferrie's book not only directs our attention to this relatively
      neglected period, but also applies what has become the "new
      institutional economics" to questions well suited to that framework.
      The compelling clarity of their central argument means that we will
      learn all the more from dissertation topics and other research
      projects that will most certainly follow their lead.

      The main argument of the book is skillfully presented and
      convincing. The approach, which reaches beyond economics and history
      and into the disciplines of political science and sociology, remains
      fresh and innovative, despite the book's "long gestation" (p. xi)
      period. The book performs several valuable services for the economic
      historian. First of all, it informs us on an important case study in
      which informal but powerful institutions are interwoven with those
      of formal political power. While acknowledging ambiguities, the
      authors are able to sustain their main line of argument. The authors
      also move us decisively forward on the matter of "the demise of
      plantation paternalism, a socioeconomic system that had endured the
      better part of a century" (p. 98). We know that labor-intensive
      agriculture vanished in the South, but we have here an explanation
      for why the entire set of informal institutions vanished with it,
      and vanished so extraordinarily quickly. Finally, as contemporary
      electorates and leaders sift through and debate the merits of the
      welfare state and its role in "mixed" economic systems, we benefit
      from the insights of Alston and Ferrie. We are shown a case where
      political power imbalances and a set of legislative rules combined
      at one time to thwart, and then later to promote a wide ranging
      legislative program -- a program whose effects have been widespread
      and long lasting, but the permanence of which is anything but

      Craig Heinicke, Associate Professor of Economics at Baldwin-Wallace
      College, is engaged in on-going research on the mechanization of
      cotton agriculture in the U.S. South, labor markets and
      African-American migration during and after World War II. For a
      recent example, see "Southern Tenancy, Machines and Production Scale
      on the Eve of the Cotton Picker's Arrival," (1999), _Social Science
      History_, 23, 3 (Fall).

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