Saturday, March 8, 2014

A Socio-Legal History of the Fiscal State


As I mentioned in the conclusion of my last post, I thought I would share with LHB readers how I came to write a socio-legal history of the modern fiscal state.

Like many first books by academics, Making the Modern American Fiscal State began as a dissertation.  After graduating from law school and working for a couple of years in the field of taxation and structured finance, I entered graduate school to study American intellectual and legal history.  I had intended to write a thesis exploring the economic ideas undergirding modern American law and political economy, a sort of cross between the work of Ed Purcell and Martin Sklar.

In fact, Purcell’s Crisis of Democratic Theory was an inspirational book for me.  It was an assigned text in college (in a survey course with David Hollinger), in law school (in a Jurisprudence class with Gary Peller), and in graduate school (in a seminar with Amy Stanley).  But while I came to grad school with a particular set of interests, a funny thing happened along the way.


I was fortunate to work with an outstanding group of legal and intellectual historians in Bill Novak and Amy Stanley, as well as several historically-minded social scientists.  But it was during classes and discussions with Kathleen Conzen that I first began thinking about how social history informed my interests in American law and political economy.  It was Professor Conzen who reminded me that broad conceptual and structural changes were part and parcel of modern, everyday social life, and that Sklar’s epic book was, in the end, a social history of the capitalist class.  I was not the only grad student to benefit from Professor Conzen’s wise guidance (I hope LHB readers will share their own experiences with how mentors have shaped their work).

The advice to meld social history into my dissertation was incredibly timely.  During my grad school years, scholars were still responding to the clarion call issued by Theda Skopcol and others “to bring the state back in,” though, of course, there were many active political and legal historians who wondered whether the state had ever left.  Still, for many historically-inclined social scientists, a revival of political history meant expanding the categories of analysis beyond formal parchment institutions and elite leaders to include everyday politics and subordinated groups.  A new political/policy history was quickly taking shape, and it had a major impact on my thinking.

This was also a time when the subfield now referred to as the history of American capitalism was also beginning to blossom.  And this too was an area that was moving beyond the conventional study of business firms and elite leaders to explore how economic structures were historically embedded in broader social and political contexts.  My dissertation and then book manuscript benefited enormously from the vibrant scholarship that emerged from these two rising subfields, especially in the way that many scholars working at the intersection of these two areas were incorporating the lessons of social history.

In this sense, I like to think of my book as a socio-legal history of the fiscal state.  Not only have I tried to incorporate the work of other socio-political historians like Robin Einhorn (another Conzen student) on the enduring legacy of slavery in American tax politics, and the work of Rebecca Edwards on gender and late nineteenth-century tariff reform.  I have also tried to provide an analysis of the pivotal role played by populist social movements and mezzo-level legal professionals – lawmakers, jurists, and government lawyers – in the making of the modern American fiscal state.  Whether I’ve succeeded or not, I leave up to readers.

In my next post, I plan to discuss another recent trend in historical scholarship that has informed my work, and that I see as fertile ground for further research: global or transnational legal history.

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