Friday, March 14, 2014

Transnational Legal Histories


For readers of this blog, the notion of placing a country’s legal history into a broader transnational perspective is, of course, not new.   After all, LHB founder Mary Dudziak has been a leading pioneer in the internationalization of American history.  And there are certainly many subfields of American legal history that have regularly viewed the United States as “a nation among nations,” to use Thomas Bender’s apt phrase.  The history of immigration law and colonial legal histories, not to mention the new literature in the history of  human rights, obviously take a more cosmopolitan view of the past.  Transnational histories of the fiscal state, however, appear to have lagged behind this growing trend.  Why?

Part of the reason may be that, like most primary-based global histories, transnational studies of fiscal policy require multiple language skills and entail potentially expensive travel costs to far away archives.  Trying to understand arcane tax and spending terms in a non-native land is often like trying to master two different foreign languages.  Another reason may be that scholars traditionally interested in tracing the historical roots of fiscal policy have been preoccupied with how “military-fiscal” powers have come to define modern nation-states.  Building on Joseph Schumpeter’s famous dictum about the importance of studying a nation’s fiscal history, historical social scientists like Charles Tilly and others have explained how long-term global competition for resources has come to define the parameters of what we often consider to be the modern nation-state.  Although such comparative studies of political economy, along with a robust social science literature on the Varieties of Capitalism, have not ignored international forces and pressures, they frequently tend to take the nation-state for granted as a fixed and natural category.

There have been some recent works in fiscal history that appear to be catching up with the scholarly trends.  I had the honor and privilege of participating in a conference a few years ago organized by Elliot Brownlee and several colleagues in Japan that began a fascinating conversation about Trans-Pacific fiscal history.  Elliot serendipitously discovered in Japan the personal papers of Carl Shoup, a pivotal U.S. twentieth-century public finance economist, who was a key figure in exporting American ideas about tax reform to Japan and many other parts of the world.  The conference focused on the Shoup papers and led to a recently published edited volume on The Political Economy of Transnational Tax Reform.  Elliot is at work on other projects that I believe will be pushing fiscal history even further in a cosmopolitan direction.

Still, there’s plenty of work to be done in fiscal history and elsewhere in de-centering the nation-state in our reinterpretations of the past.  Let me give a quick shout out to two of my friends and colleagues here at Indiana University, Bloomington who I think are doing outstanding work in this area.  Nick Cullather’s recent book, The Hungry World, is a gripping account of twentieth-century U.S. development policy toward the global south.  Nick not only places U.S. aid policy in a broad, international setting, he also showcases the many agents – beyond state actors – who have shaped such policy.   Likewise, my law school colleague Tim Lovelace has embarked on a fascinating book project exploring the relationship between the U.S. civil rights movement and the post-1945 development of international human rights law.  Tim has an article forthcoming in the Law & History Review that will give readers a glimpse of his long-term project.

We are probably still decades away from having the type of global histories that Thomas Bender has ambitiously envisioned in his book – ones that deeply integrate history and geography.  But the increasing interest in this area suggest that legal and political historians have clearly taken the transnational turn on their way to a richer and more sophisticated understanding of our past.

In my next set of posts, I hope to change registers a bit and take on some teaching topics.

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