Langlois’s Entrepreneurs Allowed the Masses to Flourish in Spite of Chandler’s Corporatism

(p. D7)Students of business have long argued about why managerial capitalism arose and what led to its demise. At the heart of this debate is an age-old conundrum: What should the boundaries of a corporation be? What goods and services should it produce and which should it buy from others? Executives stake careers on such questions, but economists, historians and social critics have tried to answer them as well.

It is in such a context that Richard Langlois offers “The Corporation and the Twentieth Century,” a monumental history of American business during the eventful decades when managers ruled. Among much else, he makes the argument that firms embraced managerial capitalism in response to the century’s cataclysmic events and the heavy-handed government intercessions they prompted. When the crises and related policies finally fell away, we saw the resurgence of the focused, entrepreneurial enterprise that predominates today.

Mr. Langlois, an economics professor at the University of Connecticut, pushes back in particular against the explanation laid out by Alfred Chandler, the father of American business history, in his great work, “The Visible Hand” (1977).

. . .

Once established, managerial capitalism took on a life of its own. “The hierarchy itself,” Chandler wrote, “became a source of permanence, power, and continued growth.”

But Mr. Langlois tells a different story, contending that managerial capitalism didn’t truly flourish until later. He notes that, despite a wave of mergers, most large firms in the early 20th century were still controlled by their owners, thanks to the extensive shareholdings of financiers such as John D. Rockefeller or investment banks such as J.P. Morgan—owners not especially known as silent partners. The real heyday of the managers was yet to come.

Enter the reform-minded Progressive movement, which aimed to curtail the excesses of just such tycoons. Easily distinguished from today’s progressives by their capital letter and lack of stated pronouns, the Progressives held that scientific techniques had solved the problems of industrial management and would do likewise for those of government administration, which was to be entrusted to “experts.”

These Progressives brought with them a hubristic “managerial model of the world” that called forth a managerial form of capitalism, one designed to clasp the meddlesome hand of government. The ensuing era of federal regulation offered big business relief from haphazard and potentially more radical state regulation, but it also shifted power over firms toward Washington and the federal judiciary.

The ground was thus laid for managerial capitalism to be turbocharged by “the great catastrophes” of World War I, the Depression and World War II.

. . .

(p. D8) Mr. Langlois recognizes that the deregulating spirit of the 1970s was part of a change in the Zeitgeist. He describes, for example, how the Bay Area’s hippie ethos intersected with the rise of the personal computer. The resulting digital revolution upended corporate hierarchies and changed much of America’s output from the physical to the intangible. Ascendant tech firms ushered in a new entrepreneurial paradigm. The center of business gravity shifted from Manhattan boardrooms and Midwestern factories to the freewheeling West Coast.

Vietnam and inflation, meanwhile, sapped faith in government as well as in the dollar, and a series of countries (lately China) would soon replace the U.S. as the world’s factory. The unbundling of corporations was accelerated by low-cost overseas manufacturing and by the new “barbarians at the gate” from Wall Street.

. . .

The questions at the heart of “The Corporation and the Twentieth Century” . . . serve as the engine of a remarkable alternative history of what Henry Luce famously called the American Century. It’s a work propelled by vast learning, a focus on business and a consistent point of view in favor of free markets.

For the full review see:

Daniel Akst. “BOOKSHELF; The Rise and Fall of Managers.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, July 1, 2023): C7-C8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 30, 2023, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘The Corporation and the Twentieth Century’ Review: The Rise and Fall of Managers.”)

The book under review is:

Langlois, Richard N. The Corporation and the Twentieth Century: The History of American Business Enterprise. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2023.

See also:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. “Review of Richard N. Langlois, the Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism: Schumpeter, Chandler and the New Economy.” EH.Net Economic History Services (2009).

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