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Coordination in Transition: The Netherlands and the World Economy, 1950-2010

Author(s):Touwen, Jeroen
Reviewer(s):van den Berg, Annette

Published by EH.Net (August 2015)

Jeroen Touwen, Coordination in Transition: The Netherlands and the World Economy, 1950-2010. Leiden: Brill, 2014. xiv + 385 pp. $154 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-90-04-27255-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Annette van den Berg, School of Economics, Utrecht University.

One of the great debates of the late twentieth century has been around the well-known study Varieties of Capitalism: The Institutional Foundations of Comparative Advantage (VoC) by Peter Hall and David Soskice, in which developed countries are characterized as either a Liberal Market Economy (LME) or a Coordinated Market Economy (CME), based on five interrelated criteria (spheres). Many scholars have applied the VoC approach since then — including economic historians — trying to reconcile the rather static nature of the approach with a historical, more dynamic analysis. Jeroen Touwen (lecturer in Economic and Social History at Leiden University, and the scientific director of the N.W. Posthumus Institute) adds to this line of research, by applying VoC to the case of the Netherlands after World War II in a careful, critical manner. This has resulted in an impressive and voluminous book of which the principal title, Coordination in Transition, neatly captures the key theme: How did a typical CME react to the structural changes as a result of ongoing globalization (influenced by trade liberalization and technological developments, foremost in information and communications technology), causing a shift to a market-based and knowledge-based economy? One of the new contributions of this book is that it also analyzes recent economic history of the Netherlands, in contrast with most other Dutch studies that only treat the twentieth century.

The Netherlands makes for an interesting case because it is seen as a successful and hybrid CME, with a liberal tradition in business relations as in Anglo-American countries; a strong welfare state like in Scandinavia; and a high degree of coordination similar to Germany. Also readers with no particular interest in the Dutch case (or those who think they already know the country, for that matter) will find this book worthwhile to read, as each chapter sets out with a broader treatment of theoretical considerations before analyzing the Netherlands, each time accompanied by a comparison with several other western OECD countries; and as the author makes relevant statements about (developments of) LMEs and CMEs in general. In so doing, he uses theoretical concepts from several socio-political fields of science, and of many statistical sources, thereby providing the reader with ample information and guidance for further research. The large number of interesting footnotes and references underline the thoroughness and dedication with which the book was written.

In my view, Chapter 2 is the most innovative part of the book because here the author comes up with a novel view on how the original, static VoC framework can accommodate for changes through time by adding a temporal dimension and by focusing on the central concept of non-market coordination, which not only encompasses state-induced regulation, but all kinds of information exchange and negotiation between different stakeholders operating at various levels in the economy. He argues that CMEs, despite all having become more liberal in reaction to structural change, remained characterized by a high degree of deliberative institutions (although often in an adjusted form). Hence, whereas Hall and Soskice theorized that due to institutional complementarities, deregulation of financial markets could “snowball into changes in other spheres as well,” possibly causing a break-up of CMEs, Touwen contends that the overall convergence to the LME did not take place, for which he provides plentiful evidence in the subsequent four chapters.

The limited space in this review does not allow me to elaborate on these chapters in depth. In a nutshell, in all of them Dutch postwar economic history is analyzed by focusing, in succession, on the business system, labor relations, the welfare state and economic policy. As these concern strongly overlapping topics an inevitable disadvantage thereof is that the same themes are addressed several times (be it from different perspectives), which is somewhat tiresome if one would read the whole book in one go. On the other hand, each chapter comes up with additional information and interesting details, thereby delivering further building blocks for the main message of the book: when faced by shocks and external threats, almost in all time periods (except during the polarized 1970s) the Dutch responded gradually but nevertheless adequately via an intricate system of coordination in all five distinguished spheres of the economy (in industrial relations, information sharing with employees, corporate governance, inter-firm networks, and vocational training). Although a deliberate choice of the author, it is a missed opportunity not to elaborate on this last-mentioned sphere, for reasons not explicitly mentioned.  Here and there he just touches upon this important topic, while a bit more comprehensive discussion thereof would have made the application of VoC to the Dutch case complete.

The book clearly describes how non-market coordination in the Netherlands originated in the interwar years and how it developed thereafter. At first this occurred in great harmony under guidance of the state (demand-side, Keynesian policy) in order to restore international competitiveness, culminating in the so-called Golden Years (1950s-1960s). There was close collaboration between government, employer associations and unions at all levels. During the stagflation period of the 1970s unemployment rose, labor relations hardened and the government failed to cut spending. Finally, forced by the structural changes in the world economy, by 1982 the sense of urgency was strong enough for all parties to switch to a more liberal, supply-side economic policy. Wage restraints were accepted in return for the creation of jobs, which were often part-time and temporary. The labor market thus became more flexible. Although this whole process coincided with a drastic reform of the welfare state, it was also accompanied by an active labor market policy, preventing segregation of the labor market as well as a rise in income inequality. So, “more market” went hand in hand with sustained coordination. Addressing the most recent time period, the financial crisis of 2007-10 clearly demonstrates the negative consequences of introducing too much free market, and underscores the continued need for coordination and government regulation. Touwen describes the success of the Dutch CME in terms of “managed liberalization under the wing of consultation.” The ability of non-market coordination to accommodate change forms the connecting thread.

Annette van den Berg (lecturer at Utrecht University School of Economics) is the author (together with Erik Nijhof) of “Variations of Coordination: Labour Relations in the Netherlands” in: K. Sluyterman (ed.), Varieties of Capitalism and Business History. The Dutch Case (Routledge, 2015) and (together with John Groenewegen and Antoon Spithoven) of Institutional Economics. An Introduction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). Her email address is j.e.vandenberg@uu.nl.

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Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII