Published by EH.NET (May 2003)

Randall G. Holcombe, From Liberty to Democracy: The Transformation of American Government. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002. xv + 336 pp. $52 (cloth), ISBN: 0-472-11290-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by John Dinan, Department of Political Science, Wake Forest University.

Randall G. Holcombe is concerned in From Liberty to Democracy: The Transformation of American Government with “describing the changes in American government during its first two centuries,” and demonstrating that “the great transformation occurred at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century,” when “the overriding principle behind American government was transformed from the protection of individual rights to the principle of democracy” (p. xiii).

Holcombe, the DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, argues that the founders “intended to create a government that would protect the rights of its citizens, ensure their freedom, and do little else” (p.1). As a result: “The role of democratic decision making was severely limited both by insulating the new government from direct voting and by constitutionally limiting the scope of the government” (p. 97). It is true, he notes, that the drafters of “the Constitution created a government more powerful and less constrained than the one that existed under the Articles [of Confederation],” and thereby “created an environment within which the U.S. government had a greater ability to grow than would have been the case under the Articles” (p. 78). Nevertheless, the founders were committed, in the main, to the proposition that “the role of a constitution was to guarantee the rights of individuals and to limit the powers of government” (p. 59).

Although the nineteenth century brought a gradual democratization of political institutions (particularly during the Jacksonian Era), as well as a major expansion of the power of the federal government (particularly with the passage of the Civil War Amendments), the major transformation of American government did not take place until the onset of Progressivism in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century. As Holcombe explains: “Liberty for the founders meant that the government would protect the rights of individuals but would have minimal involvement in their economic affairs. The Progressives viewed that notion as outmoded. The oppression that only the government could exert by force when the nation was founded was now being imposed by the trusts, and economic power had replaced political power as the oppressor of the people” (p. 171). To be sure, FDR’s New Deal also played a role in “establish[ing] the role of the federal government in promoting the nation’s economic well-being” (p. 219). And LBJ’s Great Society programs were critical in heralding “the ultimate triumph of democracy because for the first time there was a major expansion in the scope of government power, based on the demands of the electorate, with no extenuating circumstances” (p. 247). In the end, though, Holcombe concludes that the seeds for these twentieth-century developments “were sown in the Progressive Era prior to World War I,” (p. 208) and therefore the Progressive Era constituted the “explicit break with the past that redefined the role of government to include the protection of the economic welfare of its citizens” (p. 188).

Holcombe is certainly not alone in pinpointing the Progressive Era as the key period in the transformation of American government. A number of Progressives were quite open at the turn of the twentieth century about the extent to which they were prepared to challenge founding institutions and ideals. And a growing number of scholars in recent years have taken to reexamining the influence of Progressivism on the development of American political institutions. Holcombe’s principal contribution is to place the Progressive movement in the overall context of American political development (his sweeping survey stretches from Hobbes and Locke to Reagan and Clinton, and includes discussions of the Articles of Confederation and the Confederate Constitution along the way) and to provide a number of insightful details regarding these varied topics. In the course of tracing the development of American electoral practices, for instance, Holcombe notes that a number of states have deviated at times from the normal practice of electing members of the House of Representatives from single-member districts, and that general ticket representation and at-large representation were both used by several states as late as the 1960s. And through a careful comparison of the U.S. and Confederate Constitution, he highlights a number of ways in which the drafters of the Confederate Constitution modified or supplemented particular provisions in the U.S. Constitution, including eliminating the words “general welfare” from the tax and spend clause, prohibiting certain types of internal improvements, and granting the president the line-item veto for appropriations bills. These are just a few of the insights that Holcombe provides in the course of his survey of American political development.

These virtues having been noted, From Liberty to Democracy is not without its shortcomings. For one thing, this is a sprawling book that frequently takes up and then returns to the same topic on a number of different occasions in the course of the narrative. Another round of editing could have eliminated a certain amount of this repetition, though this is to some degree unavoidable when one is integrating several previously published articles with other chapters that appear here for the first time.

In addition, Holcombe is at his best when he is describing the transformation of American government, which is the principal focus of the book; he is somewhat less successful when he turns to evaluate this transformation, as he does at assorted points in the course of each chapter and then in a sustained fashion in a concluding chapter entitled “The Dangers of Democracy.” It is not that Holcombe’s critique of democratic decision making is without merit. In fact, he is squarely in the mainstream of public-choice scholarship when he highlights “the problems that occur with majority rule voting” (p. 257), and contends that “democratic political institutions favor policies that impose small costs on most people, who are rationally ignorant about the policies, to finance large benefits to smaller groups” (p. 263). But a comprehensive evaluation of democratic decision making would require even more attention to the advantages as well as the disadvantages of democratic institutions, and would benefit from a more extensive consideration of the leading alternatives in the contemporary era.

John Dinan is author of Keeping the People’s Liberties: Legislators, Citizens, and Judges as Guardians of Rights (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1998).