Ideals of Society and Administration: How Shifting Alliances Laid the Cornerstone of the Continental Welfare State

Saturday, June 25, 2016: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
89 Dwinelle (Dwinelle Hall)
Pierre-Christian Fink, Columbia University, New York, NY
The passage in 1839 of the Prussian law against child labor in factories is widely considered by historians as a crucial moment in the development of modern social policy. The making of this law has recently been identified by sociologists as a prime case to test hypotheses about the role of ideas in policy-making. This paper revisits the archival record on the 1839 law and finds that the existing sociological explanation suffers from anachronistic assumptions about the way in which factions mobilized around ideas. I propose a theory more appropriate for cases in which factions are not organized as groups but used as categories-in-practice and where decision-making does not depend on outside support but on repeated interaction within an elite.

From this vantage point, the genesis of the 1839 law appears not so much, as the existing account would have it, as the victory of a conservative over a liberal proposal in line with the reactionary climate of the period. Instead, the law can be understood as resulting from a drawn-out process in which alliances were formed across the conservative–liberal divide and in which actors for the first time negotiated what a conservative or liberal position on the new phenomenon of child labor in factories would be.

In the end phase of the making of the 1839 law, factions mobilized not so much around different ideals of society as around different preferences for governance. The most effective way to govern was a prominent topic of debate in Prussia for decades after the traumatic defeat in 1806 at the hands of Napoleon, which was understood to have resulted primarily from clumsy administration. One group of actors judged the proposals on child labor regulation by the results that they would probably have in society, given expectations of implementation, and proposed the setting-up of local commissions including industrialists and workers that would adjust general rules to specific circumstances. The other—victorious—group paid less attention to implementation but cast the law as fundamentally an expression of dismay over what was seen as morally outrageous and proposed Kingdom-wide rules.

I argue that the underlying theory can help illuminate not only the law of 1839 but also contemporary politics, where important decisions are increasingly influenced by deliberative spaces that resemble not so much mass democracy as early 19th century Prussian policy-making, e.g., the Federal Reserve Board and the European Commission.