Lessons from the 19th Century

Readers of the Scholar’s Stage will be familiar with a thesis I have pursued in multiple essays and posts over the last half decade: America was once a place where institutional capacity was very high. Americans were a people with an extraordinary sense of agency. This is one of the central reasons they transformed the material, cultural, institutional, and political framework of not only the North American continent, but the entire world. That people is gone. The social conditions that gave the Americans their competence and confidence have passed away. Where Americans once asked “how do we solve this?” they now query “how do we get management on my side?”

Different pieces have investigated different aspects of this thesis. In “Pining for Democracy” I described the old America’s ideal as “self government.” In that post I gave the following brief definition:

Self-government is communal. It comes with the confidence that you and the citizens around you are capable of crafting solutions to your shared problems. Self-government is less a particular set of institutions than a particular set of attitudes. If the institutions needed to solve a problem locally do not exist, the citizens of a self-governing community will create them.1


Tanner Greer, “Pining for Democracy: A Few Readings,” Scholar’s Stage (10 November 2018).

That post then laid out some of the books that have most strongly influenced my thinking on self government as a normative ideal. In contrast, the essay “On Cultures That Build” explored the practical consequences of this ideal’s demise. Using the contrasting American response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Spanish flu as its central case studies, “On Cultures That Build” suggested that the central difference between the America of 1920 and 2020 was the dominant role bureaucracy now played in American life. By the mid 20th century the patterns of daily life were dictated by management. The skills needed to navigate this bureaucratic world—climbing up bureaucratic ladder, learning to make convincing appeals to those higher up in the hierarchy, and so forth—are rarely conducive to practical problem solving. Bureaucracy is a powerful tool for people who come from a culture of agency. But bureaucratic management slowly but surely strangles the culture that tames it, and later generations ascend to power without ever having learned how to effectively wield it.

The essay “Honor, Dignity, and Victimhood” also works through a series of historical contrasts, juxtaposing the Civil Rights Movement with modern social justice activism. It argues that the 21st century focus on victimhood is a natural, and probably inevitable, reaction to a bureaucratic social order. “The Title-IXification of American Childhood” pursues this line of thought further, arguing that even the way Americans raise their children has changed to better match the new order (also a side point in my essay “Yale and the Education of Governing Elites“). In the short post “Decline of American Democracy in One Infographic!” I describe how the ratio of school boards to citizens is a useful measure of this transformation; in “Awareness vs. Action” and “We Were Builders Once, And Strong” I reflect on specific examples of old art of self government seen in antebellum and Civil War America.

In “A Note on the Romney Vote” I describe one personal benefit that accrues to those who operate in the pockets of American life that have preserved a culture of self-government. For City Journal I argue that the most popular genre of American literature (“YA”) has such wide appeal because it articulates the anxieties of those who live under management (or as my follow post on that essay described them, these are the “Myths of the Over-Managed“). In “Thoughts on Post Liberalism” I suggest that the crisis in virtue and spirit that post liberal voices blame on the enlightenment are, like the shift towards victimhood mentioned above, a predictable reaction to bureaucratic life.

The next piece in this research program was published this week in Palladium. Titled “A School of Strength and Character,” it is my attempt to outline in an accessible manner how the world before management worked.2 Drawing from the travelogues and memoirs of foreign visitors and many of the same examples from 19th century associational life that I explored in the posts mentioned above, the essay collects what I have learned about the 19th century model over the last few years in one place. It also attempts to draw a few practical “lessons learned” from the 19th century experience that might be applicable today.


Tanner Greer, “A School of Strength and Character,” Palladium (30 March 2023).

These lessons include the benefits of enshrining public brotherhood as an aspirational ideal:

In the face of suffocating managerialism or institutional decay, it is easy to lionize the outputs of previous eras like the nineteenth century. Many imagine the great American man of the past as a prototypical rugged individual, neither tamed nor tameable, bestriding the wilderness and dealing out justice in lonesome silence. But this is a false myth. It bears little resemblance to the actual behavior of the American pioneer, nor to the kinds of behaviors and norms that an agentic culture would need to cultivate today. Instead, the primary ideal enshrined and ritualized as the mark of manhood was “publick usefuleness,” similar, if not quite identical, to the classical concept of virtus. American civilization was built not by rugged individuals but by rugged communities. Manhood was understood as the leadership of and service to these communities. Three virtues in particular made this culture operate effectively and distinguished it from modern managerialism.

First, institutions cultivated a sense of public kinship and brotherhood, sometimes formalized by sacred oaths. Just as citizens took oaths to the republic or upon the Bible, social and political associations took their bonds of loyalty no less seriously. The fraternities, federations, and even political parties that these men belonged to embraced extravagant rituals, parades, and performances designed to build fraternal feeling among their members while reminding them of their public responsibilities. They required earnest oaths that committed their members to a life of charity, public service, brotherhood, and the betterment of their fellow men. Lodge leaders developed these rituals and treated their oaths with great solemnity. This required their culture to have a functional role for solemnity and seriousness at all. When irreverence becomes a universal norm, attempts at seriousness degenerate into performative role-play.

A commitment to formality:

The famously irreverent Boomers were the first generation of Americans born in the shadow of the new managerial society. The “New Left” counterculture of the 1960s was, in turn, the first attempt to break the shackles of bureaucracy and conformity. New Left radicals condemned the “bewildering dependence” of Americans on “inaccessible castles wherein inscrutable technicians conjure with their fate” and identified the “depersonalized, unresponsive bureaucracy” as “the greatest problem of our nation.” Their movement ultimately failed, however, to create viable counter-communities capable of agency.

A central reason for their failure is that for all of their talk about “participatory democracy,” the radicals of the New Left were not interested in the discipline, formality, and commitment to reasoned debate that made the actual participatory democracy function. Associating rationalism and rules with the suffocating bureaucratic structures that they rebelled against, New Left radicals ended up mounting a titanic effort to liberate themselves from the very intellectual and organizational tools that successful institution builders use to assert their agency. The cause of self-liberation ended up in conflict with the cause of self-government….

Self-government meant a deep commitment to an otherwise mundane set of tasks. The engines of communal self-reliance were humdrum activities like reading through Robert’s Rules of Order and taking detailed minutes of all comments made at organization meetings. Through practical experience, nineteenth-century Americans realized that formality was an important tool of self-rule. Formally drafting charters and bylaws, electing officers, and holding meetings by strict procedures seems like busy work to those accustomed to weak associational ties. But the formality of such associations expressed commitment to the cause and clarified the relationships and responsibilities needed for effective action.

And finally, the usefulness of scale and hierarchy:

The third virtue was, instead, an embrace of functional hierarchy that allowed local initiatives to scale up to a very high level…. neither hierarchy nor scale is inherently opposed to agency. Many of the postbellum institutions that dominated American life operated on a national scale, occasionally mobilizing millions of people for their causes. However, the lodge and chapter-based structure of these institutions ensured those local leaders had wide latitude of action inside their own locality. Local leaders relied on local resources and thus rarely had to petition higher-ups to solve their area’s problems. 

These chapters thus not only served as vehicles of self-rule at the lower level but also prepared leaders for successful decision-making at higher levels of a hierarchy. Wielding authority at the lower levels of a nineteenth-century organization closely mirrored the experience of wielding authority in its highest echelons. Absent such training, leadership does in fact become the impenetrable closed circle that disturbed the advocates of “human scale.” Centralization, not hierarchy, caused the demise of local dynamism.

Many of the modern institutions which have most successfully retained their nineteenth-century commitment to decentralized local leadership—such as the LDS church or the U.S. Marine Corps—have famously rigid hierarchies. These institutions integrate clear chains of command with a structure and culture that encourages initiative and independent problem-solving by leaders at the lowest level of the hierarchy. The leaders of these institutions understand that the only way to train someone to effectively lead large organizations is to give them practice acting autonomously on a smaller scale. Empowering people down the chain to make mistakes lets their leaders up the chain prevent them from happening at a larger scale. Great lessons usually involve making some mistakes, so it is better that the damage be limited. 

Each of these three points could be spun out as their own essays, or perhaps multiple essays. A closer examination of the ’60s Counterculture as a failed rebellion against management is a particularly interesting route to travel. Susan Faludi’s Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, billed as a feminist critique of American masculinity but actually a compelling portrait of manhood in the world of management, would be a useful place to start that program.3 I was surprised at how good this meditation on Boomer manhood was; perhaps my next piece in this series will be a review of her book.


Susan Faludi, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man (New York City: William Morrow, 1999).

But the place where real work is needed is not with the Boomers. A clever critic will look at all of the pieces I have published and ask a simple question: if bureaucracy and management are so terrible, why were they adopted in the first place? Why did Americans who understood and were themselves shaped by the virtues of the old order nevertheless build the new one?

I have tentative answers to these questions. I can trace the birth of American management to the great railroad enterprises of the Gilded Age, and follow their progress as the Progressive Movement swept through America. But the real victory of bureaucracy–and with it a shared management culture whose roots lie partially in the management experiences of the First World War and partially with the engineering culture of the ’10s and ’20s–did not occur until the ’30s and ’40s. C. Wright Mills rightly described these as the critical transition decades in his 1959 The Power Elite:

The economy-once a great scatter of small productive units in autonomous balance-has become dominated by two or three hundred giant corporations, administratively and politically interrelated, which together hold the keys to economic decisions. 

The political order, once a decentralized set of several dozen states with a weak spinal cord, has become a centralized, executive establishment which has taken up into itself many powers previously scattered, and now enters into each and every crany of the social structure. 

The military order, once a slim establishment in a context of distrust fed by state militia, has become the largest and most expensive feature of government, and, although well versed in smiling public relations, now has all the grim and clumsy efficiency of a sprawling bureaucratic domain. 

In each of these institutional areas, the means of power at the disposal of decision makers have increased enormously; their central executive powers have been enhanced; within each of them modern administrative routines have been elaborated and tightened up. 

As each of these domains becomes enlarged and centralized, the consequences of its activities become greater, and its traffic with the others increases. The decisions of a handful of corporations bear upon military and political as well as upon economic developments around the world. The decisions of the military establishment rest upon and grievously affect political life as well as the very level of economic activity. The decisions made within the political domain determine economic activities and military programs. There is no longer, on the one hand, an economy, and, on the other hand, a political order containing a military establishment unimportant to politics and to money-making. There is a political economy linked, in a thousand ways, with military institutions and decisions. On each side of the world-split running through central Europe and around the Asiatic rimlands, there is an ever-increasing interlocking of economic, military, and political structures.


C. Wright Mills. The Power Elite (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959). p. 7-8.

Mills leaves some important parts of the story out (e.g. the consolidation and centralization of the labor unions), but his general framing is correct. Intellectual and organizational precedents for the changes Mills discusses can be found as early as the U.S. Civil War. But the colossus did not emerge in full force until the 1930s. I would like to do a great deal more reading on the figures who first built and wielded the great corporate and government tools that still decide so much in American social life today.

This next step in the research program would not simply be about filling in the historical dots. In the 1940s and 1950s America’s corporate and state bureaucracies were simply far more effective at accomplishing their aims than they are today. Most of what I have written on this topic thusfar is focused on how people worked together and successfully solved problems in the world before management. The next step is to investigate the principles of successful problem solving at the dawn of America’s bureaucratic age.


If you found this post worth reading, you might find some of my other essays on politics and history worth your time. In addition to the pieces written linked to above, check out “Culture Wars are Long Wars”, “The Problem of the New Right” “Further Notes on the New Right,” ” Scrap the Myth of Panic,” and ““On Sparks Before the Prairie Fire . To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage Substack mailing listfollow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.


Leave a Comment


One of the best accounts of this transformation from a corporate perspective is the book Moral Mazes.

It might be particularly fruitful to trace the post-1865 rise of African-American self-help organizations, first by and for the freedmen and then their children. What did they learn from the white American culture of self-governance? To what degree did they seek to emulate that culture and to what degree did they distinguish themselves from it? How much was their success circumscribed by the terroristic regime of white supremacy, and how much did they succeed in spite of it? The different constraints they faced could make for a good comparative lens on the strengths and weaknesses of the model.

Also, David Beito, _From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State_, is surely an essential work to be in dialogue with here.

Theda Skopcal’s Diminished Democracy, which traces the rise and fall of large membership organizatins as a whole, is a key inspiration here. She has published a second book that looks at this topic purely from the African American lens. It would also be a good place to look I think.

“But the place where real work is needed is not with the Boomers. A clever critic will look at all of the pieces I have published and ask a simple question: if bureaucracy and management are so terrible, why were they adopted in the first place? Why did Americans who understood and were themselves shaped by the virtues of the old order nevertheless build the new one?”

“I have tentative answers to these questions.”

Marc Andreessen has been talking up James Burnham’s books, especially The Managerial Revolution, on various podcasts; according to Andreessen, Burnham traces the decline of the owner-manager and the rising separation of owners, shareholders, and managers, which increases the principal-agent problem.

The Andreessen-Burnham answers are one possible direction an answer or set of answers could go.

If you’ve already read Burnham, then apologies for wasting your time: I’ve not read every essay linked to above and may have missed any Burnham references.

These seems contradictory or unexplained when you say “economy of scale” dont matter, then other paragraph and article pointed out that “economies of scale” is responsible for what happening.

If centralization not scale is culprit, then you must show how organization of scale, can survive without centralization.


I hint at this towards the end. The lodge based membership organizations operated across the country at terrific scale while still preserving local autonomy and problem solving. The key thing is to have decision making and resources distributed broadly across an organization.

The LDS Church and the US Marine Corps strike me as modern examples of particularly effective organizations that marry an iron hierarchy to a decentralized system of governance. The key is creating lots of smaller units who have real responsibilities and large amounts of latitude for independent decision making.

Also important here: economies of scale=!scale itself.

And yet, despite the decline (not disappearance) of U.S. local self-administration, it’s still by far #1 (even higher if race-adjusted) in actual individual consumption per capita, as it was in the nineteenth century.

Now I am not much of a fan of higher consumption above all (it leads to the rise of the Peter Principle). But I can’t see the rise of bureaucracy as anything other than an inevitable part of an industrialized society. Just the fact that bureaucracy does not work *for you* does not mean it doesn’t work for someone else. Remember the Manchurian plague (in the Christie book).

I read your essays and I am impressed by many of your insights, but if you think the world would be perfect if we were all Mitt Romney clones I’ve gotta go back and re-read.

Ha. I don’t think we should all be Mitt Romney clones.

But yes, the world would be much better if a greater portion of the Earth lived as Mitt Romney does. Many of this country’s problems would be solved in Mitt Romney’s life was the pattern most American men tried to live up to.

The world needs more men who stay committed in marriage to the mother of their children. The world needs more men willing to serve their church and community. Romney is a good example in that regard.

The world does not need more overeducated busybodies. It does not need more political flipfloppers. It does not need more butt kissers of the political and corporate establishment. The world does not need more “men without chests” who gladly add their criticism to those things the peer group already dislikes, but who can never find the nerve to take a stand against the peer group when the peer group is wrong.

The great irony is the modern world has many Mitt Romneys and their example of “go along to get along” is a great reason why things are falling apart.

Mitt Romney has more of a chest than most of his critics have. I find comments like this truly bizarre, especially when the implied comparison is with Donald Trump, a man without a chest if there ever was one.

My opinion of Romney has improved somewhat. I initially thought that he wanted to be a Senator so he could exact revenge upon America for choosing Trump over him. I no longer hold that view and have appreciated some of his support for family-oriented legislation.

I do think that his impeachment votes were out of spite.

The point is that Romneys led us to the beginning of the D & F and Romneys are doing very little, if anything, to slow it down.

I think it is interesting to compare Mitt Romney to Thomas Massie. They are similar in so many praiseworthy ways. Both are extremely intelligent – each possessing impressive academic degrees (Romney Harvard, Massie MIT). Each achieved exemplary professional success. Each appears to live lives of high personal integrity. Each sought for and obtained high political office. Each is a positive role model.

Romney and Massie are members of the same political party and both have had high profile disagreements with then President Trump. But they disagreed in very different ways . Romney very publicly faulted Trump for his presidential behavior, going so far to vote twice to remove Trump from office. Massie never supported Trump’s impeachments but he was the only member of Congress to vote against the Covid bailout in March 2020. A vote that earned Massie Trump’s ire and disparagement, as well as criticism from Congress and the media. A vote where Massie’s prediction of inflation and economic troubles came to pass.

As a public figure, Romney exemplifies the philosophy that decorum and institutional loyalty are most important. Romney is a loyal Republican who showed he was willing to side with his party’s political opposition in going against the Republican president and party conservatives. Massie is a loyal Republican who has shown he will go against both political parties when he believes such opposition is warranted.

Neither Romney or Massie are political leaders inasmuch the public would discern (I believe both are respected by colleagues and have some measure of influence) . However, because Romney bolsters Democrat arguments against certain Republicans, he tends to receive more positive media coverage. At the same time Romney is not generally trusted by voters. Massie is viewed favorably by conservatives but is otherwise dismissed as too anti establishment.

Would the world be better with more Romneys or more Massies? Absolutely. But would more Romneys change government? In what way? What novelty would Romney bring? I think it is more obvious that more Massies would change government, given Massie has already proved he would break the status quo in an unpredictable way.

I am also extremely skeptical of the idea that the Social Security Act, the WPA and Glass-Steagall kickstarted the D & F.

To be fair Mormonism whil preserving the older way of doing things had to adapt to the times. As during the New Deal it was headed by people who opposed the New Deal while there common Mormons where some of the most pro New Deal people around. So a lot of what kept the Mormon’s relevant was accomadationist response by Elite Mormons.

This discussion on how the Mormon dealt with the New Deal and came out energised through that experience may be relevant. Also some discussion on how the old mutual aid declined and government welfare won out. Parts 3-5 mostly

The Mormon essay has a quote “But the true secret to the LDS’s success lies in the trust and discretion they invest in those closest to the ground — what I’ve called “embedded autonomy.” Whereas counsellors at American Job Centers (Nevada) are chastened from recommending any specific program or career path, Deseret counselors have the discretion to make real judgment calls and tailor their advice to individual needs.”.

I guess one other point aside from that is that mutal aid societies got killed by insurance as mentioned in part 2 & 3 of the essays above. So sequentially what happened to the Fraternals was they were cannibalised by insurance but then flaws with insurance meant greater state intervention was required to stabilise (which is an ongoing process to this day, see Obamacare/Romneycare)

Also see this heritage essay that covers much the same ground you have been recently although this is 23 years ago.

Also an extract of part 3 of the Mormon integralism essay regarding insurance, to emphasis insurance cannibalising mutal aid, its worth checking it out further before you proceed with your essays:

The emergence of commercial insurance in the nineteenth century changed everything. The knowledge of how to accurately price risk and adjust claims gave commercial insurers the competitive advantage of lower premiums. With competition came financial instability, and traditional friendly societies struggled to retain members. For example, according to a comprehensive survey of friendly societies in Oxfordshire, England, between 1750 and 1918, 29 percent of all societies whose start and end dates are known failed within ten years of their establishment, and the absolute number of such societies began falling from 1890 on (Morley 2011). Those that didn’t fail competed by adopting the very same actuarial rigor as the insurance companies, thus blurring the distinction between friendly societies and a normal mutual insurer. As the insurance industry boomed on newfound profit opportunities, the number of both for-profit insurers and friendly societies grew. In the race to build national networks that took advantage of economies of scale, many friendly societies were forced to discard the pretense of being a tight-knit social club.

As the insurance industry scaled, however, so too did its competitive instability. Adverse-selection effects created a dual problem. If customers had information about their true health or mortality risk that insurers lacked, selection effects caused the insurance pool to separate or “de-pool.” Yet the main antidote to adverse selection—better risk classification—created its own problems, namely “cream skimming” for low-risk types, and thus the potential for re-creating the very same de-pooling behavior. As Henry C. Lippincott put it in his tract The Essentials of Life Insurance Administration (1905), “[I]f the medical examiner did not stand at the entrance gate, the weakest and least desirable lives would be surest and soonest to come in” (qtd. in Ericson and Doyle 2003, 261).

Gen Z lurker here, from a different side of the political spectrum than you are. Your essays on this subject have been fairly influential in my life as I’ve grown up, and have pushed me to spend more time going out and doing things.

Strangely enough, the places where I most see a sense of agency in building things now is internet fandom culture and open source maker communities. Fanfiction is too offensive to the mainstream for writers to rely on outside companies to host it, so they built their own site, Archive of Our Own (Ao3), which is entirely donation based and volunteer run. Open source maker communities share information on how to craft a particular item, with a sense that anyone can get involved with the right tools and enough googling. It helps that there is a tangible result at the end, too. In both places, there is a culture of taking other people’s work and remixing it to add one’s own spin, as a way to be in dialogue with each other. These may be silly in the grand scheme of things, but seeing how much effort I can put into a fandom thing just because I wanted to has empowered me to see what I can do for more serious causes.

A minor point, but the valorization of the nuclear family in the early modern period is a broader western European pattern not limited to England. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_European_marriage_pattern
So the German and Dutch and scattered Huguenot immigrants who settled colonial America shared this cultural inheritance. It was only later southern and eastern European immigrants who required acculturation.

I would focus on “how people worked together and successfully solved problems in the world before” bureaucracy not “management”. Management is essential to building institutions, and we need lots of them, including many new ones. But we need these to be agile, ever changing, and a product of competition and a dynamic landscape rather than as too many are today – stale, fixed, driven by interests, and slowly degenerating.

I notice one thing about problems that arise when bureaucracy gets entrenched: it happens at all large, long-living organisations, not just at state or societal organisations. Thus, in an age of big monopolies almost everywhere in our society, there is also many private bureaucracies that misfunction similarly. It’s just that we are primed to think only state bureaucracy exists and is bad, because Ronald Reagan, the expert of experts in almost every area of knowledge, said so.