Abstract: Pragmatic Federalism and Regulation in the Twentieth Century

William R. Childs


Business historians have ignored too much the intersection of federalism and economic structures in the evolution of regulation in the United States throughout the twentieth century. The complex interaction between the structure of industries and the federal conflicts their growth created followed from nineteenth-century origins. Americans struggled to respond to the unwanted consequences of industrialism and did so by devising a new institution, the regulatory commission, and accommodating state and national economic interests. In a general state-to-federal pattern, Americans devised a regulatory state based on cooperative "pragmatic federalism" in the transportation, power, telecommunications, banking, and securities industries. This system appeared to break down by the 1960s. A period of deregulation, which continues in the early twenty-first century, followed, but exhibited no discernable pattern; there was no reverse "national-to-state" trend underlying deregulation. Sometimes the states led the way; other times Congress did. Attempts to match state deregulation with national deregulation—or preemption—were not always successful; indeed, localism asserted its power when the structure of the industry heavily impacted state economies. The intersection of federalism and industry structures remained dynamic in the late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century regulatory state.