The Business Roots of the Modern American State: Reconsidering the Political Economy of the New Era, 1918-1933

Jesse Tarbert

The years between the end of World War One and the beginning of the New Deal are well known as a period of business leadership in American politics, but what did that leadership mean for the development of the American state? This paper uses Warren G. Harding’s 1920 slogan, “Less Government in Business and More Business in Government,” as a point of departure for reassessing the relationship between business and government in the “New Era.” Scholars have tended to focus only on one half of the Republican policy agenda in these years, emphasizing the ways in which big business limited the power of big government. This focus, however, has obscured the ways in which corporate elites in this period sought to empower the state in ways that don’t fit traditional concepts such as the “associative state” or “capture.” The most important of these were the creation of the national budget system and the movement to reorganize the federal executive branch. By uncovering the constructive agenda of the Republican presidential administrations in the New Era, this paper reveals the business roots of the modern American state.