Whether eliminating the barriers to interstate commerce, assuring the value of the dollar, squeezing out watered stock or ensuring the quality of standardized products like canned meats nationwide, markets were shaped and sustained by laws and government oversight. Quite often it was national business interests that demanded that government impose greater order and predictability. Ditto for litigation that appealed to the highest court in the land, overturning long-standing state responsibility for health and safety regulation in order to ensure unimpeded interstate commerce. No big government, no national market.
True or False: Government cannot induce social mobility.
Whether through the states' investment in massive university systems, the federal government's tuition payments for millions of returning World War II veterans or its legal intervention to dismantle the stifling regime of Jim Crow segregation, government has jump started and sustained the social mobility of tens of millions of Americans.
If you have scored well on this test, or if the answers have enhanced your knowledge of history, you are poised to find common ground in today's contested political landscape.
History suggests that when it comes to the core functions of building a communications infrastructure, demanding that property serve the larger goals of the community, ensuring that "private" markets and civil society function effectively, and that all Americans are well prepared to take advantage of economic opportunity, employing the full range of powers embodied in the Constitution has served the country best. Those powers include adapting the level of government to the scale and scope of the problem through the genius of federalism. They also authorize the use of deficit financing, a crucial tool during times of crisis – both economic and security-driven.
In practice, Americans have rarely distinguished sharply between public and private. Rather, they have embraced a symbiotic relationship between government, markets and society.
For extra credit, it behooves our public officials to put these lessons to work. They should employ public means and ends to stimulate private reconstruction of the nation's communication, transportation and educational infrastructure.
They should stimulate social mobility through investments in key sectors of the economy, as our predecessors did for rail, automobile travel, computing, and the internet. They should insist that markets operate transparently and equitably. Nothing could be more American.
Brian Balogh is the author of "A Government out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority in Nineteenth-Century America" (Cambridge University Press, 2009). He is the Compton Professor and chairs the National Fellowship Program at the University of Virginia's Miller Center and is a professor in U. Va's Department of History. He is also "Twentieth-Century Guy" on the public radio show "Backstory with the American History Guys."