Hammers for Nails, Screwdrivers for Screws: Identifying the Right Tool for the Job in Historical Institutionalism

Pierre-Christian Fink, Columbia University

Historical institutionalists are increasingly interested in the contested processes by which political alternatives become institutionalized and de-institutionalized. A prominent research program seeks to identify the different mechanisms undergirding these processes across political contexts. This article revisits the making of the child labor law of 1839, which is widely considered the beginning of social policy in Prussia and a corner stone of the Continental European, Weberian welfare state. The extant account put forward by ideationally oriented historical institutionalists posits a party-political context and explains the law as the outcome of a struggle between conservatives and liberals. This article identifies key empirical facts that challenge the existing account. It argues that the context was one of multiply embedded policy-makers, with coalitions of policy-makers crosscutting party-political lines. Investigated under this approach, the archival record discloses that the struggle was mainly about a proposal to implement child-labor regulation through local-participatory institutions encompassing factory workers. At stake was not whether liberals or conservatives would set up a Weberian welfare state but whether the Prussian welfare state would be Weberian at all. This substantive finding has novel implications for contemporary debates. It can inform progressive efforts to develop alternatives to the centralizing-bureaucratic implementation of welfare provision.

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 Presented in Session 50. Method and Theory on Historical Change I