Mythmaking and Manufacturing: The supply side of public spending

by John MacBeath Watkins

We build the story of our lives on narratives, and do our best to make them like life's supposed to be, as noted in this post. But those narratives are not just private stories, they are also the way we build the communities and nations we live in.

The myths that make America are famous and most of the time carry important truths. They also conceal important truths. The self-reliant frontiersman was able to, as Firesign Theater put it in Temporarily Humboldt County, "carve a new life out of the American Indian," only because the U.S. Cavalry was prepared to chase the Native Americans off their land. And at a time when land was perhaps the most important basis for wealth, this played a major role in the rise of the American economy, essentially transferring wealth from its owners to its invaders in the time-honored manner of pre-industrial empire building.

Clearly, those self-reliant frontiersmen (who make up much of my ancestry,) were dependent upon the willingness of the American government to seize and protect the property they settled. The settlement of the West was an agrarian revolution, taking land from hunter-gatherer use to farming and herding use.

The other revolution was industrial. America had, as a British colony, been held back from developing industry. Mercantilist theory held that colonies were to provide the raw materials for the mother country to manufacture, and make that country wealthy and powerful. This was part of the beef between the colonies and Britain: We wanted to develop the resources and manufacturing here.

And when we did, it was private enterprise and Yankee ingenuity that did the trick, right?

Not quite.

The American rise in manufacturing, and the revolution of mass production, had a lot to do with those things, but also depended on bloated defense contracts and publicly owned manufacturing enterprises. In 1852, the British sent a fact-finding mission,  touring the government armories at Harper's Ferry and Springfield to learn about the "American system of manufacture."

Which we got from the French.

Most manufacturing prior to and including the 19th century involved what some scholars call "the craftsmanship of risk." When a craftsman picks up a tool and starts to make something freehand, the product is a functional representation of an idea, and the extent to which it succeeds in making the idea function depends on the skill of the craftsman. The risk is that the product will be flawed because of the lack or skill (or just a bad day) of the craftsman.

In manufacturing, Adam Smith famously chronicled the efficiency of a pin factory based on division of labor, even though the pins were mainly made by hand. This worked quite well, because pins have only one part, which works even if not every pin is quite the same.

Muskets are a different matter. Gunsmiths making each weapon one at a time could produce working muskets, but if a part needed to be replaced, it needed to be shaped by a skilled gunsmith.

French General Jean-Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval found that this meant weapons could not be repaired in the field. If you had a stack of muskets, some with one part broken, some with another, you could not assemble a single working musket from the parts, even if they all were built to the same design.

Even with division of labor, the problem remained. Every manufacturing plant had a finishing department, the job of which was to take the parts made by others and shape them so that they could work together in each musket (or clock or sewing machine when those came along.)

The Système Gribeauval was conceived to solve this problem. Each musket would be made with identical parts so that they could be cannibalized to repair other muskets in the field.

This proved extremely expensive. The reason people weren't making identical parts already was that the methods of manufacture available to them involved the craftsmanship of risk. The parts had to be made with far greater precision if they were not to be fitted to the final assembly by modifying them at the end of the process. It took a painstaking gauging process to produce parts that were truly interchangeable, and no individual frontiersman cared to pay for that. Only armies could afford the extra cost, and only in combat was the extra cost worth while.

A number of French officers came to help with our revolution against Britain, and some of them stayed. Indeed, some came back after things got hot back home, since many of them were noblemen and feared Dr. Guillotine's invention. This represented an important transfer of skill from one of the most advanced countries in Europe.

It was also a transfer of skills that would not move as easily to England, a nascent industrial powerhouse and sworn enemy to the French. One French engineer, Marc Isambard Brunel, father of the more famous Isambard Kingdom Brunel, introduced the idea of interchangeable parts to the British Navy, in the block-making process he invented. Marc Brunel, by the way, had taken American citizenship and worked as the city engineer of New York, after he fled France because of his Royalist sympathies.

The woman he loved, an English orphan who had been working as a governess, was held as a spy during the Terror. She was released with fall of Robspierre and traveled to London, where Brunel married her and presented his system of mass production to the Navy, helping win a war against the country he had fled. There's a lesson there for revolutionaries who take the view that you can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs. Sometimes, you end up with egg on your face.

But blocks don't have a lot of parts, and they don't break down much. speed of production was far more important for block manufacture than precision parts.

The American military became interested in the idea of interchangeable parts for the same reason the French under the royalists were. They went farther with it, and one of the people who promoted it was that old fraud, Eli Whitney.

Whitney, after failing at some other enterprises, managed to get a contract to make a (then) large number of muskets because he had contacts with some of his old Yale classmates, even though he had no facility capable of fulfilling his contract. When he failed to deliver the parts on time, he claimed it was because he was trying to do this very hard thing, produce muskets with interchangeable parts. Although Wikipedia claims he assembled a musket from a bin of parts, this is not the case according to this excellent book:

What Whitney actually did was show that the flint lock from one of his muskets would fit another of his muskets. Repairing the lock of one with parts from another, however, was the goal.

But his promotion may have helped more able men to get the backing they needed to really implement the idea. Simeon North, a contemporary of Whitney's, seems to have been far more successful in actually manufacturing parts that were interchangeable. Still more successful was John Hall, a Maine boatbuilder turned inventor who was no doubt familiar with the use of molds and patterns for the making of stock boats. He invented a wide variety of machines for the manufacture of the various parts, and instituted a very complete gauging system for ensuring the quality and interchangeability of the parts. Only a machine could do each action in exactly the same way each time it made a part, and only constant checking with the gauges could ensure that the machine did that. This was the craftsmanship of certainty.

The methods North, Hall and their successors developed automated production to an unprecedented degree, which was necessary to introduce the craftsmanship of certainty. Hall was one of the first to understand that once the system for producing muskets -- or anything else -- was established, the longer the production run, the lower the per-unit production cost. Despite his protestations, the American government kept ordering the kind of small lots (as little as a thousand or two thousand guns at a time) that Whitney had such trouble producing in a timely fashion.

But the revolution that took us from the craftsmanship of risk to the craftsmanship of certainty was the basis for American industrial ascendency every bit as much as the natural resources bought by our treasury (in the case of the Louisiana Purchase and Seward's folly) or conquered by our armies (most of the country,) and the roads, canals and railroads built either with public funds or public assistance. And that revolution would not have happened if the government had not been willing to pay more for weapons than was generally the price because the needs of an army and the needs of a trapper are not the same.

There was plenty of private industry involved. There were contractors working within the armories who learned the methods, invented new machines to automate the process, and carried that knowledge into private industry. But much of the research and industrial experience that supplied our economy with the expertise to succeed was developed on the federal dollar.

And much like the building of roads and schools or the conquest and annexation of nearly half of Mexico, it was a public-sector investment in the supply side of the economy.

Links for this series:

Rethinking liberal theory 1: Thomas Hobbes, blasphemer and patriot
Rethinking liberal theory 2: The outlaw John Locke, terrorist, liberal, and advocate of freedom
Rethinking liberal theory 3: A compact to protect property, or a conspiracy to create meaning?
Rethinking Liberal Theory 4: John Milton and the many shapes of truth
Rethinking Liberal Theory 5: Adam Smith, moral philosopher of the marketplace
Rethinking Liberal Theory 6: Mythmaking and manufacturing
Rethinking liberal theory 7: Hegel, the end of history, and the triumph of the liberal idea
Rethinking liberal theory 8: Liberalism and individualism: The invention of the Util and the way west
Rethinking liberal theory 9 Property and freedom: Why language is the basis for the social contract 
Rethinking Liberal theory 10: Physiocrats & mercantilists: The economic philosophies of the founding fathers
Rethinking Liberal Theory 11:Stateless income, global capital, and the death of empires
Rethinking Liberal Theory 12:Capitalism:So much more than market
Rethinking liberalism 13: What is money? 
Rethinking Liberalism 14: Tribalism and the emerging new world order
Rethinking liberalism 15: The poverty of neoconservative philosophy
Rethinking Liberalism 16: More on the poverty of neoconservative philosophy