Hail to the Pencil Pusher


Mike Konczal in Boston Review:

Nineteenth-century America was a place full of hazards. Disease, political oppression, imperialist warfare, poor living conditions, and hard manual labor took their toll, as they still do. But some dangers were peculiar to the era—among them, exploding steamboats.

Between 1825 and 1830, 273 people died in such accidents. DeBow’s Review (1848) noted 233 cases of “bursting boilers,” “collapsing flues,” and other breakdowns, which could cause massive damage. In his 1833 State of the Union address, President Andrew Jackson noted the “many distressing accidents which have of late occurred . . . . by the use of steam power.” But he didn’t simply mourn, instead arguing that the problem demanded “the immediate and unremitting attention of the constituted authorities of the country.” He sought criminal penalties to prevent what he saw as the negligence of carriers.

But the problem was so severe that Congress eventually decided tackle it administratively. Criminalizing bad behavior wasn’t enough; for the good of individual lives and the larger economy, the government would take positive steps to prevent explosions. Under the Steamboat Act of 1852, Congress mandated standards for boiler pressure and testing. Pilots and engineers would be federally licensed. And government inspectors could enforce these rules.

This “steamboat agency” seems like something straight out of the twentieth century. It relied on the Constitution’s commerce clause to regulate a specific industry for personal safety. It developed these regulations based on scientific understanding. And it combined licensing, rule making, and adjudication, as the New Deal and Great Society agencies did and continue to do. It was, in sum, an early manifestation of an administrative state that contemporary conservatives insist did not exist until Progressive Era reformers built it upon the ashes of a former libertarian utopia.

More here.