In his fascinating intellectual history of nineteenth and twentieth-century theories about gifts (The Return of the Gift), Harry Liebersohn discusses the theories of nineteen-century German economists who attempted to historicize economics. Friedrich List’s advocacy of rapid German modernization was partly shaped by his experience of the United States. Like many other European visitors, List remarked the “abrupt movement from wilderness to settlement and industrialization” in America (p. 42). Stages that List had thought needed hundreds or even thousands of years to develop had emerged almost instantaneously. Unlike many European visitors, List liked what he saw and “returned to Europe . . . with a missionary belief in the twin goals of economic and political strength.” He aimed to liberate Germany from British economic dominance just as the States had liberated themselves from British political control (p. 43).
In List’s observations about the rapid development of America, we catch a glimpse both of the greatness and weakness of American culture and the American character.
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Friday, June 29, 2012 at 7:02 am
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