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Today In Unconvincing Economic Reductionism


I find this paper interesting for a different reason than Matt does; namely, that it’s a classic example of “drawing inferences far beyond what your data can actually support.”   Even if we assume arguendo that the GOP increased its vote share by 2.25% in 1864 because manufacturing interests wanted to protect their market access, there are a couple obvious problems with proceeding from there to “the root cause of the Civil War was economic”:

  • Especially when it comes to war, where power is concentrated de facto in the executive branch, public officials have very significant autonomy.   Even if Liscow’s argument helps to explain why Lincoln was able to stay in power to finish the war in 1865, Lincoln had the ability to fight the war or not pretty much at his discretion during that time.   So Liscow’s evidence is neither here nor there — to prove that that the Civil War was primarily motivated by economic factors you have to demonstrate that Lincoln was primarily motivated by a desire to protect manufacturing interests.   As far as I can tell, there is very little evidence that this is the case and very substantial evidence otherwise.   At best, Liskow provides evidence for the utterly banal observation that manufacturing interests were an important part of the Republican electoral coalition that allowed Lincoln to fight the war he wanted to fight.
  • To have any bite, the vote shifts that Liskow discusses would have to have been decisive in the 1864 election — but of course they weren’t.  The only state decided by less than 2.25% was New York, and with a 191-vote margin in the Electoral College to work with Lincoln could afford to lose it.

Economic determinist arguments are very hard to disprove, and so we can’t say for certain that the Civil War wasn’t motivated primary by economic interests, although I think it’s implausible.   But even taking its central empirical claim at face value I don’t think Liscow’s paper does much to make the case.

…in addition to correcting my misspelling of the author’s name,  a commenter points out that Liscow completely ignores the 1862 elections.  If his argument doesn’t hold up in the midterms as well it’s hard to see it having any validity…

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