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The Price of Progress

Public Services, Taxation, and the American Corporate State, 1877 to 1929

Between the Civil War and the Great Depression, twin revolutions swept through American business and government. In business, large corporations came to dominate entire sectors and markets. In government, new services and agencies, especially at the city and state levels, sprang up to ameliorate a broad spectrum of social problems. In The Price of Progress, R. Rudy Higgens-Evenson offers a fresh analysis of therelationship between those two revolutions.

Using previously unexploited data from the annual reports of state treasurers and comptrollers, he provides a detailed, empirical assessment of the goods and services provided to citizens, as well as the resources extracted from them, by state governments during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.Focusing on New York, Massachusetts, California, and Kansas, but including data on 13 other states, his comparative study suggests that the "corporate state" originated in tax policies designed to finance new and innovative government services.

Business and government grew together in a surprising and complex fashion. In the late nineteenth century, services such as mental health care for the needy and free elementary education for all children created new strains on the states' old property tax systems. In order to pay for newly constructed state asylums and schools, states experimented for the first time with corporate taxation as a source of revenue, linking state revenues to the profitability of industries such as railroads and utilities. To control their tax bills, big businessesintensified lobbying efforts in state legislatures, captured important positions in state tax bureaus, and sponsored a variety of government-efficiency reform organizations. The unintended result of corporate taxation—imposed to allow states to fulfill their responsibilities to their citizens—was the creation of increasingly intimate ties between politicians, bureaucrats, corporate leaders, and progressive citizens. By the 1920s, a variety of "corporate states" had proliferated across the nation, each shaped by a particular mix of taxation and public services, each offering a case study in how the business of America, as President Calvin Coolidge put it, became business.

About the Author

R. Rudy Higgens-Evenson works for the National Park Service at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco.


This fine study contributes to our understanding of the growth of centralized authority and government bureaucracy in a nation often described as hostile to such things.

- Jason Scott Smith - Journal of American History

A very welcome addition to scholarship on the history of public finance.

- W. Elliot Brownlee - EH.Net

The author documents the evolution, often controversial, of state revenue sources and the eventual emergence of state income and wealth taxes as the principal source of revenue for state expenditures.

- Choice

The nature of Higgens-Evenson's achievement is to set the terms of the scholarly debate on the relationship between tax policy and the construction of the modern administrative state.

- Thomas R. Pegram - Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

Joseph Schumpeter observed that taxation offers a way into the drama of history, for those who are willing to make the effort. This short book by Higgens-Evenson bears out the claim, for the issues touched on are of great interest and importance.

- Martin Daunton - Business History

Should find a place in the libraries of historians, economists, political scientists, and public administrators, and it would be usefully added to the syllabi of graduate and upper-level undergraduate courses.

- Christopher Grandy - American Historical Review


The field of state and local taxation remains virtually unexplored, and Higgens-Evenson's work shows how he used previously unexploited data from annual reports of state treasurers and comptrollers in an empirical study.

- Johns Hopkins University Press

Higgens-Evenson has chosen an excellent, neglected topic—the rise of modern taxation in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century United States—and used it to address a critical subject of widespread interest among historians and political scientists—the rise of the activist, modern state. He offers a clearly written and well-researched explanation of the rise of a tax system favorable to corporations in terms of the unintended consequences of states' attempts to deal with the demands for new social services. The author nicely demonstrates how the increasing demands for such services outstripped states' revenue-raising mechanisms and forced the adoption of the corporate tax.

- Michael McGerrIndiana University, author of The Decline of Popular Politics: The American North, 1865—1928
Johns Hopkins University Press
Reconfiguring American Political History
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184 Pages
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