Invisible Hands

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Kim Phillips-Fein. Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2009. xii plus 271 pp. $26.95, Hard Back ISBN 978-0-393-05930

Invisible Hands: The Businessmen's Crusade Against the New Deal. New York: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (January 11, 2010), 360 pp. Paper Back ISBN 0393337669



Kim Phillips-Fein chronicles the origins of the conservative movement from the New Deal to its apex in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. In this work the author argues that the modern conservative movement was a backlash to the liberal agenda embodied by the New Deal. She further argues that this backlash was largely created by a handful of conservative businessmen who were mostly invisible to the public, but built a political movement through the creation of think tanks and business networks to "crusade" against state capitalism and an anti-business government programs. Indeed the title, Invisible Hands, is a play on Adam Smith’s idea of “an invisible hand” in The Wealth of Nations. As the author states towards the end of the book, conservative business activists: "…were convinced that the free market had the ability to create economic abundance and moral order simultaneously—that its invisible hand would punish the indolent and reward the entrepreneurs.”(262). In this work, the conservative movement devisers, the invisible hands, were whole-heartedly committed to the ideal of laissez faire capitalism and sought to organize a political movement against the liberalism espoused by proponents of the New Deal.

Within the Phillips-Fein's work conservative ideology is largely based on the laissez faire capitalism promoted by conservative economic intellectuals such as Alfred Marshall, Friedrich von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. These ideas, an antithesis of Keynesian/ New Deal economic and social ideology, were adopted and disseminated by newly formed conservative think tanks to the business and activist community. The conservative agenda promoting free market ideas found distribution in the publication of issue specific magazines, religious preaching, and radio programming. Throughout the work the author shows how this kernel of an ideology was sown to grow into a potent political movement. Indeed, the author states that original conservative activist, populist and Foundation for Economic Education founder, Leonard Read preached “the one true faith” to educate each individual and change the consciousness of corporate America (55). Evangelical businessmen, such as J. Howard Pew and anti-communist religious leaders such as Carl McIntire and Billy James during the 1950s, took up “the one true faith” thus laying the foundations for common cause of unfettered capitalism with the religious right. Further, Phillips-Fein asserts that corporations attempted to recast labor relations in light of this ideology. She gives the example of General Electric seeing labor as a potential “captive political audience, a group of people who could be organized to oppose the New Deal and liberalism through lectures, reading groups, and political messages” (108). Through these three means, the author asserts the foundation for a conservative ideology was laid.

The author sees the decade of the 1970s as when the conservative ideology was able to catch on with the American public and a subsequent period of proliferation of conservative organizations. Although conservative businessmen’s candidate Barry Goldwater lost the election to Johnson, America soon became less than enamored with Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam War, Great Society programs and social unrest. Also in the early part of this decade there existed a large anti-business sentiment as embodied by the counterculture. To oppose this, conservative businessmen formed organizations to promote a positive image of American business. Organizations such as the Business Round Table and Chamber of Commerce were formed to lobby for preferential legislation and public education. Also, these two organizations differed from their predecessors, such as the Foundation for Economic Education, in that they were specifically formed to counter the political influence of labor unions and consumer groups (192). Phillips-Fein further states organizations such as the Business Round Table were careful not to get involved in cultural debates of morality, however the Chamber of Commerce took the viewpoint “that defeating the counterculture was key to the rescue of capitalism.”(205). By tying the free market ideology to ideas of traditional American values conservatives were able to appeal to a larger segment of the American populace, especially the evangelical right. This is exemplified in the author’s assessment of Richard Viguerie’s argument: “…that the blue-collar workers of the nation and their manufacturing bosses were natural allies against the media elites, intellectuals, academics, and poor people on welfare.”(217). Thus business interests through education campaigns, lobbying, and fusing free market ideology with traditional American values were able to aggregate diverse conservative voices into a political force that propelled Reagan to the presidency.


Scott Abeel

Invisible Hands is a very well written work that describes how the conservative movement was able to become a major political influence during the latter half of the twentieth century. However, the work shows the difficulty of characterizing such a diverse grouping into one central ideology. Phillips-Fein seems to frame this ideology into a definition of laissez faire opposition to liberal and New Deal meddling in American business. As historian Alan Brinkley has pointed out in his essay, “The Problem of American Conservatism”, political ideologies often do not fall into simply defined categories, as the groups that espouse such ideas often reflect contradictory and divergent views that happen to coalesce during historical periods to promote a political vision on the national stage. Subsequently the same can be said of any so-called ideology, liberal, socialist, etc, each equally confusing and difficult to pin down and label as a single movement. Unfortunately, the author uses the term conservative ideology to define the efforts of “ordinary businessmen… who worked for more than forty years to undo the system of labor unions, federal social welfare programs, and government regulation of the economy that came into existence during and after the Great Depression of the 1930s.”(xi-xii). Perhaps the re-titling of the book in paperback edition gives a better idea of what the author is trying to impart to the reader.

Lindsey Bestebreurtje, Fall 2012

In detailing the ways in which business executives sought to dismantle the economic and political realities of the New Deal Era, one of the strengths of “Invisible Hands” was clearly laying out the creation of conservative economic, political, and social groups with business executives at their helm. This revealed a new kind of “alphabet soup” of organizations which, instead of creating the New Deal, sought to break it down.

These organizations changed their tactics from the 1930s through the 1970s to adapt to the realities of their time, but Phillips-Fein revealed two consistent tactics used throughout. These were seemingly a-political economic education and attempting to create a coalition between executives and their workers. Through these tactics organizations from the American Liberty League in 1934 to the American Conservative Union in the 1970s attempted to convince workers that the only way to create a stable economy was by “weakening regulations, limiting labor unions, and rolling back taxes.” (pp 211) Once properly educated, business leaders and their organizations used workers to influence politics to strengthen their personal economic gains.

This same issue of business manipulation, while enlightening, goes too far in this narrative. Because she does not recognize any grassroots mobilization on the part of workers or voters, it seems as if modern conservatism came into political power through pure manipulation from above. Seeing conservatism as entirely generated by business elites, Phillips-Fein neglects to see any of the work done by the populace at large outlined by McGirr in Suburban Warriors. For example, when dealing with the rise of conservative evangelicals in politics, Phillips-Fein argues that Christian organizations were slow to enter the movement because “they had no organic basis in any church community.” (pp 227) This does not seem very likely given McGirr’s extensive tracking of the tandem rise of political, social, and religious conservatism. These books really need each other as neither gives a complete understanding of the rise of conservatism, which was neither top down nor bottom up.

Despite these weaknesses, “Invisible Hands” is an important read for all voters today. Given the state of modern politics, especially unsettling interactions between business and politics like those seen with the Koch brother’s Americans for Prosperity PAC which bank rolls Tea Party candidates, “Invisible Hands” is an important read to understand the modern political landscape.

Sheri A. Huerta, Fall 2012

Phillips-Fein traces the intellectual the origins of the conservative movement to businessmen and theorists who found common purpose in diminishing the power of New Deal government regulation, labor unions, and social welfare and championed the cause of free market economics. This analysis broadens the scope of movement participants from the middle class of the 1960s to early business proponents during the 1930s but also demonstrates the length of time required for these ideas to coalesce into a political movement capable of bridging class and labor differences.

By pushing back the temporal boundaries of the conservative movement to New Deal origins, Phillips-Fein is able to provide greater analysis of key platforms such as the anti-union sentiments of conservative businessmen by exploring the efforts taken to counteract public opinion against management over time. One example provides a critical feature of the business approach to education campaigns. General Electric hired Lemuel Ricketts Boulware after a series of strikes during the 1940s as a public relations initiative. This proved a boon to conservative propagandists when his marketing strategies “made fighting the unions come to seem moral, a righteous cause” (p. 98) and set the stage for aggressive worker education programs on the “catechism of the marketplace” (p. 100). A benefit to the intellectual approach is the detailed analysis of education efforts on the behalf of business and theorists to promote probusiness ideology. The survey of literature, pamphlets, magazines, and radio programs gives the impression that probusiness tracts and information flooded the trade markets, but it is unclear how many of these publications reached the public or were simply selectively distributed to fellow businessmen or Boulwarism programs in the workplace.

Invisible Hands recreates the intellectual history of the conservative movement from the perspective of prominent businessmen, economic theorists, and think tank architects. This top-down approach pieces together the disparate business, economic, and social theories that coalesced around key leaders in a multitude of organizations but limits the participation of grassroots organizations as emphasized in Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors. Another key piece of this top-down approach is the financial influence of businessmen in forming organizations to pursue research, educational strategies, and networking. Efforts by men like William Baroody at the American Enterprise Association to mobilize and “deploy their (businessmen’s) money strategically to uphold the free-market order” through research and lobbying to Washington creates an image of financial power determining politics that undermines a folksy grassroots narrative (p. 66). By cataloging corporate sponsorship without further analysis of business size, strength, or regional affiliations, the work loses any geographical analysis of business support, a key feature of Bethany Moreton’s interpretation of conservatism in To Serve God and Wal-Mart.

Invisible Hands provides an important discussion on the role of intellectual arguments, business interests, and money in creating organizations that broadened the scope and dissemination of ideas and influence long before a popular notion of conservative ideas coalesced into political candidates and social causes.

Celeste Sharpe, Spring 2013

In an effort to wrest attention away from the cultural roots of the history of American conservatism, Phillips-Fein focuses instead on how a small, persistent, and growing group of businessmen challenged liberal policies starting with the New Deal. Largely an intellectual history and history of business elites, Invisible Hands argues that "the most striking and lasting victories of the right have come in the realm of political economy than that of culture" (xii), particularly in light of a transformed tax code, government's role in the regulation of business, and the relationship between the federal government and the states, and the huge decrease in union membership seen by the study's end in the 1980s.

Phillips-Fein traces this history back to the New Deal in an effort similar to the contributors to Rightward Bound, that understanding the rise of conservatism requires looking beyond the idea that the conservative movement was a backlash to the 1960s and that neither liberalism nor conservatism totally dominated at any one point in the twentieth century. Rather, liberalism and conservatism were always present and in tension with each other. Invisible Hands does a strong job teasing out the limits of the admittedly often marginal organizations like the short-lived Liberty League of the 1930s, the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), and the Mont Pelerin Society. One of the book's strengths is the persistent attention to these groups, and how they endured and matured into the think tanks and associations that provide research, funding, and intellectual support to the conservative movement to this day. While focusing on how conservative ideas of finance, those opposed to New Deal and espoused by von Hayek and Mises, circulated over three decades, Phillips-Fein traces how the ideas intersected, often unsuccessfully, with business leaders. Showing again the cracks in liberalism, she asserts that "The think tanks, radio stations, magazines, and intellectual organizations that were funded by business contributions during the 1950s helped to form the infrastructure for the rise of the conservative movement...they produced the ideas, popularized the language, and built the support for conservative economic politics at the very height of postwar liberalism" (86). Moreover, at every point, for every organization, substantial amounts of money and the attention of powerful business leaders supported many of the ideals of these free-market thinkers.

Overall, Invisible Hands succeeds at revealing the ways that businessmen supported and leveraged economic theories to repeal New Deal liberalism over four decades. At brief moments, Phillips-Fein gestures toward discussion of racist or anti-Semitic elements in the business elite, but these are fleeting. A more developed class analysis would have benefitted the discussion of the relationship between owners/managers and their workers, particularly in light of the examination of how the elite thought to persuade workers to their views and away from unions. However, this readable text is useful for its revised chronology and questioning of the focus on cultural factors, namely evangelicalism and family values, as the defining legacy of the shift right.

Spencer Roberts, Spring 2014

In Kim Phillips-Fein’s narrative about the emergence of the conservative movement, she undertakes the ambitious task of reorienting the historical understanding of conservatism toward the businessmen and economic theorists, rather than politicians, who contributed to the new conservative United States. In the manner of other historians who have revisited the popular narrative of conservatism, Phillips-Fein extends the chronology backward to the New Deal, broadens her list of influences to include religion and moralism, and situates the success of conservative politicians within a larger culture of conservative currents.

Phillips-Fein includes so much detail in her book that her discussion of conservatism captures the fine details of the extensive debates about free enterprise, free markets, government controls, cultural values, et cetera. In places, her account replicates the tedium of those debates with too much authenticity. Rather than provide her readers with clearly marked altitudes from which to understand the conservative movement, she becomes obsessed with falling of trees. That detail, however, is not entirely wasted. Her evidence demonstrates that businessmen, investors, academics, and politicians struggled to cope with failing liberalism and entertained numerous possible solutions.

In fact, Phillips-Fein’s book may work best when combined with alternative narratives, such as Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart, in which conservative theories and approaches are seen and used in the everyday lives of Wal-Mart employees and managers. Phillips-Fein concludes that conservatism had its roots in reactions to the New Deal, which aligns with other historians’ conclusions, although she arrived there via a different point of inquiry.

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