Richard N. Langlois

Jul 27, 2023

The Corporation and the Twentieth Century

The History of American Business Enterprise

Princeton University Press 2023

The twentieth century was the managerial century in the United States. An organizational transformation, from entrepreneurial to managerial capitalism, brought forth what became a dominant narrative: that administrative coordination by trained professional managers is essential to the efficient running of organizations both public and private. And yet if managerialism was the apotheosis of administrative efficiency, why did both its practice and the accompanying narrative lie in ruins by the end of the century? 

In The Corporation and the Twentieth Century: The History of American Business Enterprise (Princeton UP, 2023), Richard Langlois offers an alternative version: a comprehensive and nuanced reframing and reassessment of the economic, institutional, and intellectual history of the managerial era.

Langlois argues that managerialism rose to prominence not because of its inherent superiority but because of its contingent value in a young and rapidly developing American economy. The structures of managerialism solidified their dominance only because the century's great catastrophes of war, depression, and war again superseded markets, scrambled relative prices, and weakened market-supporting institutions. By the end of the twentieth century, Langlois writes, these market-supporting institutions had reemerged to shift advantage toward entrepreneurial and market-driven modes of organization.

This magisterial new account of the rise and fall of managerialism holds significant implications for contemporary debates about industrial and antitrust policies and the role of the corporation in the twenty-first century.

Richard Langlois was born and raised in northeastern Connecticut and educated at Williams, Yale, and Stanford. He received his Ph.D. in 1981 from the Department of Engineering-Economic Systems at Stanford. His primary work has been in the economics of organization, where he has long been pushing the theory of dynamic transaction costs and the theory of modular systems, as well as in economic and business history. His 1992 history of the microcomputer industry won the Newcomen Award as the best paper in the Business History Review. Previous books include Firms, Markets, and Economic Change: a Dynamic Theory of Business Institutions (Routledge, 1995, with Paul L. Robertson) and The Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism: Schumpeter, Chandler, and the New Economy (The Graz Schumpeter Lectures, Routledge 2007), which won the Schumpeter Prize of the International Joseph A. Schumpeter Society.

In this podcast, he discussed the main themes in his most recent book and how it sits within overall discussions about the large corporation, his views on institutions and the nature of American-led capitalism in the 20th century. This is possible through a reinterpretation of a large body of economic and business history rather than archival or other primary source material.

As mentioned during the podcast:

-Chandler, A. (1990) Scale and Scope

-Coase, R. (1937) The Nature of the Firm.

-Langlois, R. (2003) The Vanishing Hand.

-Langlois, R. (2004). The Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism (Graz Lectures).

Bernardo Batiz-Lazo is currently straddling between Newcastle and Mexico City. You can find him on twitter on issues related to business history of banking, fintech, payments and other musings. Not always in that order. @BatizLazo

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Bernardo Batiz-Lazo

Bernardo Batiz-Lazo is currently straddling between Newcastle and Mexico City. You can find him on twitter on issues related to business history of banking, fintech, payments and other musings. Not always in that order. @BatizLazo

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