Sunday, July 23, 2023

Matthew Titolo's "Privatization and Its Discontents"

Matthew Titolo is Professor of Law at the West Virginia University College of Law. He researches nineteenth-century American legal and political history and teaches American legal history as well as commercial law courses.

Titolo applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Privatization and Its Discontents: Infrastructure, Law, and American Democracy, and reported the following:
Infrastructure and privatization have both been persistent themes in modern political debates over the role of government in the economy. Scholars writing about these issues today situate them in the frame of networks, platforms or utilities to map the public and private forces that materialize the market state. Privatization and Its Discontents situates this debate in the American context as a problem for law, politics and the economy from the 18th century down to our own time. The book brings sweeping themes of infrastructure and the public-private divide into conversation with statutes, court decisions and intellectual history to situate infrastructure at the center of American statecraft, and maps the conflicting ideas of the public good, markets and political democracy that shape modern liberalism.

The book is an extended historical essay on the development of infrastructure in its various forms throughout American history. It begins with a broad overview of Adam Smith and Alexander Hamilton on political economy, public goods and the state. As the book progresses it uses historical documents to bring the story to life in a detailed way. When we apply our Page 99 Test, it illustrates the level of care for close reading of legal texts that substantiates the book’s larger project.

Page 99 begins in the middle of a long quote from a New Hampshire court decision from the 1850s. It falls roughly in the middle of Chapter 3 in a 6-chapter book. On page 99 I am discussing how state governments used the power of eminent domain to build infrastructures as varied as canals, railroads and turnpikes, illustrating how the market state was itself an extended public-private venture. So, in that sense, page 99 is a nice illustration of the book’s broader themes.

However, a reader turning to page 99 to get an idea of the book as a whole would probably miss the interdisciplinary nature of the project. Page 99 shows Privatization and Its Discontents as a book about legal history, which it is. But it is also a book about the broader ideas that shape our contemporary infrastructure politics. Thus, the Page 99 Test passes, but only barely. The reader will get a lot of detailed legal analysis in this book, so in that sense the test is helpful in this case. But a complete read of the book would reveal how those details tie into larger historical currents that are not apparent on page 99.
Learn more about Privatization and Its Discontents at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue