Desmond King has produced a piece of distinguished scholarship about the politics of unemployment and the programmes intended to solve it in the United States and the United Kingdom. King begins his analysis with the formation of unemployment programmes during the first third of the 20th century and documents their development until the early 1990s. It is an outstanding example of a solid analysis of comparative policy development within the context of "historical institutionalism". The argument is that the policy choices made during the initiation of the programmes have structured their policies, and their successes, ever since.
This work is interesting in a number of ways. First, King points to some interesting similarities between the two countries being studied. Much of the conventional wisdom would argue that they have had very different experiences adopting and implementing welfare state programmes, but King argues convincingly that there are more similarities than differences. Both chose institutional structures that integrated job placement with paying unemployment benefits, and in both countries job placement activities suffered. This similarity emerged despite the different roles played by race in the United States and by the trade unions in the United Kingdom.
The indictment of job placement in these two countries is in marked contrast to the apparent success of other nations, such as Germany and the Scandinavian countries, with more active labour market policies.
The desire to minimise intervention in the United States and the UK tended also to minimise the capacity of government to play a role in employment, in contrast to those governments which intervened to assist workers to move from declining to growing industries. Further, the Anglo-American systems have done less to co-ordinate training with unemployment, and hence have been less successful in reintegrating the unemployed into a changing labour market.
The real importance of the work, however, is not in its historical description but in the advice it provides about contemporary policy and politics. One principal theme of the book is that the choices made at the initial stages of a policy or organisation will shape its subsequent decisions. This dominance of the past is clear in America and Britain with their "individualist liberal ideology" shaping subsequent attempts to cope with large-scale unemployment and placement problems. Further, the contemporary interest in forming numerous small organisations to perform the tasks previously performed by many smaller ones means that a large number of initial organisational choices are now being made, often without proper analysis of their long-term consequences.
King also points to another issue of great relevance to contemporary policy makers. This is the impact of decentralisation on the performance of training programmes. The administrative pattern adopted in both the United States and the UK was decentralised, with states in America playing a leading role in shaping policy. This choice appears to have contributed to the relative lack of success of these policies in the two countries over the past 60 years. It is likely to be even more damaging in the future as education and training become essential elements in adapting to the international economy. The absence of a co-ordinated strategy to move labour between industries may place these countries at an ever more serious disadvantage.
As with any book there are always things that might have been done differently. The theoretical analysis here is done with almost too light a hand, and some more discussion about how the empirical findings relate to the approach would have been useful. That is, however, only a minor quibble about an excellent piece of scholarship that should be read by academics and practitioners.
Guy Peters is visiting professor, Centre for European Studies, Nuffield College, Oxford.
Actively Seeking Work: The Politics of Unemployment and Welfare Policy in the United States and Great Britain
Author - Desmond King
ISBN - 0 226 43261 7 and 43622 5
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £.00 and £14.95
Pages - 331