Thurman Wesley Arnold Essay

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Thurman Arnold (1891–1969) was a lawyer, judge, law professor, political theorist, and assistant attorney general in charge of antitrust initiative in the Roosevelt administration. His two principal books are The Symbols of Government (1935) and The Folklore of Capitalism (1937).

Arnold contends that humans are primarily irrational, governed not by reason but by the need to tell stories and cast people into familiar roles in order to make sense of the world. Successful political action requires discovering the folklore of a people (including ideas, symbols, and ceremonial action) and advocating change within its context, to make new ideas seem like the fulfillment of old promises. Arnold’s work is devoted to exposing the folklore that governed American life during the Great Depression (1929–1939), to pave the way for a new folklore that justified an American welfare state.

Arnold’s theory focuses on the relationship between ideas and organizations. He argues that theory has no meaning apart from its attachment to organizations and that the primary purpose of theory is not to reflect truth but to provide morale. No organization can function for long without the legitimacy (and attendant morale) provided by its folklore. The ability of an organization to respond effectively to changing circumstances depends on the flexibility of that folklore to respond to tensions between original purposes and new obligations. Sometimes the tension is reconciled through elaborate ceremonies (Arnold’s most famous detailed analysis of this is a look at the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890) or the creation of sub-rosa institutions to meet needs not legitimated under the dominant folklore (e.g., bootlegging during Prohibition in the 1920s). Substantive change is possible only in times of institutional collapse, and even then innovation must account for the existential authority of the old folklore.

Arnold’s principal works analyze the folklore behind political governance (the U.S. Constitution) and economic governance (capitalism). In The Folklore of Capitalism, generally regarded as his most important work, Arnold’s central goal is to expose the business corporation in the United States as essentially a form of feudal government, a fact obscured by capitalist folklore. He accomplishes this through systematic analyses of the symbols of taxation, the personification of the corporation, and the nature of U.S. antitrust and corporate reorganization laws. Ultimately, Arnold attempts to justify an active welfare state and a regulatory apparatus that forces corporations to recognize their public obligations.

Folklore paved the way for Arnold’s appointment in 1938 as assistant attorney general, in charge of the antitrust division. Arnold revolutionized the division, introducing new legal tactics and new ways of thinking about the role of trusts in American economic life. His goal was not to attack the size of corporations per se but the restraints of trade created by them that negated competition and harmed the consumer. Arnold enjoyed considerable success until the defense buildup during World War II (1939–1945) ended the political support for his initiatives. He resigned in 1943 and after a brief judgeship went on to found the law firm Arnold, Fortas & Porter.


  1. Arnold, Thurman. The Symbols of Government. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1935.
  2. The Folklore of Capitalism. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1937.
  3. Reprint, Frederick, Md.: Beard Books, 2000.

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