Inward Conquest: The Political Origins of Modern Public Services, Ben W. Ansell and Johannes Lindvall

Reviewed by Ahmed Shafiqul Huque


Public services represent entitlements of citizens, and their provision is determined by the character of modern states. Governments are constantly challenged by the need to provide better services with wider coverage in the face of numerous constraints. This book provides important information on the origins of public services. It will serve as a useful reference on the genesis, governing process, and provision of public services.

In Inward Conquest, Ben W. Ansell and Johannes Lindvall explain the political origins of public services through an exploration of developments in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The book chronicles social changes and challenges, as well as actions taken by political parties, religious groups, and governments at various levels to address social needs. The analysis is based on the experience of 19 countries in Europe, North America, and Asia and examines the starting point of seven human services that “shape and transform people.” The services are related to order (policing and prisons), education or knowledge (schools and libraries), and health (mental institutions, vaccinations, and midwifery).

Public service provision continues to be the subject of debates over range and coverage, the roles of providers and consumers, strategies, and methods of delivery. The analysis of their origins by Ansell and Lindvall offers useful insight into these issues. Many public services were originally provided by local entities such as churches, religious groups, or philanthropic organizations. The key areas of contention were the role of the church and state, the center and periphery, and the public and private sectors, as well as the tension and competition between them. Eventually, the emergence of the centralized welfare state ushered in the era of provision by secular public authorities.

The book draws upon “data on legislation, government employment, and the proportion of the population that was incarcerated, attended school, or… committed to mental institutions” and describes the pattern of expansion of public services over the period under review to be “near universal” (p. 245). The processes of centralization, subsidization, and secularization appear to be formidable factors influencing the trajectory of public service provision.

The authors note convergence “on the idea of modern, public, professionalized forms of policing” (p. 90). They find “a near-universal convergence around a central, public, secular form of governance” for prisons that allowed states to have “tyrannical powers over its population” (p. 116). Educational services create “a direct relationship between states and masses” and were impacted by intense “conflicts among conservatives, liberals, socialists, fascists, churches, and minority religious sects” (p. 58). Some governments chose to centralize the locally anchored library systems to foster support for their ideologies; making books available to the public is described as a “defining part of the nineteenth century's revolution in government” (p. 170). The number of mental health institutions proliferated as regional or central governments assumed control over them. Vaccinations were administered by churches earlier on, but the responsibility was gradually taken over by the state, often with assistance from private providers for organizational and technical support.

Ansell and Lindvall undertook meticulous research to explore the conditions and context in selected countries and succeeded in highlighting the tension and competition between philanthropy groups, religious organizations, and political parties with diverse ideologies that have, nevertheless, contributed to the consolidation of public services delivered to citizens. A comprehensive review of almost 140 years of history is supported by data and insightful analysis. This book makes a significant contribution to the literature by advancing knowledge on the origins and development of public services.

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