What is history? One’s answer to this question says a lot about the way one would actually practice history as a profession. Is history, a la Henry Ford, just one damn thing after another? If we don’t learn the past, are we actually condemned to repeat it? Or is one notable historical figure right when he said, “History should not be learned as a list; it should inspire”?
(People are usually drawn to quotes like that — at least until they find out that it was said by Adolf Hitler.)
(Apropos of nothing, here are Hitler quotes attributed to Taylor Swift.)
In reality, history is all of those things and none of those things. The study of the past indeed includes many, many facts, wherein one might find that events and actions appear similar, or one might be inspired to action. But that is not what history necessarily is. The practice of history is the assembling of facts in such a way so as to interpret the past. History is not just the description of events that have happened in the past; neither is it unfounded opinions to suit a favored narrative. Historians, in studying the past, interpret bygone events in order to understand how and why they happened, in so doing, understanding more about humanity itself.
So, the historian’s interpretations, and how they came to those interpretations, matter. When I teach history, I like to show this clip of a short Schoolhouse Rock video called “Elbow Room.”
Students are usually drawn to the classic indicators of Manifest Destiny shown in the video: colonists needed more “elbow room”; the West was a vast, untamed wilderness; it was American ingenuity that tamed the frontier; it was our destiny to have the land from “sea to shining sea”; indeed, God, or at least some vague notion of Him, was behind it.
Then I ask what this video is missing. Where are the Indians, besides Sacagawea? How did Americans conquer the West? Why did Americans need elbow room? Was it worth it?
This invariably leads to some very interesting discussions, which highlight the importance of interpretation. Was America’s westward expansion the God-ordained destiny of rugged individualists to tame the wilderness? Or was it something more sinister, involving the displacement and nigh eradication of those who already lived there? And what was the frontier? Was it, as Frederick Jackson Turner argued, the explanation of American development or was it, as Richard White has said, merely the place where white people get scarce?
The same sets of facts can lead to wildly different interpretations.
Two articles got me thinking about this. The first was “What Libertarians Get Wrong About American History” by Sheldon Richman over at Reason.com. He argues that libertarians are wrong when they try to claim American history as a uniquely libertarian, or liberty-leaning, story. When they argue that “we need to go back to [before Obama, before the Great Society, before the New Deal, before the Civil War]” they misunderstand what has actually happened in American history, neglecting the many ways in which the United States has never been a pristine model of libertarian society. I would add, as a libertarian leaner myself, that this tendency wreaks havoc on libertarian ideas, particularly the insistence that Abraham Lincoln was a racist tyrant and the Civil War was an unnecessary war of northern aggression.
The other article was “Austrian Economics: Made in the USA” by Janek Wasserman at the History News Network. He argues that the “Austrian School of Economics” was hijacked by American rightists who latched onto the political writings of Ludwig von Mises and, especially, Friedrich Hayek, doing a “disservice to the eclectic intellectual history of Austrian economics, confusing a dogmatic political program with a robust intellectual heritage.”
What struck me about these two articles were the ideological nature of each side’s interpretation of history. On the one side, you have the libertarians, whose problems were ably discussed by Richman. On the other side, you have Wasserman, whom I will spend more of my time on.
The major problem with his argument, and one that affects the rest of the essay, is that Wasserman fails to define what the Austrian School of Economics — or as he shortens it for the sake of his argument, Austrian Economics — actually is. [NOTE: Steven Horwitz and Phillip Magness have good rejoinders that refute the specifics of Wasserman’s argument.] This strikes me as quite important. The Austrian School is a theory of free-market capitalism that formed largely out of the ideas of Mises and Hayek, along with other figures, some of them cited in his article. Wasserman seems to think that it has no defining theory, and that its unifying force is the Austrian ethnicity of the economists. This is, on its face, quite silly. To include every Austrian economist in a school known as “Austrian Economics” would be akin to combining Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes in a school of “Anglo Economics.” It is a nonsensical way of describing theoretical and ideological disagreements.
Further, this insistence on including all Austrian economists in a single school obscures the ways, contra his assertion that Austrian Economics’ relationship with right-wing politics was a “reduction of a tradition,” that the Austrian economists really were libertarians, or as they would have called themselves, liberals. It’s almost as if he has never heard of the socialist–calculation debate. He cites other Austrians that supposedly had doubts on the ways Americans celebrated Mises and Hayek, saying that one “abhorred the association with supply-side economics, anarcho-capitalism, and Reagonomics” (one of these things is not like the other). But how else can one describe a movement that produced some of the most pro-capitalist writings of any group of economists and that consistently aligned itself with classically liberal ideas and causes?
If Wasserman had merely argued that the Austrian school as it started out was a bit more complex than the monolithic free market giant it is seen as now, he would have some merit. But by framing Austrian economics as a school of thought hijacked by American libertarians and conservatives, he loses his credibility.
The problem with both Wasserman’s essay and the standard libertarian account of American history is that they are ideological in origin. Libertarians are forever looking for ways to make their somewhat unpopular ideas look more palatable to the public — what better way than tying them to the American founding? Wasserman certainly seems to have allowed his argument to be affected by an animus toward the modern conservative/libertarian movement. And this is a problem for all kinds of ideologies: Christians like David Barton try to claim the founders, especially Thomas Jefferson, as born-again evangelicals; some conservatives’ view of history is stamped with an overwrought American exceptionalism; and some liberals insist on labelling the right wing as the “racist” party, in spite of conservatism’s link to civil rights. The problem is not the ideology, necessarily. The problem is allowing it to interfere with good history.
Ideological history is, above all, boring history — and it’s boring because of its tenuous tie to reality. Good history, interesting history, is one that acknowledges differences and complexity — as Bernard Bailyn wrote, one that retains all the “chaos, the rich ambiguity of historical moments, life’s bafflements, the accidents and contingencies.”
Ideological history is uninteresting. And that is its biggest problem.