scoffing at history

Sheldon’s Richman’s TGIF feature for FEE this week is called “No Substitute for History.”

It’s an excellent introductory summary of Ludwig von Mises’s “underappreciated book Theory and History: An Interpretation of Social and Economic Evolution, first published in 1957.”

Here’s a passage I enjoyed:

Many people profess an interest in history, but they often make pronouncements about things, especially government activities, in a historical vacuum. When this is called to their attention, they may suddenly turn disdainful of history, as though it frustrates their wishful thinking. The best example of this occurred in 1979 during the Islamic revolution in Iran. You’ll recall that the U.S. embassy was seized and the occupants were held hostage for a long while. When President Carter was asked if the event was related to the 1953 CIA-sponsored overthrow of Iran’s elected secular prime minister in favor of the autocratic Shah, he scoffed, “That’s ancient history.”

I think it’s safe to guess that Richman is still thinking of Randy Barnett’s supposedly libertarian defense of Gulf War II. Here’s how he concludes:

Even libertarians can go badly astray relying on pure a priori reasoning in judging government policy. While the a priori — in Rothbard’s broadly and qualitatively empirical sense — is essential to economic understanding, when it comes to vigilance toward the state, the a priori is no substitute for historical knowledge.

As Mises wrote, “History looks backward into the past, but the lesson it teaches concerns things to come.” One should avoid defending any government activity before consulting history.

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One Response to scoffing at history

  1. You are on to me. :)

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