History Proves Nothing

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Insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. ~ Albert Einstein

We drive into the future using only our rearview mirror. ~ Marshall McLuhan

As popular respect for political systems continues to erode, you may have noticed the statists frantically trying to deflate emerging inquiries and debates on the topic of secession. Their principal argument has been the non sequitur "the American Civil War answered that question." Such a response presumes that history expresses immutable principles that transcend time, a proposition that would at once be seen for its inherent absurdity were it applied to scientific understanding. Who was Copernicus to suggest that we live in a heliocentric universe after Ptolemy informed us of the geocentric nature of our world? Furthermore, the American Revolutionary War was premised on the right of people to secede from existing political systems; and yet the statists are not to be heard using that period as precedent for condemning Lincoln's suppression of that principle.

If history is to be the standard for propriety in our world, would we not have to defend the principle of slavery, given that the 1857 U.S. Supreme Court case of Dred Scott v. Sandford upheld the legality of the practice? And wouldn't the fate of Joan of Arc have "answered the question" that political dissenters could be burned at the stake? Or are we, like lawyers, entitled to pick and choose the precedents that serve our particular cause, while carefully "distinguishing" other instances that don't serve our purposes?

The intellectually dishonest nature of this highly selective use of history is revealed in the corollary practice — often engaged in by the same people — of projecting into history modern biases and attitudes, and judging our ancestors accordingly. A number of years ago — while visiting the restored Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts — I watched two college-aged women ask a guide in Puritan dress questions such as: "with all the smoke produced by their fireplaces, weren't these people concerned about the environment?" The Puritan actress replied that they were principally concerned with staying alive in a harsh New England winter. "Ohhh," the young moderns responded. "Did Puritan women have the same rights as men?," was next asked. "Yes they did; they had to work from sunup to dark — just like the men — just to stay alive," they were told. "Ohhh," came another innocent gurgle.

It is difficult to use history to "prove" the consequences — be they good or bad — from following a given course of action. Any complex system — of which few are more complicated than mankind's record — contains far too many variables to allow for either prediction or past explanations. Heisenberg reminded us that the observer is inseparable from what is being observed, meaning that our capacities for interpretation are difficult to separate from our prior experiences. It was this limitation that framed the questions of these college students at Plymouth, and makes the study of "chaos" both so enlightening and liberating.

We can learn much from history, particularly when we see the same patterns recurring over and over from one culture or time period to another. When free-market societies consistently outperform politically-planned systems, we are well-advised to take note of that fact. At the same time, the high correlation between large states and the war system should make us distrustful of size. But we must remain aware that the questions we ask of our ancestors reflect the backward projection of our present concerns and interests. As despicable as the practice of slavery is, we cannot grasp how ancients could regard the practice as a more humane way of treating a defeated enemy than the earlier tradition of slaughtering them. Likewise, our modern sensibilities make it difficult for us to understand how our grandparents and great-grandparents welcomed the automobile for the improvement it provided over horse-drawn carriages in the smells of urban streets.

Einstein, Heisenberg, and chaos theory, remind us that what we can know about the world often has a transitory quality to it; with doubt and uncertainty waiting offstage with previously undiscovered facts or, more profoundly, with a major improvement in the sophistication of the questions we ask of it. How we learn reminds me of driving in a blizzard, peering through a frosted windshield, watching for any signs that assure me I am still on the road. I know that I dare not stop — lest someone crash into me from behind — but must keep going forward into uncertainty.

As difficult as it is to get history to disgorge its empirical truths with mathematical certitude, such inquiries become even more pronounced when we ask about the validity of normative values and other philosophic principles. It borders on the delusional to believe that the study of history can either prove or disprove our value judgments. Using the best of historiographic methods, we can get some sense of the consequences of having followed a given course of action, but whether such effects were moral or otherwise virtuous — indeed, whether it is appropriate to even ask such questions — can only be determined by the subjective judgments of individuals.

Whether the state has any legitimacy that can rightfully bind men and women to its coercive authority, is a question that can never be foreclosed to humans by prior examples of its affirmation. No more so can the writings of Plato, or Hobbes, or Locke, or Marx, or Jefferson, or the Constitution, set the boundaries of the inquiries or expectations that free minds may consider and act upon. That Lincoln was able to mobilize the violent and destructive energies of the state to suppress the efforts of those who sought to secede, carries no more of an unalterable principle to which succeeding generations are bound, than did earlier tyrants who pillaged, decreed, and slaughtered in pursuit of their ambitions over the lives of others.

Such inquiries are not meant for our entertainment, but go to the core of what it means to be human, and what conditions are essential to our survival. When, as modern statists insist, it becomes inappropriate for the individual to question the arrangements under which society is to be conducted, mankind will have positioned itself to join the untold numbers of other species to have failed the life force's wondrous experiment on this planet.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918–1938 and of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival. His latest book is Boundaries of Order.

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