Amidst the political discussion swirling through the veins of America this electoral season, there is a greater question worthy of our time. Have we come so far into the future that we no longer remember the past? Are the lessons of history understood, or even acknowledged? Do we care enough about the wisdom harvested from the fields of experience to sow a different future?
The federal government of America has become the government we deserve. It is no accident that a nation rooted in personal debt is governed by an entity unapologetic of deficit. It is no deviation of human behavior wherein the nation so oft clamoring for imperial war is mired in our longest conflicts. It is no artifact of history that the society pleading for the government to care for it in the 60’s is asking for ever increasing levels of provision in 2012. The means of governance are quietly and quickly regressing to that loathsome standard of the human condition, tyranny over the actions of man.
George Santayana coined the axiom “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. By forgetting and ignoring the lessons of the past, predicable consequences are upon these United States. Failures of federal fiscal stimulus in the Great Depression, and the subsequent 20 years of Keynesian failure in Japan is evidence enough for any concerned observer to doubt the efficacy of counter cyclical federal stimulus. Intentional inflation was counterproductive in solving the economic woes of Rome, Sung China, Weimar Germany, Chile, or Zimbabwe, yet we pursue increasing the money supply. Wars do not stimulate economic activity; they break valuable creations and kill people. Money that flows through the government will invariably find special interests and corruption, to expect otherwise is to deny the corruption inherent in humanity. It is simply untenable to provide incentives for graft and siphoning and expect officials to behave with character. The fraud of the Transcontinental Railroad’s Credit Mobilier, Rosco Conkling’s Republican Stalwarts of graft and the House Banking scandal are all ample enough opportunities for comprehension. While I find it disgusting that there are many in power fully aware of these events and proceed apace with expanding the status quo, it is far from obvious that anything approaching a substantial minority of the electorate has a sufficient understanding of the lessons of history to properly forecast the results of the future.
Liberty is lost when a people have no understanding of the alternatives, and this is the ground we now stand upon. History is understood through two primary lenses, and often like binoculars, a combination of both. The first is to look at history as a grand sweep of the inevitable leading invariably to the present, known frequently as determinism. Today is the product and consequence of socio-economic trends, natural causes and curious accidents of history. Prominent example of this historical analysis is Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, which purports to explain the superiority of some civilizations based on numerous factors. An alternative view of history sees the consequences of the past as a result of the actions of individuals; the human action drives forward the society surrounding it. Liberty is best understood in this lens as the increase in liberty comes seldom without the direct action of individuals. The study of history through the eyes of the individuals provides a far more memorable and applicable understanding of history then does a sweeping narrative of inevitable change. The context surrounding significant events is even better understood in this manner. Pedagogically this is a more difficult approach, as it is difficult to form standardized tests and multiple choice exams in relation to the motives and desires of the individuals.
It is the responsibility of those who vote to understand the context and consequences of the past. Read history. Watch history. Discuss history, not as some cathartic vessel of high school days gone past, but as the eclectic, fascinating and vibrant collection of real and personal stories that it is. When you look to read your next book, engage yourself in a work of personal lives which changed the world. Perhaps start on Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard, Thunderstruck by Eric Larson, or Mayflower by Nathanial Philbrick. When the opportunity presents itself, discuss the past and how it effects today with others who are willing to think and engage. I have no pretense to offer a solution which is broad and sweeping and will change the nation. I can only entreat you to begin or continue a lifelong journey of understanding the past, so that we will not always be condemned to repeat it.