Why Don’t People Learn From History?

We learn from history that we do not learn from history

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

One of the most striking facets of historical research is discovering the startling similarities between various infamous events.

Take the introduction of the documentary Bitcoin: The End of Money as We Know It (2015) for example. It starts off with a brief story, seemingly referencing the 2008 financial crises but with a twist,

Once upon a time there was a big party, with everyone standing around the punch bowl, drunk. Politicians credited the strong economy to their wise decisions. Businesses jumped into new profitable markets, ignoring risk. In fact the experts said there was no risk.

Then, troubling market data from minor countries, spooked the markets. Rumors spread. More bad news rattled housing prices, at the heart of the financial world. A major bank went insolvent. Investors and businesses made a run on the other banks, demanding their cash deposits. The largest financial institutions in the center of the modern world were frozen. Assets were seized, banks foreclosed. A credit crunch threatened the entire world economy.

And then, finally, the government stepped in. The largest bank bailout ever. Swift action by the head of state had saved the day.

Remember that? No you don’t. It happened 2,000 years ago. Rome, 33 A.D….

Interestingly enough, Paul Harvey made a similar rhetorical feint towards Rome in his famous 1965 From Freedom to Chains speech

Once upon a time there was a nation great and powerful and good. Few were suffering from the aftermath of war, from a depression.

And then came upon the scene a leader, an idealist, self-confident, intolerant to criticism. A wise lady limited his early activities to combating the financial depression, nobody could argue with that, but in a while he began to regulate business and establish new rules to govern commerce and finance. Some of them in diametrical disagreement with the God-Made laws of supply and demand, but anybody who disagreed with those new rules was promptly fired.

The new leader saw that under the old system of free enterprise landlords prospered, so he levied new taxes to take away their profits and destroy what he called the “Monopoly of Capital”. To please laborers, he controlled prices. To win the favor of the farmers, he gave them loans and subsidies.

The National Debt mounted, alarmingly. Whenever anybody tried to tell him “that governments, even as people, can go broke, when they spend beyond their incomes”, he said “They just didn’t understand deficit finance.”

Well, what do you say? Did he build on rock or on sand? I say on sand. For you see this was the story of Emperor Su Tung Po (Tsu Tong Phao) who led China to its doom more than a Thousand Years Ago.

For as fascinating as these sorts of well-mirrored comparisons may be, it goes without saying that the amount of identical instances that can be pulled from historical record is nigh infinite. The abundance of such identical instances have led many to the notion that people generally don’t heed history’s lessons (hence, the Hegel quote).

But why is that the case?

The illustrious economist William H. Peterson sought to explain this situation in his 1974 essay Mises and Fisher on Theory and History. According to Peterson, the major obstacle one has to be cognizant of when learning from history is how to interpret the events. It’s one thing to recognize significant occurrences, it’s another to determine why and/or how those occurrences happened.

Historians varying on ideological bends, worldviews, theoretical applications, etc. will inevitably arrive at varying interpretations of the same event. Beyond questions of interpreting information, deciding which factors are relevant and how relevant those factors are also plays a role in reaching contrasting conclusions. This is at least part of the reason why one can look to a formative past event (such as slavery, the rise of the “robber barons”, or The Great Depression) and find a multitude of wide ranging renditions.

Likewise, readers with differing intellectual backgrounds may be more inclined to reference different authors. Students taught at UC Berkeley may be more likely to encounter and side with Robert Reich than Hillsdale College students, who would have likely been acquainted with John Steele Gordon.

These kinds of dilemmas are unavoidable. It is a given that one will find recurring developments and alternative analyses when looking into the momentous episodes of history. If the most serviceable interpretations are to be determined, it might be a good start to weigh the merits of the schools of thought against one another.

Photo by Masaaki Komori on Unsplash

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