Louigi Verona's Workshop


Bad lessons of history

Do we really learn?

11 April, 02012

A couple of days ago Stephan Kinsella has posted an article on Libertarian Standard titled Education by Experience as the Only Hope for Mankind. The basic idea is that no writings of libertarian political philosophers and economists will ever make a change in the minds of masses but rather actual historical experience that shows what works better.

While this seems like a reasonable foundation for hope, I would like to point out some difficulties of such an optimistic view.

Cultural differences.

First off, cultural differences and unique historical experience give significantly different perspectives on same events. While Western world generally regards Soviet Russia as a clear demonstration that communism "does not work", this is not the way people see things in post-communist societies. Opinions there are hardly so radical.

Obviously, this does not mean that Russian people value freedom less or that their brains are wired differently. Rather, USSR as an era has left a cultural legacy which is absent from a foreigner's point of view and so an American can afford to render, for instance, the Soviet film industry as merely means of state propaganda, while a Russian considers Soviet cinema a major national achievement, a rich cultural environment the absense of which today is all too evident, especially in contrast with blockbusters from Hollywood.

A year or two ago I was in Berlin. We went on a guide tour of the city and the guide emphasized throughout the tour the difference between enslaved Eastern Germany and horrors of communism and the free and happy democratic West. I remember thinking how simplistic, misleading and even unfair it is to portrait things in such a manner.

In fact, just as USSR has planted a thought in the mind of a westerner that "communism does not work", USA can be seen to project a similar message eastwards - that "capitalism also does not work". And if to an alien observer USSR is "Stalin, GULAG and poverty", so can USA be reduced to "business amorality, obesity and war in Iraq". Americans put high value (and rightly so) on the concept of personal freedom. But this is not necessarily how American society is seen outside of it. Through the lense of a different culture USA and what Americans call "freedom" can be perceived alternatively, to put it mildly.

And so if we do assume that history teaches lessons, it surely seems to offer a variety of curriculums. In other words, USSR might have taught different people different lessons.

Short memory.

Shortness and selective nature of human memory is the second point I want to make.

Indeed, how long will USSR hold up as a lesson even for the Western world? 10 more years? 50? Maybe a 100? Isn't it thinkable that not too much time is needed for someone to declare that communism should be attempted once more?

It's been a little over 20 years since the fall of the Soviet Union and yet already in Russia one can hear opinions that it would be good to try again. One of the popular Russian intellectuals even went as far as to say in a recent interview that the level of computing technologies is now sufficient enough to plan economy on a national level, so now we can try the communism experiment again. Not to say that everyone readily agrees with this, but that such ideas are not ridiculed at is undeniable. I wonder if a statement like this would be considered seriously in USA.

The fact that no regime is purely bad and that an empire like USSR has had genuine achievements, even if the price paid was unjustifiably high, plays into the hand of the selective nature of human memory and our incurable habit of remembering good things and hastily forgetting the bad.
For instance, in Russia the general opinion about private education is that it is an ill-conceived idea and that education should be governmental, just like in USSR, since it is widely believed that schooling in USSR was the best. It is unimportant whether this was really true, what is important is that people generally believe it to be. And all the downsides of today's education are blamed on capitalism.
The lesson of history, some would say, has definitely been wasted.

And, of course, unstoppable time marches on, putting years and years between us and the lessons of the past. Future generations become largely dependant on history to learn them. And, to quote Mises, "The writings of historians are always one-sided and partial; they do not report the facts; they distort them."
Indeed, if even now, a mere 20 years after USSR has ceased to exist, we see so much distortion and misrepresentation, one is able to allow for the possibility of total sign change in the future.

All of this not to mention the natural science approach people take to economics with their desire to test things out rather than deduce some of it first. USSR might have taught a lesson communism did not work, not that it does not work in question. Maybe a small fix is needed, that's all. And in my discussions with people in Russia I do hear that kind of reasoning all the time.


To sum things up, I am rather sceptical of historical lessons as a foundation for a better future. I just don't see those lessons having any long-term effect. Neither do I see any effects from lessons history provided us with before. Seriously, who thought Soviet Union totalitarism would be possible in the XX century? Who thought that North Korea is possible today?