by Gene Callahan
“History justifies whatever we want it to. It teaches absolutely nothing, for it contains everything and gives examples of everything.”
—Paul Valéry, De l’historie, Regards sur le monde actuel
My friend Larry White presented at the colloquium yesterday. He gave a nice presentation on the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression, discussing the various policy recommendations that economists had offered at that time, and marshalling empirical evidence indicating that Mises and Hayek had gotten things essentially right in regards to those events.
But the paper raised, for me, the question of what “good” these sort of efforts yeild, in so far as they are aimed at practical persuasion. However substantial the evidence, however well written the argument — I note this, for one thing, to point out that what I’m writing here was prompted by hearing Larry present his paper, but is in no way directed at it in particular — it seems that everyone “learns” from these historic episodes whatever it is that they already believed.
Take the recent downturn. Interventionists “learned” from it that unregulated markets produce disaster. Libertarians “learned” from it that the attempt to regulate markets produces disaster. And I know of one prominent supporter of the kind of intermediate policy we actually had who declared that, if only the Fed had cut rates at the right moment, when he recommended it, all would have been well.
Does the “evidence” from history ever persuade anyone of anything they didn’t already believe? (I’m being hyperbolic, of course.)