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To All Young Academics: Study History, Not Economics

history not economics

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This article was written by Thibault Serlet

There are many brilliant libertarian academics – but there are far too many economists, and far too few historians. My message to young academics looking to make their mark is this: study history.

History is by far the most important field of social science. It is the collected lore of human civilization. Socialists often view themselves as “being on the right side of history.” But a closer examination reveals that socialists – whether at the time Tiberius Gracchus or Lenin – were always wrong.

The well-studied economic principles which libertarians rightly understand today are universal – they apply to all peoples, throughout time and history.

There are a few libertarian historians, but these spend most of their time studying 20th century America. A quick look at the bookstores of the largest libertarian think tanks such as the CATO Institute, the Mises Institute, and the Foundation for Economic Education makes this deficit more than apparent.

American history is short, and when it comes to libertarian historiography, hopelessly crowded.

The histories of ancient India, medieval Europe, pre-colonial Africa, Latin America, dynastic China, and Central Asia hold countless valuable unexploited anecdotes for the body of libertarian political thought.

For example, there are many anarcho-capitalist libertarians who make highly-speculative and highly-theoretical arguments about the privatization of warfare. Even the most well-read anarcho-capitalist economists are often shocked to learn that there have been long periods of time when the history of warfare was almost fully privatized.

During the Italian Renaissance, condottieri (literally “contractors”) served the needs of the Italian city states. They acted as special forces for hire, and fought with great effect against the state armies of France and Germany. The lives of the condottieri are extremely well documented – there are thousands of first-hand accounts detailing their organization, economics, and day-to-day lives. Despite this, the anarcho-capitalists who theorize about private warfare fail to produce viable historical examples.

Libertarian or proto-libertarian thought is ubiquitous throughout world history.

The Sunni Muʿtazila scholars of 10th century Persia made arguments in favor of free will, against political coercion, and occasionally, in favor of anarchism. Muʿtazila ideas influenced the height of the Islamic Golden Age, and supported a capitalistic and small government world view. Despite this, Western Civilization obsessed libertarians have neglected them.

The Indian Ocean, prior to European colonialism, was a hotbed of capitalism. The famous Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta describes it as being littered with “tax free ports.” The Venetian traveler Cesare Federici visited one of these ports in Orissa, noting that the king “greatly loved foreigners and merchants, who could enter and leave his kingdom with their goods without paying duties or any other imposition: only their ships according to their cargo paid a slight thing.”

History holds the key to answering all of the unanswered questions that libertarians have – especially history which has not been extensively studied. The history of the world outside of the West or of the Middle Ages is critical.

However, what do libertarians do instead of studying history? They chase the news.

Most libertarian publications will not run pieces that cannot be “tied to current events” in their attempts to “stay relevant.”

The irony is that the cost of short term clicks is long term relevance. The best way to remain relevant is to write about timeless topics.

Rushing to write a piece about a news story which is only a few days old will produce content that has a life expectancy in days; by contrast, a well thought-out historical analogy is relevant forever.

The greatest authors – both libertarian and statist – proved long lasting because they did not limit themselves to “chasing the news.” Long lasting writers such as Machiavelli, Marx, or Mises applied their economic and political analysis to both their present days and to history. As a result, the examples that they gave were useful for both their contemporaries and for us.

The news is fickle. We never know what the future holds, and everything in the news is always debatable. By contrast, the results of history are set. We have the benefit of hindsight – we know that Napoleon’s rise to power brings disaster to France just as we know that the Weimar Republic’s printing of currency will lead to hyperinflation and Hitler.

Libertarians spend too much time theorizing. Theory is easy because one can ratiocinate without research. History is hard, because it requires extensive research. Theory is also bad – it tends to be wrong, and fails to convince anyone who is not an intellectual. Einstein famously wrote that “in theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.”

History makes for a good story. When writing about history, there are endless examples of human beings with fascinating lives to draw upon. By contrast, economics writing tends to be dry. A mediocre historian can write a captivating book about history, while only the most talented economists can write a half-interesting book about economics.

My advice to libertarian academics is this: focus on history. If you are a student looking to leave your mark, economics has become overcrowded and sterile. Instead, apply the lessons from economics to history.

If you are an editor then the takeaway is slightly different: encourage your writers to tackle topics that don’t relate to current events. You will lose some short term clicks, but will gain long term relevance. If you really are worried about the clicks, then think about which articles will continue getting clicks 10, 20, and 100 years from now.

Forgetting history will be the nail in the coffin of libertarian thought. Embracing it will lead to its renaissance. We now face the fork in the road, it is up to tomorrow’s intellectuals to choose the path which we will follow.

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