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Week of May 3, 2020
Is History Always Moral?
Few today in the mainstream research community pretend that history is or can be objective, either in that the study can be made value-free or removed from subjectivity. Nevertheless, there remains hope, founded in the quantitative method and the philosophy of science, that an acceptable level of rigor can be approximated. At the very least, I continue to hope so. Scientific history may be hubristic or distracting, but as an aspiration for the practitioner, there are few higher. Science itself exists more concretely as a normative ideal than as a universally-observed practice, as evidenced by the diversity of methods among fields. The following assertion of E. H. Carr (from his excellent lecture-set What is History?) is, therefore, troubling on several levels:
Historical facts… presuppose some measure of interpretation, and historical interpretations involve moral judgements—or, if you prefer a more neutral-sounding term, value judgements.
I’ll try to review Carr in greater length next week, once I’ve actually finished the book, read more deeply into the philosophy of history, and had time to compile deeper responses to his wide-ranging argument. Nevertheless, the above quotation contains much of his thinking about the practice of historical research. First, we see another iteration of his assertion that inquiry is an interaction between the writer and the body of facts—a “two-way” dialogue between present and past. The necessity of interpretation is indisputable. The sequence of events is there, adrift somewhere in time, but to pass into written record, it must first be molded by the mind of the historian. He or she must select a body of what he deems to be significant facts and causes; assort them into a coherent order according to his ideas of rationality and plausibility; and then present an argument for his particular relation of motive forces to ultimate conclusions. The mountain that “appears to take on different shapes from different angles of vision” does not possess “an infinity of shapes,” but no intelligible description of the form can be had without resorting either to subjective reportage. Each step requires the crafted viewpoint of the historian, who is successful (and valuable) to the extent to which peers accept the competence of the projection. Statistics and documentary sources, however faithful, do not automatically appear in necessary order; rather, they must be chosen, chronologically arranged, and placed in a causal relation whose nuance and accuracy constitute the work’s skill. Consider Melissa Dell’s paper “The Persistent Effects of Peru’s Mining Mita”:
This study utilizes regression discontinuity to examine the long run impacts of the mita, an extensive forced mining labor system in effect in Peru and Bolivia between 1573 and 1812. Results indicate that a mita effect lowers household consumption by around one third in subjected districts today. Using data from the Spanish Empire and Peruvian Republic to trace channels of institutional persistence, I show that the mita’s influence has persisted through its impacts on land tenure and public goods provision. Mita districts historically had fewer large landowners and lower educational attainment. Today, they are less integrated into road networks, and their residents are substantially more likely to be subsistence farmers.
Dell had to choose the data points and types; the method of analysis most likely to convincingly translate those statistics into her argument; and the probable implications of variances in the mita system. She selected a bounded set of locations at a specific tier of geographical scale and considered a necessarily limited array of economic and social factors at benchmark times, deciding upon the significance of the results for a particular set of indicators of national and regional welfare. Her analysis associates smallholding, poor education, and lack of integration with inferior popular outcomes, but this need not be so; other authors contend, for example, that large farms tend to retard growth by stifling egalitarian institutions. Still others dispute the relevance of institutions at all, citing the direct contributions of natural resource endowments, historical circumstance, and settler culture as primary factors determining the economic status of colonial territory. This is by no means an indictment of Dell’s work; her success as an economist and historian is one with her fact selection, quantitative precision, and overall conclusion. She won the John Bates Clark award this week not because she removes interpretation, but because she is among the best at performing it rigorously and technically.
Carr’s second point is subtler. At first glance, an econometric study like Dell’s appears as measured and “value-free” as any statistical survey. She seeks information about historical causation, and will rest content with any revealed facts—just as an online poll cares nothing for the position of the electorate. Yet the development literature has a distinct set of values—namely, that achieving high levels of income, equality, and political participation is desirable, and that the perplexing failure of much of the world to do so is disappointing. While practitioners generally avoid the freighted term of “progress,” the emphasis on development is itself representative of a particular view of historical direction. Nations, leaders, and policies are evaluated based on their ability to deliver prosperity and democracy, a judgment that is uniformly comparative. A nation is “rich” only insofar as citizens earn more on average than those of most neighbors. OECD-level GDP per capita is good, Sub-Saharan African bad—as are the individuals, institutions, and processes behind the divergence. “Underdevelopment,” Dell’s explicit object of study, is both a relative economic condition and a moral indictment of the forces responsible for it. This is almost necessarily so. Nathan Nunn, for example, can hardly discuss the effects of slave exports in damaging nascent African polities in “objective,” “value-free” terms. He can discard invective and avoid inordinate focus on slaveowner cruelties, but failing to criticize the methods and outcomes of the trade would seem mischievous, if not altogether impossible. If he asserted that, despite the clear correlation between trade and poverty, the outcome was neither positive or negative, few would believe him; if he eschewed an overt moral evaluation, most would infer that his conclusion was negative anyway.
Our very language has infused “freedom” and “wealth” with positive sentiment, “bondage” and “poverty” with condemnation. Aristotle’s description of “natural slavery” seems an almost laughable contradiction when expressed in post-Enlightenment English. Philosophers have long since scorned the existence of a purely descriptive language, and doubt the possibility of constructing one. Language, like the historian herself, is a product of some society, of which some underlying value-system is an essential component. Economic history is no exception to this particular cultural trap. For the most part, as Carr himself contends, we study the past from the perspective that richer is better; the “cost of industrialization” does not entail that one should “stay the hand of progress.” Indeed, the development side is a willing prisoner. Development economists study history in large part for instrumental reasons: to deliver nations from poverty through an understanding of its determinants. “Why” is an insufficient question so long as the “how” remains unexplored.
Can an instrumental history be scientific? Carr, who sought “guides for action” in the patterns of the past, certainly thought so. I tend to agree. Engineering manuals are no less rigorous for stressing the desirability of getting a car to work or a bridge to stand; indeed, the insertion of a purpose actually provides a strong incentive for accuracy. Misunderstand the mathematics, and your plane may not fly; get the history wrong, and your reform may lead to famine. But can a moral history be? Potentially, so long as praise and condemnation remain tendencies rather than objectives of analysis. Our feelings about Hitler and Stalin, while potential incentives for examining them, need not completely distort our ability to understand the social factors behind their respective ascents. We recognize that repeatedly decrying genocide has no bearing on the middle-class popularity of National Socialism, nor on the simmering discontent that threw Russia into revolution in 1917. These may be more puzzling phenomena in light of our present values, but we recognize that cultures change, and that a causal force active at one point may be mute today. So long as we remain aware of our biases, or at least attempt to do so, the values inherent in our facts can coexist with a coherent narration. The struggle may be difficult, but it can be fought. The fact that a Marxist historian may be predisposed to overrate collectivization does not preclude him from admitting error in the face of income and productivity measures, nor his colleagues from recognizing the effects of his ideology. A libertarian may deplore the planned system while noting, however grudgingly, the speed of Soviet industrialization during the 1930s. True, an effective criterion may be absent (though I believe economic data a potential substitute), but this is no fault of sentiment.
Moral evaluation may drive historical research, but the end need not determine the means. A survey can get the facts and causal chains (approximately) right and deplore them all the same. Insofar as the facts are doubtful, the question is one of general objectivity in historical analysis, and not the capacity of all researchers to remain dispassionate observers.
No review this week, as I think both the flaws and merits of a Jules Verne novel (especially 20,000 Leagues) rather obvious. My latest article is out in the Berkeley Economic Review, however, which I strongly (and shamefacedly) self-recommend. Link below:
I deal with the effects of the so-called “Timber Crisis” in pre-industrial England and speculate unprofitably on energy transitions in general. Do read.
Does Deterrence Change Preferences?, by Elisa Cavatorta and Ben Groom
A study describes the effects of the wall between the West Bank and Israel on preferences for risk, ambiguity, and patience among nearby populations.
With a New Cold War on the Rise, What Next for Hong Kong’s Economy?, by Brian C. H. Fong
The growing pressure of Chinese regional power over Hong Kong, coupled with weakening Western influence, poses critical dilemmas for policy-makers accustomed to treating the former British protectorate as a free-trade chink in the Communist armor. Retrenchment may present more vulnerabilities than retreat to Taiwan and Singapore. Strongly recommended.
The Man Who Thought Too Fast, by Anthony Gottlieb
A lovely introduction to an apparently brilliant man of whom I knew next to nothing, Frank Ramsey. From economics (a mental relaxant) to linguistic philosophy, he could hardly help generating insights wherever his mind wandered—which seemed to have been almost everywhere, prior to his death at 26. He was also an associate of Wittgenstein and Keynes, via the Bloomsbury set, which always makes for interesting stories.
What if China Makes First Contact?, by Ross Anderson
Light on content and lighter on analysis, this essay revealed Anderson (to me) as an exceptional literary talent, capable of handling history, science, and natural and cultural description with equal dexterity. An exemplar of modern long journalism.