Bryan Caplan  

Ten Points on the Wrong Side of History

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In the last few weeks, several critics have told me things like: "History will not be kind," "History will judge you," and "You are on the wrong side of history."  My initial reaction is sheer puzzlement.  If my critics can't persuade me with the evidence they currently possess, do they really think they can persuade me with evidence they claim they're going to acquire in the future?  One carefully-tailored bet would be worth a thousand of their Cassandra cries.

My considered reaction, though, is more elaborate.

1. "History," an abstract object, never thinks or says anything.  So if these claims are meaningful, they're about historians.

2. The underlying assumption of these warnings is: What historians think in a century is a very strong predictor of what's actually true.

3. This is a reasonable claim for narrow factual matters.  The passage of time doesn't just give historians more opportunities to collect evidence.  It also cools their emotions.  This is why I'd far rather read history than news.

4. For the Big Picture, however, historians' consensus is questionable at best.  Most obviously, their liberal bias is overwhelming, with over 30 Democrats for every Republican at top U.S. history departments.  And while you could argue reverse causation, you can't argue it with a straight face.  The vast majority of historians were very liberal years before they began seriously studying history.

5. When I actually look at historians' Big Pictures, they're even worse than their liberal bias suggests.  Economic illiteracy is rampant.  Social Desirability Bias rules the day.  And moral relativism reigns supreme.

6. Historians take little notice of me today, and I expect future historians will do the same.

7. If current or future historians did notice me, they would probably assess me negatively, because my Big Picture starkly diverges from their Big Picture.

8. But since I disrespect historians' judgments on such matters, why would I care?

9. If my critics really wanted to get my attention, they would predict that I myself will eventually revise my views.

10. I'm happy to bet against such claims, though admittedly my critics have to trust my honesty for such bets to work.

COMMENTS (12 to date)
Adam writes:

On what issue/issues do people judge Bryan Caplan to be on the wrong side of history?

Doug writes:

Just because a position is on the "wrong side of history" doesn't make it morally correct. If Germany had somehow stumbled onto powerful atomic weapons circa 1941, all the abhorrent Nazi beliefs would suddenly ascendant on the "right side of history".

The "right side of history" argument is little more than a way than a sophomoric way for Whigs to dress up "might makes right".

Pyrmonter writes:

Turning to questions slightly closer to home, what's your guess on the partisan split in economics, business, accountancy and finance? Judging from abroad (Australia) I'd speculate that when I was an undergrad (late 1980s/early 1990s) both here and in the US the split would have been roughly even, with most on the "Left" being fairly market-oriented. I'd have thought history and the other humanities dominated even then by the Left.

I'd venture there's been a big shift in the business/econ courses in the past decade in response to: generational chance; the various strains of "classical liberalism" losing the battle of ideas; as a reaction to percieved hubris before 2008; and partly, both in the US, here and the UK, a realignment of the political parties: the affluent middle class professionals, managers and business people who were once prominent, if not dominant, in the GOP/UK Conservatives/Australian Liberal parties having been eclipsed. (Note - the Australian Liberals are the right of centre party in here; historically very similar to the UK tories)

Roger McKinney writes:
their liberal bias is overwhelming

So true! I first realized that shortly after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. I read speeches by the presidents of the top two organizations of professional historians in which they lamented the demise of communism and predicted dire consequences for humanity.

Mark Bahner writes:
One carefully-tailored bet would be worth a thousand of their Cassandra cries.

Ummm...I hate to tell ya this Bryan, but Cassandra was always right. She was never believed, but she was always right. So there's nothing better than "Cassandra cries."


Hazel Meade writes:

Great point about the conflation of "History" with "historians".

I would also point out that this concept of "History" really comes from Marxist historical materialism (and Hegel before that). It's an outdated concept that ought to be scrapped. History is not a linear progressive process leading inexorably to a utopian end-state. I suspect most serious modern historians would agree.

When people say you're on the wrong side of History they really mean "future Marxists will look down on you".

Roger Sweeny writes:

A more charitable view (TM Arnold Kling) is that they mean, "Once we can look back on things, we will see that you are wrong, perhaps dangerously wrong."

Thus, if a time machine existed, I think it would be perfectly proper to go back to 1917 and say to those who supported Lenin's revolution, "History will not be kind."

If we had better historians, they wouldn't be kind, either.

Matt Skene writes:

Obama uses this quote a lot. I'm pretty sure he gets it from MLK. He talked about how the long arc of history bends towards justice. What they're saying is that those who fight against this trend in history will be looked back on as having tried to resist or stop this course, and will therefore have been on the wrong side. It's not about historians, it's about how people in society in general will think of those who weren't fighting for justice in that area. I have no idea which issues you're talking about here. If it's immigration, though, I think you're on the right side of history and that most people will one day see those who opposed open borders as intolerant bigots and will think of them as roughly equivalent to how we view racists now.

Lawrence D'Anna writes:

My guess: They aren't really saying anything about history or historians. They're just dissing you by implicitly comparing you to Neville Chamberlain, with Trump standing in as Hitler.

Hazel Meade writes:

if a time machine existed, I think it would be perfectly proper to go back to 1917 and say to those who supported Lenin's revolution, "History will not be kind."

This is sort of what Francis Fukuyama was doing with 'The End of History'. Taking the Marxist concept of "History" (capital H) and turning it around and saying that Marxists were on the wrong side of it.

Plucky writes:

So, I think you're being overly literal by what is meant by "the wrong side of history". Other commenters have called the conception of capital-H "History" Marxist, but it's not. It's Hegelian. Marx was a deterministic materialist, whereas Hegel had this sort of vaguely spiritual notion of History as an independent force in its own right, basically like an atheist analogue of the Holy Spirit. When people are using the sort of language you quote about capital-H History, they aren't saying "dispassionate, 20/20 hindsight will show your beliefs to be fallacious" they are saying something more akin to "your views are morally incorrect and unless you repent and repudiate them you will face the secular, atheist equivalent of eternal damnation, which is... [mumblemumblemumble]". They aren't trying to change your views by evidentiary argument. They're trying to change your views by appeals to a (assumed, incorrectly) shared set of sacred values, or in the absence of genuinely change views they are trying to cow you into quiescence by threat of excommunication.

[full disclosure- I am myself an orthodox Christian. If there's one thing I can recognize, it's ersatz faux-Christianity dressed up in new jargon]

multipledrafts writes:

Most people feel a need to have their political and moral beliefs validated by some Authority. They want to believe that their beliefs are more than mere personal preferences; they want to believe their beliefs are shared by some big, important something that can back them up and settle the issue. The archetypal Authority is, of course, God. Other candidates include Nature, Reason, and History. History, in this context, does not merely refer to the judgment of future historians; it refers to a grand, sweeping force that moves humanity slowly but inevitably to a final and perfect state. As other commenters pointed out, this notion of History originated with Hegel and was then adapted by Marx. Progressive liberals are just as happy to invoke the idea as Marxists were. It's not clear that progressives would explicitly cop to believing that their views will inevitably triumph, or that the inevitability of an outcome can justify it; but they are happy to invoke History all the same -- particularly since progressives may not believe in God, but they still long for an Authority to be on their side.

In other words, the critics telling Caplan that he is on the wrong side of History are really saying to him, as another commenter put it, "you will face the secular, atheist equivalent of eternal damnation."

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