Magazine article Ideas on Liberty

On Reading History

Magazine article Ideas on Liberty

On Reading History

Article excerpt

Economics is the discipline that I loved first and that I continue to love above all. The economic way of thinking-as the late Paul Heyne called it-is a potent solvent for cutting through the nonsense and irrelevancies that typically loom large in policy discussions. No one lacking a solid grasp of economic principles can understand social reality well enough to offer sensible opinions on policies. This grasp of economic principles might be formally learned (as it was for me), or it might be acquired along life's way through experience, reflection, and careful observation-but it is certainly necessary. Anyone without it is far too likely to speak baloney when discussing public policies.

But economics is not sufficient for sound thinking about the social world. History, more than any other discipline, is a necessary complement to economics. By detailing the human past, history gives perspective and supplies wisdom about human potential and limits.

One of my all-time favorite history books is Fernand Braudel's The Structures of Everyday Life (1981). In this work, Braudel documents the appalling poverty that marked the life of nearly every European prior to the industrial revolution. Our European ancestors of just a few generations ago were filthy, starving, disease-ridden, ignorant, and superstitious slaves to the soil. It was only after commerce and industry burst forth in the eighteenth cenfury-and only where commerce and industry burst forth-that the world as we know it today began to take shape. Those who romanticize our pre-industrial past ought to read Braudel.

Another favorite history book of mine is Will Durant's The Life of Greece (1939). Throughout this book, Durant makes clear that the unprecedented culture, liberty, and prosperity of ancient Greece grew from commerce and trade. First in Crete, later in Miletus and, most spectacularly, in Athens, ancient Greek achievements go hand in hand with commerce. Discussing fifth-century B.C. Athens-the century of Pericles, Socrates, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Herodotus, Thucydides, and the construction of the Parthenon-Durant says that

Greek states have learned the advantages of an international division of labor... In one century Athens moves from household economy-wherein each household makes nearly all that it needs-to urban economy-wherein each town makes nearly all that it needs-to international economy...

[I]t is this trade that makes Athens rich, and provides ... the sinews of her cultural development. The merchants who accompany their goods to all quarters of the Mediterranean come back with changed perspective, and alert and open minds; they bring new ideas and ways, break down ancient taboos and sloth, and replace the familial conservatism of a rural aristocracy with the individualistic and progressive spirit of a mercantile civilization .... In the end it created a commercial empire whose thriving interchange of goods, arts, ways, and thoughts made possible the complex culture of Greece.

The economist understands part of the reason why this is so. Trade promotes specialization, which promotes wealth, which makes possible leisure as well as philosophical, scientific, and artistic endeavors. But the historian grasps another vital part of the explanation of why trade promotes cultural advancement. …

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