Tag: History

How the West Was Won

Deirdre McCloskey has an outstanding article in the WSJ this weekend asking how America and other countries got rich. I hate to quote as the whole thing is worth your time, but here’s a few choice selections:

Nothing like the Great Enrichment of the past two centuries had ever happened before. Doublings of income—mere 100% betterments in the human condition—had happened often, during the glory of Greece and the grandeur of Rome, in Song China and Mughal India. But people soon fell back to the miserable routine of Afghanistan’s income nowadays, $3 or worse. A revolutionary betterment of 10,000%, taking into account everything from canned goods to antidepressants, was out of the question. Until it happened.

McCloskey asks how this happened, dispenses with the usual explanations and focus on this:

What enriched the modern world wasn’t capital stolen from workers or capital virtuously saved, nor was it institutions for routinely accumulating it. Capital and the rule of law were necessary, of course, but so was a labor force and liquid water and the arrow of time.

The capital became productive because of ideas for betterment—ideas enacted by a country carpenter or a boy telegrapher or a teenage Seattle computer whiz. As Matt Ridley put it in his book “The Rational Optimist” (2010), what happened over the past two centuries is that “ideas started having sex.” The idea of a railroad was a coupling of high-pressure steam engines with cars running on coal-mining rails. The idea for a lawn mower coupled a miniature gasoline engine with a miniature mechanical reaper. And so on, through every imaginable sort of invention. The coupling of ideas in the heads of the common people yielded an explosion of betterments.

OK. But then why did that happen? Why did human ideas, which had been basically celibate for a hundred millennia, suddenly start “having sex”? Well, something we’ve been on about in these very pages:

The answer, in a word, is “liberty.” Liberated people, it turns out, are ingenious. Slaves, serfs, subordinated women, people frozen in a hierarchy of lords or bureaucrats are not. By certain accidents of European politics, having nothing to do with deep European virtue, more and more Europeans were liberated. From Luther’s reformation through the Dutch revolt against Spain after 1568 and England’s turmoil in the Civil War of the 1640s, down to the American and French revolutions, Europeans came to believe that common people should be liberated to have a go. You might call it: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

To use another big concept, what came—slowly, imperfectly—was equality. It was not an equality of outcome, which might be labeled “French” in honor of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Piketty. It was, so to speak, “Scottish,” in honor of David Hume and Adam Smith: equality before the law and equality of social dignity. It made people bold to pursue betterments on their own account. It was, as Smith put it, “allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty and justice.”

I would particularly focus on freedom of speech and property rights. Freedom of speech allowed ideas to be communicated, now at literally the speed of light. And property rights removed the fear that communicating your ideas would deprive you of their benefits.

I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth rehashing: my dad did the War College in the 1980’s. He argued that classifying military technology to protect us from Soviet spies was actually a bad idea. Ideas flourish under communication; progress flourishes when ideas “have sex”. The freedom of the United States meant that we could publish our military tech secrets on the front page of Pravda and the Soviet Union would still not be able to keep up. We would always be steps ahead of them technologically because our people were free to develop and exploit those ideas while the Soviets were not. And since the Cold War ended, we’ve seen our technological progress only speed up.

Anyway, the article is worth your time. It’s inspiring. And it suggests that the way to get of our two-decade long economic doldrum is more freedom, not more regulation and redistribution.

Post-Scriptum: McCloskey, incidentally, is a trans woman. She had some great thoughts on the whole bathroom kerfuffle:

The bathroom “issue” is entirely phony. It has never been a problem. Anyway, if men wanted to sneak in (they don’t), they could always have done so, with or without North Carolina’s law. How is it to be enforced? DNA testing by the TSA at every bathroom door? Anyway, your house has a unisex bathroom, I presume, and in Europe they are not entirely uncommon—after all, the stalls have doors. Etc, etc. On both sides it is just a club to beat up the other side in the silly Cultural Wars, and to make people hate and disdain each other. Adam Smith would not have approved.

Again, the link is worth a clickthrough. Anything McCloskey writes, including grocery lists, is usually worth your time.

Rethinking Wilson

Students at what Amy Alkon aptly describes as “nursery schools with beer” continue to issue demands. Walter Olson compiles the most outrageous ones and John McWhorter, who has some experience with racism, address the broader issue. But one weird thing that’s come up at Princeton is the demand to acknowledge the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson and remove his name from some buildings.

This may seem odd to some of you. Wilson is frequently rated as one of our greatest Presidents by historians. And just a few years ago, beating up on Wilson was regarded as right wing lunacy by no less than the New York Times. This, despite, as Radley Balko points out, Wilson having an awful awful record on race, civil liberties and executive power:

He dishonestly led us into a pointless, costly, destructive war, and assumed control over huge sectors of the economy to wage it. He seized railroads, food and energy production, and implemented price controls.

He suppressed dissent and imprisoned war critics. Said Wilson, “Conformity will be the only virtue. And every man who refuses to conform will have to pay the penalty.” He signed the Espionage and Sedition Acts, the latter of which made it a criminal offense to “oppose the cause of the United States.” He retaliated against critical newspapers, and directed the U.S. Postal Service to stop delivering mail determined to be critical of the war effort.

Wilson not only continued existing racial segregation of federal government workers, he extended it.

He instituted the first military draft since the Civil War.

He signed the first federal drug prohibition.

He reinstituted the federal income tax.

A few more, from Gene Healy’s book, The Cult of the Presidency:

Wilson believed in an activist, imperialist presidency. In his 1909 book Constitutional Government, he made the case against checks and balances and the separation of powers. The government, Wilson argued, is a living organism, and “no living thing can have its organs offset against each other as checks, and live.”

He ordered unconstitutional, unilateral military interventions into Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. (He also oversaw military interventions in Panama and Cuba, and instituted American-favored dictators throughout Latin America.)

Wilson believed God ordained him to be president, and acted accordingly, boasting to one friend in 1913 that “I have been smashing precedents almost daily every since I got here.” Every president since Jefferson had given the State of the Union in writing. Wilson reinstituted what Jefferson derided as the “speech from the Throne,” and ordered Congress assembled to hear him speak, giving rise to the embarrassing spectacle the SOTU has become today.

He oversaw a massive domestic spying program, and encouraged American citizens to report one another for subversion.

Healy’s book is very good, incidentally. Wilson is a central figure, with a detailed analysis of his early writings wherein Wilson detailed exactly what he through the President should be and exactly what he tried to make him: a monarch.

And the students are right on thing: Woodrow Wilson was racist, even by the standards of his time. He praised the Klan. He made numerous racist statements. He refused to do anything about lynching. He re-segregated the government, which meant black federal employees got demotions, pay cuts and, in at least one case, were put in literal cages so they wouldn’t interact with white people.

And yet … historians still talk about how great he was because he was progressive and “lead” us through World War I and tried to broker a reasonable peace after the war. That’s all fine and dandy. No President is uniformly awful. But, when you include everything, Wilson was a bad President. A really bad one.

I’ve talked before about the tendency of historians to love Presidents who start wars and crush liberty and look down on Presidents who provide simple competent leadership:

As Boaz notes, the historians favor guys who make for interesting history books. Roosevelt, who turned his back on the plight of European Jews, interred the Japanese, ignored race issues and prolonged the Depression, ranks his usual #1. Teddy Roosevelt, a “progressive” who abused his power, expanded government and slimed the nation of Panama into existence, ranks #2. I have no quibble with some of the others. But ranking the racist, free-speech crushing Woodrow Wilson at #8 is ridiculous. Andrew Jackson was a lunatic who defied the Court to send thousands of Indians to die on the Trail of Tears. But he’s ranked 14th.

The list of Presidents historians regard as great includes the over-rated Harry Truman, the racist Woodrow Wilson, the murderous Andrew Jackson and the “OK, but what did he actually do?” JFK. Meanwhile, Presidents who expanded freedom, kept us out of wars and basically did their jobs are regarded as, at best, mediocre. Cleveland, Clinton, Harding, Coolidge, Bush I … these guys have generally been regarded as “meh” (although Reagan and Clinton have moved up in recent years). I had issues with Clinton and his accomplishments were mainly a result of having a Republican Congress. But ranking him below Wilson and Jackson is ridiculous. Say what you want about Clinton. He wasn’t a genocidal maniac or an unapologetic racist.

Returning to Wilson, let’s contrast him with his successor, Warren Harding, generally rated as one of the worst Presidents of all time. Warren G. Harding cleaned up much of the mess Wilson had left after the end of World War I, presided over an important arms reduction treaty, repaired some of the diplomatic damage Wilson had done in South America, cut taxes, embraced aviation and radio, promoted anti-lynching legislation and racial equality, released Wilson’s political prisoners and made solid SCOTUS appointments. The result was one of the most peaceful and prosperous decades in American history. He also increased tariffs, restricted immigration and had huge problems with corruption, so it wasn’t all roses. But, on balance, that’s a decent record and way better than Wilson or Jackson. He was very popular when he was in office and mourned around the world when he died. But historians literally regard him as the worst President of all time because of the corruption and his infidelities, problems that don’t seem to bother historians when they consider Clinton or Kennedy or Johnson.

In the end, I think historians tend to rate President by how interesting the books about them are. This goes double for any power-hungry President that Doris Kearns Goodwin has written an overlong (and possibly plagiarized) slavering hagiography of. This is one of the reasons I expect historians to start regarding Bush II in a better light one day. Historically, he’s the kind of liberty-crushing incompetent bumbler they like to write books about.

As for the Princeton business … I’m reluctant to whitewash history. However awful a President Wilson was, he was still a President and still played a huge role in making Princeton a premier institution. I’m fine with acknowledging his awful racist legacy. I’m less fine with pretending he never existed.

Monday Roundup

For reasons that I hope I’ll explain one day, this week is going to be a bit crazy. So here are a few stories I’ve been sitting on, awaiting longer commentary:

A few weeks ago, Marvel comics unveiled an alternative Spiderwoman cover which was immediately decried as sexist because of her pose. I suspected that this criticism was largely coming from people who weren’t terribly familiar with the medium. And indeed, Maddox easily found a spiderman cover that was almost identical. As a general rule, if you ask a rhetorical question like, “Would they draw Spiderman like that?” you should probably do a little bit of research to make sure the answer isn’t “yep”. I don’t agree with everything Maddox says, but his point is well taken.

Another video you want to take in is Matt Ridley talking about global greening — the apparent rise in plants that has resulted from global warming. I disagree with parts of what he says, but toward the end he hits a very important point: Europeans are now planning to burn zillions of tons of trees under the belief that this is “green energy”. There’s a reason we stopped burning trees for fuel.

A few months ago, the town of Peoria launched a SWAT raid into the home of Jon Daniel. This incredibly dangerous man had … uh … created a parody Twitter account of Mayor Jim Ardis. During the raid, the cops found some pot on one of Daniel’s roommates. A judge has decided that the raid was lawful and they can proceed with the felony possession charges. I have no idea how the raid could be lawful when the prosecutor is not bringing charges because mocking someone on Twitter is not illegal. We have now gotten to the point where cops can raid your house based on something that isn’t a crime.

Obama has unveiled a plan to deal with drug-resistant bacteria, mainly by curtailing the massive overuse of antibiotics in farming and creating incentives for companies to develop new antibiotics. All things considered, this could be the biggest accomplishment of his administration. I mean, he’s not actively making things worse, so it’s got to be one of the top five things he’s done, at least on par with the Great Deckchair Rearranging of 2011.

Just a reminder if you need one: slavery did not make America rich.

Massacre Denial

Thanks to Miguelito, who tipped me to this video of a English Professor denying that Stalin specifically and Communism generally murdered people by the tens of millions:

Some choice quotes:

“I know they say he killed 20, 30, 40 million people,” continued Grover Furr, a professor in Medieval English at Montclair State University.

“It’s bullshit.”

Professor Grover Furr of Montclair State University said he has yet to find “one crime that Stalin committed.”

Following the debate, a student pressed Furr on his comments reminding the professor that most historians believe “100 to 150 million people [were] killed by communist regimes.”

The professor, however, doubled down on his original comment.

“What you said is bullshit,” said Furr. “It’s wrong. It’s a lie.”

“The history of the Soviet Union is the most falsified,” he added.

(Note that while some idiot students applaud his remarks, other boo. There is a strong social stigma that makes it difficult for students to boo and taunt a professor. These students didn’t accept it. And kudos to the student for challenging this shitwit on his alternative reality.)

I’ve banged this drum quite a bit. Denying that the Communists murdered people by the tens of millions is no different than Holocaust denial. They admitted it; they boasted about it. It has been relentlessly documented by writers like Anne Applebaum and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The Communists even extended their tentacles into other countries with the murders of such as Leon Trotsky and Georgi Markov. And that’s not even talking about World War II which started when the Nazi and the Communists cooperated in the invasion and conquest of Eastern Europe.

That’s just the people they deliberately murdered. They also killed millions in pointless “revolutions” in a hundred nations. They killed tens of millions when collectivized farming starved entire regions to death. They were known to use starvation as a tool to surpress rebellion.

Professors of narrow esoteric disciplines are used to having captive audiences and being able to articular bizarre and often counter-factual points of view on anything outside their own narrow field of study. Well … welcome to the Age of Youtube, Professor Furr. I suspect that, by the end of the week, everyone in America is going to know what a twerp you are.

Friday Five: Non-Fiction

For today’s Friday Fun thread, your favorite non-fiction books. Either because they influenced you or because they were so fun to read.

My five?

Free to Choose: Three decades after it was published, Milton Friedman’s opus to economic liberty remains one of the most cogent, inspiring and prescient defense of the free market and capitalism yet made. It’s anti-matter to Das Kapital. The PBS series that accompanied it is good too.

The Wisdom of Crowds: Surowiecki has one of the best examinations of not only how people make good decisions, but how they make bad ones. His description of the Columbia diaster is enraging.

Gulag by Anne Applebaum is a stunning and grueling indictment of the Soviet slave labor system. Gulag Archipelago should be required reading as well.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: William Shirer’s documenting of the Nazi regime is both exhaustive and exhausting. The most gripping part is the horrific plans Hitler made for Eastern Europe had he won the war. Honorable mention goes to Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and The Histories of Herodotus.

The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract: Probably the most comprehensive look at the game ever put together. A must for any baseball fan. Even after ten years, it’s still a great reference.

(Note: those last three combined for about 3000 pages. I used to have so much time to read …)