Pay Attention to History

I recently had the chance to participate in an online seminar for high school debate team students. In preparing for their upcoming competition, they were interested in speaking with an economist about U.S. policy in the Middle East.

An online lecture like this was a new experience for me—a very good one. First, I’m used to college students as opposed to high school kids (that change between the ages of 14 and 18 is nothing short of amazing). Students of this age are capable of a lot, but often haven’t been exposed to the economic way of thinking. The second big change was the platform. The students could communicate with each other through a real-time chat room during the lecture. Their comments and questions about the talk were visible to their fellow classmates immediately. What was important for me was that I could also see it…while I was speaking.

Although seeing student feedback like that was a bit jarring, it was fabulous in that I could adapt and, importantly, answer their questions without ever having to hear them ask—a teacher’s dream.

In glancing up at the monitor toward the latter half of my talk, I saw that one of the students had mentioned that many of the things I was discussing weren’t current events. Indeed, I discussed with them U.S. policy going back decades.

Several months ago, I discussed how several states looked to ban or alter their A.P. U.S. History courses for teaching students ideas contrary to “American exceptionalism.” I argued that instead of assuming stupidity and gullibility on the part of our children, we should focus on teaching them critical thinking skills and help them develop the tools necessary to evaluate and critique policies on their own.

Well, here was an opportunity for me to, as they say, “put my money where my mouth is.” Here was a group of high-caliber students interested in current policy and a chance for me to make the case for why they should examine, critique, and care about historical policy.

“So why does this matter?” I asked them. “Why should we care about what U.S. policy looked like in the 1970s or the 1980s?”

I explained to them that the theory we had been discussing is really brought to life by examples. These examples are some of the best tools for making arguments about current policy options. If you want to convince your audience that what you are saying is valid and important, there is nothing quite like history.

I then told them about how during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the U.S. government took to arming the “moderate rebel group” known as the Mujahedeen. The supply of training and weapons to the group was ultimately successful, and the Soviets pulled back. Following the retreat, the U.S. government lost interest in the group and left. Who stepped in to fill the void? Osama Bin Laden.

“And that,” I said, “is how the Taliban got started.” (a-ha! It’s now contemporarily relevant!)

There is a tendency to push history to the side, to ask why it matters. History matters because it provides us a variety of indisputable opportunities to examine how policies, crises, and other events have played out over time. It forces individuals to think in a way that considers both the seen and unseen consequences of an action—to contemplate both the present and future costs of a particular activity.

Moreover, history is a phenomenal way to understand the present. Late Nobel laureate James Buchanan stated that economics “puts limits on people’s utopias.” I think the same can be said for history. History allows us to take fanciful notions and proposals and place them in check. Continuing on with the discussion of the Mujahedeen with the debate students, I then linked this historical episode to the current calls to arm “moderate” Syrian rebels. I could have told them all the reasons why such a policy might be a bad idea, but it was the historical context that made it tangible.

So whether we’re discussing the Middle East, drug prohibition, or the minimum wage, consult simple economics–and crack a history book.

Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Associate Professor of Economics at Sykes College of Business at the University of Tampa.
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