In this episode of Liberty Chronicles, we are joined by Mike Douma and Phil Magness to discuss their new book “What is Classical Liberal History?” Mike Douma is an Assistant Research Professor at Georgetown University and the Director of the Georgetown Institute for the Study of Markets and Ethics. Phil Magness is a professor at Berry College’s Campbell School of Business and author of Colonization after Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement.
“Creative Historical Thinking,” Mike Douma’s blog
Anthony Comegna: Mike Douma is an assistant research professor at Georgetown University and the director of the Georgetown Institute for the Study of Markets and Ethics. His research background is in American and Dutch history, slavery, capitalism, and historical methods. Ostensibly, most of his time is either spent chopping wood or publishing new books, among which is [00:00:30] the subject of discussion today, What Is Classical Liberal History? Douma’s co-editor on this project is Phil Magness, a professor at Berry College’s Campbell School of Business and author of Colonization After Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement.
Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of Libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna. [00:01:00] Okay. Let’s start with Mike Douma. Can you give us your 30-second elevator pitch for this book? Go ahead and answer the title question. What is classical liberal history?
Mike Douma: In my mind, the main line of history is this historicist, empiricist type history that developed in the early 19th century. I think it’s no coincidence that liberalism [00:01:30] developed in the 19th century at the same time that professional history developed. We began questioning basic assumptions, began looking at the sources, etc., etc. For me, classical liberal history, really we’ve coined this term, I want to define it as the main line, the forgotten main line, the idea that we can go to the sources, rigorously debate them, and come up with some sort of truth. In addition to that, it’s the idea that what matters [00:02:00] and what we should be talking about is liberty. Liberty was a motivating, animating concern of 19th-century historians.
Anthony Comegna: Okay. Phil, could you do the same thing? Give us your 30-second version of what is classical liberal history.
Phil Magness: Yeah, absolutely. Basically, the purpose behind this book and why we brought these authors together is to carve out the niche in the field that Michael described. We basically noticed the trajectory of the history of the discipline. Although it’s always had [00:02:30] some noticeable classical liberal scholars on the periphery, it is very much moving in other different directions from what our tradition tends to contribute. We were hoping to fill that niche and bring material from a classical liberal perspective directly to bear, and say, “Hey, we can look at issues slightly differently than some other scholars have done, and there are new insights to draw out of that.”
Anthony Comegna: What are some of these issues that you think classical liberal history brings to the table, or [00:03:00] some of the new methods perhaps that we have to offer, some of the insights that we can contribute to the historical discipline more broadly?
Phil Magness: The one that I keep stressing, and it draws pretty closely out of my own work, so I do have a bias toward it, but the insights of the economic way of thinking. This is something that historically, in the mid-20th century, there was a bit of a split between economic historians and regular historians that studied social events. They really [00:03:30] haven’t talked to each other too much in the time since then.
What it’s created is a rift in methodology to where you have economists that are very good at numbers, very good at empirical insights, but also the theory behind it, but they aren’t talking to the historians. I see classical liberals do tend to come out of a firmer economic footing, so that’s something that does carry forward more in our work than some of the other areas and traditions of the history discipline.
Mike Douma: [00:04:00] I would say, to me, the key of classical liberal history is the tradition of openness, and debate, and source criticism. I feel like a lot of times in the late 20th century, with the rise of social history, Marxist history, postmodernism, we place theory before evidence, and so we lose that original historicist claim that we go to the sources to discover our history. We’ve learned important things from other schools of history, but sometimes I [00:04:30] think the pendulum has been swung too far, that we’re beginning with our theories and ideologies, then going back to try to serve those.
Anthony Comegna: Can you explain that term historicist to us, and perhaps give us a background on the origins of classical liberal history as a method or approach?
Mike Douma: Sure, I can do my best. Historicism, it’s one of these words that I would say most graduate students don’t learn or don’t learn properly. It’s a very confusing word. In fact, the best book on this [00:05:00] is Friedrich Beiser. He’s a historian of philosophy, and he writes about the German idealist tradition. He’s got five or six books on these topics, and he’s got a book about the German historicist tradition, which is really good.
Essentially, historicism is the idea that the past was different from the present, that things change over time, and that to understand a period, we have to go to that period. The term historicism develops in the 19th [00:05:30] century in Germany. It’s [foreign language 00:05:32]. Sometimes, it gets translated into English as historism, and there’s some complications, but it essentially means that we’re going against this old natural law tendency that things are universal, that morals, ideas, even economics are somehow always the same. The historicists, on the extreme end, might even challenge things like logic. They might say, “Logic is different in different times and places.”
Anthony Comegna: [00:06:00] Germans have a different logic than Frenchmen, right?
Mike Douma: Yeah. Just to be aware of the situation in which you’re interpreting the history. Why this term gets complicated, I blame Karl Popper, with his Poverty of Historicism in … Was it 1957, or ‘59, or something? Where he uses the term in a totally different way. He means deriving ultimate theories of teleological history that explain everything from those sources, where the original historicists in Germany [00:06:30] were the tradition that I’m talking about here. They were individualists and liberals who fought against these totalizing tendencies of history. They didn’t say there was one history. Karl Popper flips this term around, and that’s how it’s often known in the English language, as historicists are people that create universalist theories of history.
Anthony Comegna: Again, part of what you want to argue is that classical liberal history really [00:07:00] used to be just history, period. It was generally the way people practiced it, was with a classical liberal set of methods that they were working with. Could you tell us a bit about that? What are the particular tools that a classical liberal historian brings to the table?
Mike Douma: One of them, another complicated term I think if we’re going to introduce historicism, is hermeneutics, which is just different ways of textual analysis and interpretation. This term, once again, has [00:07:30] many different definitions and can be quite complicated, but essentially by hermeneutic what I mean is comparing sources to understand terms and words as they were used in the period. If you spend 10 years reading, as I have for example, Dutch diplomatic papers from the 1860s, you start to see that a word that they used then isn’t the same as the word used today. It’s the contextual understanding of words and figuring out what the meanings [00:08:00] are so that you avoid these mistakes.
I think through that is the recognition of things like these concepts that we have, that they’re invented. A term can change meaning at different times. We look at something like, say, Marxism and class. Is what they’re talking about class in the 19th century the same as today? Classes are constantly changing. The concept of what we mean is different. [00:08:30] The classical liberal historian wants to go to the basics, wants to start with individuals and their own actions, and understand how were they thinking about the world, what were their motivating factors, not look at the larger concepts of things like class, and state, and nationhood, because these concepts change over time, and don’t act, as we say.
Anthony Comegna: Now, I want to jump back to Phil, because in our last episode, I interviewed David M. Hart at the Online Library for Liberty and Liberty Fund. [00:09:00] As I’m sure you know, David Hart has made his career, basically, in trying to revive the concept of class and put it back in focus, perhaps in the center of libertarian thinking about the past. I notice it’s conspicuously absent from your book, so I want to ask you, why did you not put any chapters in there on libertarians and class? Is there something that you’d like to avoid in talking about class?
Phil Magness: I wouldn’t say it’s so much avoiding [00:09:30] it. I think it’s more space limitations, obviously, a concern with publishing any type of book of this nature. We did cast our net broadly in trying to hit a number of different themes. I would say that there are elements of class theory that are implicit in some of our discussions that we get into, especially on the economic end, although it is a type of class theory that diverges from what we consider the mainstream history profession, which for [00:10:00] better or for worse, I’d argue for worse, has moved in the Marxist definition that treats classes as collective entities, collective actors.
My own take on it is that there is some value to talk about social status as a historical term, particularly as people see themselves and their own social status, but I also tend to approach it from an angle that uses economic theories. One of those theories that I draw on very heavily in my own work is Mancur Olson’s The Logic [00:10:30] of Collective Action. He presents a very robust critique of the notion that class identity is a massive motivating factor for human action. Rather, he’s arguing that there are other tendencies that rise to the top. Some of them are self-interested, but basically, it’s a critique of this Marxian approach that treats class as a dominant actor in history unto itself. It’s basically individuals respond to individual incentives, and those incentives don’t always [00:11:00] align with class action that we’d see as a historical event, as well as in the modern sense.
I wouldn’t say that I have any aversion to it. In fact, quite a bit of David’s work has been very useful and informative for my own, for many of the scholars that contributed to the volume. It’s something that fell into the background of other themes that we didn’t explore in the book.
Anthony Comegna: Yeah. Reading it, it seemed to me [00:11:30] that your problem would not be so much with the idea of social classes, or especially political classes, developing, but more with the lazy historians who would just say, “Oh, class is the explanatory factor here. Clearly, class is what’s motivating people’s decisions all the time.” That way, we don’t have to do much deeper work doing exactly what Mike was talking about, getting into the details of years, and years, and years of your life reading these things, and really getting [00:12:00] down to it, and understanding these people.
Mike Douma: I think we have to thank the Marxists for bringing class into the discussion. It’s an important factor. It’s an important concept, but to call it the one and only explanation for historical change, as Marx seems to do, is pushing it a little bit too far. This is why I sometimes think of Marxist history as the young Earth creationist version of history. At some point, material determinism, does this work? [00:12:30] Can we jettison that? Okay, what about stage theories? Let’s jettison that. Labor theory doesn’t seem to work. After a while, I wonder what is left of Marxist history.
What’s left of it is usually underperforming, cranky historians in marginalized positions, but the influence of Marxist history is quite strong on progressives and on the main line. To push them in that direction on lots of normal topics of [00:13:00] class, and race, and labor, because the literature is heavily influenced by that stuff, but Marxists, like classical liberals I think in academia, are actually on the outside, so I have sympathy. I have some Marxist friends who can’t jobs in academia. It’s difficult. They’re not doing what the … What the classical liberal approach is also to say is that these other positions should have a hearing. We should have multiple perspectives.
Anthony Comegna: Yeah. I was shocked in graduate school to hear [00:13:30] my fellow grad students saying, “Can you believe that he’s a Marxist? Isn’t that ridiculous?” I thought, “Wait, whoa. What academia am I into here? This is strange, where the students are criticizing the professors for being Marxists.” Weird.
Mike Douma: Where’d you … Pittsburgh?
Anthony Comegna: Yeah.
Mike Douma: I thought they were Marxists there.
Anthony Comegna: There are a couple, but they were soon as the weird old cranks, sort of, who had a lot of books out, important books, but …
Mike Douma: This is an important message in the book. We try to reach out in the introduction to progressives, and conservatives, and others, [00:14:00] to say that, “The classical liberal tradition is your tradition. You relate to these types of ideas. There’s something to be gained.”
Anthony Comegna: Phil, I know you dig into a lot of statistics about contemporary academia. Do we have any idea whatsoever how many classical liberal historians there are out there, or how many libertarians [00:14:30] with PhDs in history?
Phil Magness: Yeah, there are no surveys that have any absolute number. I would put the total number of liberty-friendly-ish PhDs that are operating in some sort of an academic, quasi-academic role, probably in a couple hundred. Of that, core participants that are on a day to day basis contributing to the tradition, we’re talking a couple dozen. It’s a very small segment.
Mike Douma: It depends here, too, Phil, if we’re limiting [00:15:00] this to the United States only or to the world. Both of them are quite small numbers. I’m only aware of, in the countries that I know things about, only a handful in the Netherlands, only a handful in Germany. Nobody keeps track of this stuff.
I do want to make the distinction, as well, that I think classical liberal history, as I say again, we’re defining for the first time as a specific thing, as a specific concept. Define or be defined. It’s something bigger than [00:15:30] libertarian history. Libertarians can see themselves in that tradition, but I really want to draw on that 19th-century legacy and see what we need to continue doing today. We can draw these parallels between what they were doing then, people in the 20th century, and people today, and say that really it’s a lot of the main line that’s merely been forgotten.
In fact, classical liberal history is really almost successful that it didn’t get labeled because it was so mainstream. I think it would [00:16:00] say it’s been pushed aside by progressive history in the last 50 years, 80 years, something like that.
Anthony Comegna: What do you think there is to gain, then, by marketing the idea of classical liberal history to departments or professional groups who are distinctly hostile to it?
Mike Douma: First of all, you guys have probably had this experience. You go to grad school, and you take a course in methods or approaches. Week after week, you’re introduced to a new approach or a new method. [00:16:30] It’s Marxist history, Annales School history, postmodernist history, etc., etc. Never once are you told that there’s such a thing as conservative history or Christian history. Nobody writes that anymore. That’s not even a legitimate field or idea, or even classical liberal or libertarian history.
On the side, I’m reading these other arguments, and I’m wondering, when are these ever going to come into the classroom. Nobody’s even heard of them before, that there’s alternative explanations. My goal is, if you’re going to be listing 10 approaches [00:17:00] or 10 schools of thought on approaching the past, maybe one of them in that mix should be the classical liberals, who have some different ideas and interpretations.
Anthony Comegna: Phil, do you think that there are … I’m assuming you agree with Michael’s earlier point that at one point, all history was basically classical liberal history. Then today, do you see any bits of classical liberal history still existing [00:17:30] and informing other schools within the profession?
Phil Magness: I’d say anywhere that methodological empiricism is at the core of a contribution. Again, it’s not something that we have survey data on, but I’d say there’s a sizeable minority of the field that still clings methodologically to rigorous close reading of historical evidence. These are the people that hit the archives and hit them hard to just aggressively try and tease out, discern [00:18:00] what was happening from the records that the past has left us. I think that is an approach that is very much synchronous with this 18th, 19th-century broader grouping that we would now maybe refer to as classical liberal history.
The flip side of that is you have other traditions that have moved very far away from empiricism in the way that they approach historical topics. This is the same thing Michael was talking about, people that put the theory cart before the horse of [00:18:30] the actual evidence. Some of the fruits of that we see are historical claims that are often built upon a secondary or tertiary literature around a topic that have never really bothered to go back and look and see if the actual historical documents underlying that topic say what subsequent interpretations of them have said. I think this is one of the dangers of Marx, is you start getting history that settles in around a consensus myth, and then builds upon [00:19:00] that myth in even further and further directions when it’s unchained from any kind of evidentiary base.
Anthony Comegna: Postmodernists are not Marxists, because they’re not structuralists. They don’t think that history has to progress in a particular way. They do clearly identify, as one of my professors liked to say, who did what to whom. That’s the point of studying history, to find out who did what to whom. Postmodernists have a real keen eye on [00:19:30] that, I think. How does their approach … Could one of you define postmodernism, and then perhaps the other one tell us-
Mike Douma: I think it defies definition.
Anthony Comegna: Go ahead. Start there.
Mike Douma: You asked me before if it’s a research process or a paradigm. I’m not sure it is. I think it’s almost an anti-research paradigm. They’re seeking out forms of power. They’re challenging the knowledge that we have, challenging the sources, and our way [00:20:00] of interpreting things. I’m actually quite influenced by postmodern history, and I think probably a lot of people are today. Just like Marxism, it comes into the history of main line and it gives us something.
To me, the first great change in the professionalization of history was these guys like Niebuhr and von Ranke in the beginning of the 19th century, who say, “We have to change interpretations by going to the sources.” Source criticism is the first big change, but the second real big change in history, in my eyes, [00:20:30] happens in the 1970s, first with Louis Mink, who is the bridge into postmodern history, and then Hayden White. What they’re doing is challenging our personal relationship with the sources, to say, “What are our priors that we’re bringing to this? What are the sources of power that are influencing what gets collected in archives and the interpretations that are made over time?” They make us skeptics.
They challenge the whole historical narrative and the idea that we can even work from those [00:21:00] sources to derive interpretations, because our interpretations are always going to be biased and influenced by race, class, gender, and other types of things. This is a fantastic challenge to the field that they have to take up. Now, the thing is, most historians ignore this. They say, “Well yeah, of course. We have to listen to it.” It’s just like psychologists. “Yeah, we’ve got to listen to Thomas Szasz, but we don’t believe him.”
Then they come back into the fold and do their own thing, which is interpret the sources and write narrative history, because we [00:21:30] can’t sit around and just constantly be skeptical, and question our own assumptions. Sometimes we want to just put things down and tell the story one way or another. They’ll tell stories that go against the grain. These are an important part of it. Of course, postmodern history is really powerful in the philosophy of history, a very small subfield of history which is maybe dominated by the postmodernists, actually.
Anthony Comegna: Phil, could you tell us what critical [00:22:00] theory is?
Phil Magness: Right. [crosstalk 00:22:02].
Anthony Comegna: Maybe could you find it within yourself to say something nice about critical theory?
Phil Magness: Yeah. I’ll say something nice, I guess in the most general sense, probably similar to what Michael’s noting with the postmodernists. Critical theorists do tend to at least bring an outside perspective and offer a different perspective to bear there. Critical theory is really hard to define in itself, and it often eschews definition. [00:22:30] If you go to some of the main scholars that work in this tradition, they’re almost schismatic in between themselves over how they’d even classify themselves. There’s a narrow subset of critical theory that comes out of the philosophy departments of mainly continental Europe, the Frankfurt School. Habermas is the most prominent, living, active figure out of that tradition. Then there’s a broader diffusion of what we’d call critical theory [00:23:00] methodologies to other fields, to other areas of the academy. I tend to use the term more so in the broader sense.
It is something that came into vogue in the philosophy discipline first, emerging mainly in the 1960s and 1970s. Philosophy by and large has moved beyond it, discarded elements of it, or cornered it to niche subsets of the academy, but from that point it moved very heavily over [00:23:30] into the humanities as the dominant tradition of how to approach the evidence or the lack of evidence. Again, you get elements of trying to reduce everything to power relationships or group identities, so race, class, gender are the three main or the triumvirate of analytical tools for studying past events.
I could offer my own critique of it. I am fairly harsh on critical theory approaches to history, [00:24:00] in the sense that I think they import a heavy amount of ideological baggage. What Michael was saying, we can question our epistemic root of understanding what exists in the archives. We can step back and say, “Okay, certain things are preserved and other things are not preserved for a very specific reason.” This does have epistemic things on what we can interpret out of it. My question, and this is where I diverge the sharpest from the critical theory ground, is what [00:24:30] do they offer in return? It’s blowing up the evidentiary base of what we can find in archival material, and then importing a strong, political ideology that’s just taken as almost assertions by declamation of historical truth, that class is the means of analyzing this, or that gender is the means of analyzing this, and then you start working backwards from that declamation through the evidence.
I think the problem that emerges here is when you declaim [00:25:00] a grand truth about something, you also alter the way you look at evidence around that supposed subject and the truth. You start seeking things that affirm that grand narrative, the ideology that emerges there, while also discarding, or overlooking, or neglecting other types of evidence that don’t really quite fit to the narrative.
Anthony Comegna: We’ve talked about class. You brought up race, gender, religion. [00:25:30] One of the strong claims made in this book, and one of the most interesting things that I read in it, is Jonathan Bean’s claim that his book Race and Liberty in America is the first presentation of a liberal theory of race in its history. Now, given that you’re saying classical liberal history is all about historicism, putting things in context, and empiricism, [00:26:00] why has it taken so long for liberal historians to write a history of race in America?
Phil Magness: I think it is an oversight of the discipline, and it’s an oversight of our own subset of the discipline. One thing I would note as a caveat there, a lot of racial history is very recent history. Simply the time that it takes to start studying sources, the civil rights era occurred [00:26:30] in the lifetime of many people that are still living there, so you do have a little bit of that time lag. You have a very small subset of historians that are even working in this tradition. It’s just a matter of numbers, basically.
One thing I would differentiate, I think Jonathan is writing very specifically about how do we analyze race as a historical topic, as a historical event, and certain events that took place in American history, in particular, that had profound racial impacts. [00:27:00] We can separate that somewhat from classical liberal contributions to racial history as they played out.
There, if we go back 100 years, we see some of the major actors in the formation of the NAACP, for example, that I like to give as a historical event. You have what would have been considered the libertarians or classical liberals of the day are some of the major actors there. There’s Moorfield Storey, who’s [00:27:30] one of the attorneys that co-founds the NAACP in the 1910s. He’s a former clerk of the abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner, grew up in an abolitionist and free market, free trade, almost laissez-faire, classical liberal intellectual tradition. He’s one of the main contributors that jumps in and tries to carry some of those ideas over on a civil rights front with the founding of the NAACP.
He’s joined by a journalist [00:28:00] by the name of Oswald Garrison Villard, who’s William Lloyd Garrison’s grandson, very much out of the same tradition, a classical liberal intellectually, economically, as well as a tradition of rights. If you go back far enough, you start looking at some of the early histories of the civil rights movement. It’s not so much a libertarian history of race or a theory of race. It’s rather classical liberals applying principles of rights to [00:28:30] the institutions they see around them, and using that individual methodology to rectify injustices that they saw.
In that sense, I see a history of race as it relates to classical liberal thought just ripe and waiting to be written. This includes carrying some of those traditions all the way forward from the civil rights era to today. It also includes connecting the old school abolitionist and post-abolitionist classical liberals [00:29:00] to the mid-20th century.
Just a project I’m taking up myself very recently, I’m looking into a journalist by the name of R.C. Hoiles, who was the editor of the Orange County Register for most of the mid-20th century. He’s a very interesting guy. He’s a radical anti-statist in some respects, very much a free market type of a character, but his most prominent journalistic contributions, he’s one of the only newspapers in the United States [00:29:30] that openly opposes Japanese internment during World War Two. He editorializes very aggressively against not only FDR but the governor of California who was complicit in carrying this out, Earl Warren, and comes to distinction as one of the only major papers that’s actually taking an editorial stance during the war.
Then, right after the war, he turns to desegregation. There’s actually a test case that comes out of Santa Ana, California in 1947. It’s a half-decade [00:30:00] before Brown vs. Board, but they were testing a de facto segregationist policy that separated Mexican American students from white students in the local school district. Hoiles jumps in on the editorial side of this, lambasting the local school board for enacting segregation. You have people that are drawing upon the classical tradition, these are just a few examples of them, to make arguments that have direct pertinence to civil rights, direct pertinence to [00:30:30] racial history as it’s unfolding.
The question now is to jump into the sources. We need historians to actually dig around in these issues in ways that treat them very similarly as we would treat something like the history of American capitalism or the history of free markets, which has received much more attention.
Mike Douma: I’m no expert on this topic. When Jonathan Bean says [00:31:00] that he’s the first to present a liberal theory of race, I have to take him at his word, because he’s done the work on this, but it seems to me that the history of race in the 20th century has always been written in the service of something. Whether this is for the KKK, or for some other conservative cause, or for civil rights, or something else, it wasn’t something that classical liberals or libertarians took up as one of their main causes, to talk about race on the whole, right?
There’s [00:31:30] specific examples. During the civil rights movement, there’s definitely civil libertarians who are making arguments and working on the ground, but it’s not a topic that … First of all, you have a lot of these intellectual historians, historians of ideas. That started to fade in the 1960s. That was on the way out, and so we lost that older generation when history was ideas and politics. We moved into [00:32:00] social, class-based explanations, so there weren’t classical liberals around or interested enough in those topics to write general theories of race and history, as far as I know.
Anthony Comegna: I really liked David Beito’s chapter in here, too. He makes the case that at least part of the serious value of doing classical liberal history is that it illustrates very clearly the roads not taken [00:32:30] over time. That the world is the way it is because particular people make very specific choices during their lifetimes, and so the world developed according to the choices they made. They could very well have made different choices, and produced different results. For our last question here, let me start with you, Mike, and then we’ll go to Phil. What are some of the most fruitful and interesting roads not taken out there to be studied [00:33:00] in history, and that can teach us about where we should go in the future?
Mike Douma: That’s a great question, Anthony. What I’ve been thinking the last couple years is that historians need to investigate their own discipline more. We don’t study historiography as a concept. We read history, and then say that we know historiography, but we don’t really think about what historiography is. We don’t read theory. We don’t have courses in the philosophy of history. We don’t have courses in writing history, as [00:33:30] far as I know, most places. All these kinds of things that are practical, everyday things that historians in the real world do, we don’t have those. We just have lots of content-based courses in grad schools. So, I’d like to see a transition towards the practicing historians that learn to argue like philosophers, that are open, and will get a room, and challenge and argue things out.
I was going to say this earlier. Historians of every stripe don’t like to hear it when you listen to a different interpretation than your own, [00:34:00] but I think more than anybody else, the libertarians get really upset when they hear other interpretations. It’s usually because their interpretation is not even listened to in that discussion. You go to a major conference, or you listen to C-SPAN, or you listen to the news, and they talk about history of tariffs or something, and they get it all wrong. Most people would be like, “Okay, they got it wrong,” but libertarians actually get really mad about this, because it’s like they’re not being listened to. We have written these works on this, but because it’s not [00:34:30] in the textbook, and it’s not the obvious answer, the Ockham’s razor explanation of history that everybody accepts, it’s not listened to. I think thinking about our own discipline is an important thing that historians need to do, and that’s one of the contributions we’ve tried to make here.
I would say also, in general, just starting to understand more about agency of individual people, of small groups. I think we need more cultural [00:35:00] anthropology and folklore in history, not just the social class, race, gender explanations, but some more of the deep, embedded cultural explanations that we can get from the cultural anthropologists and the folklorists.
Phil Magness: Yeah. I guess I’ll pick up on a little bit of that theme. I certainly will admit to being one of those historians that does get mad when I hear other interpretations, not so much disagreement [00:35:30] with the interpretation, but just the presentation of the actual material that’s in error. It’s wrong.
This comes up to the forefront oftentimes when historians who are not trained in economics attempt to talk about economic issues. This was a part that I got into in my contribution to the book. My chapter addressed some of what’s called the new history of capitalism school. This is a movement that’s emerged [00:36:00] in the history profession, mostly in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007-2008. This is a relatively new birth of material that purports to be studying economic history and economic events, which I think is actually a positive development to some extent, the fact that historians are paying attention to something outside of the race, class, gender triumvirate.
They’re starting to notice that economic matters do intrude into historical [00:36:30] discussions, but at the same time, it’s something that’s been picked up without the toolboxes that are often necessary to talk about complex developments. Something like a tariff, if you read an average tariff history of the 19th century, it’s almost like stumbling into the president’s Twitter feed. That’s the level of economic knowledge that’s brought to bear to these discussions.
Another example that I cite in the chapter, there was a famous contributor [00:37:00] to this new history of capitalism approach. He was trying to measure the impact of slavery on the national economy of the United States, and therefore attempted or purported to do a calculation of how much slavery contributed to the U.S. GDP in, say, 1840. He goes through what’s essentially just a made-up formula that’s not even rooted in any of the standards and practices of the field, and comes up with some ridiculous number where basically half the United States [00:37:30] economy is derived from slavery. The way he obtains this is through double counting, triple counting, separate and apart from the conventions that economics would bring to bear in measuring national accounts.
I do see this separation in the discussion of economic ideas and the actual tools that are often necessary as a foundation to take up those ideas. [00:38:00] I see that as a missed opportunity that goes back the better part of a century. The fact that economists were not talking to historians, and vice versa, historians were not consulting economists, has really left us in this mire where you have two separate trajectories that are discussing the same history, the same events.
A classic example I give is if you look at a standard U.S. history textbook, or even more scholarly works on U.S. history, and ask the question, what [00:38:30] caused the Great Depression? A historian will often offer something that economists have referred to as underconsumption theory plus inequality come together in the late 1920s, and then boom, stock market crash, FDR steps in and fixes it. If you ask any economic historian who actually studies things like business cycles, studies the complex mechanisms of what initiates or triggers a recession or a depression, [00:39:00] studies the major camps and theories about economic recovery, I don’t care if you’re an Austrian, a Keynesian, a monetarist, neoclassical type, these are rigorous theories, but they’re all but absent from conventional historical accounts.
An average historian will probably tell the victory of FDR in ending the Great Depression. An economist would look at this and say, “We have substantial economic evidence, substantial [00:39:30] empirical evidence, that FDR’s policies in some extent prolonged and exacerbated the Great Depression.” So, completely opposite conclusions reached by historical experts using different methodologies on the exact same topic, and neither of them are talking to each other. I see that as a missed opportunity. It’s something that I hope we can move closer toward rectifying.
Anthony Comegna: A huge thanks to Professors Douma [00:40:00] and Magness for joining us this week. Since I made them do it, let me give it a shot. What is classical liberal history? It is a centuries-long tradition in academic and popular history stressing that individuals are the sole units of human agency, and any stories about the human experience over time must necessarily be built, as it were, from the bottom up, with reference to individual experience, motivations, and decisions. Classical liberal history is the only [00:40:30] truly humane method of writing about the past, though as always, there is much we can learn from our academic opponents.
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