The American Museum in Britain, Bath

This past weekend, we visited the American Museum in Britain. It was thought-provoking: America was of course conceived in liberty but American history, like every nation’s, is filled with examples of man’s inhumanity to man.

The exhibition began with a wall of quotations from significant figures. These particularly stood out:

William Penn (1644-1718):

Those people who will not be governed by God will be ruled by tyrants.

Albert Einstein1:

Never do anything against conscience even if the state demands it.

Apache Chief Geronimo (1829-1909):

Once I moved about like the wind. Now I surrender to you and that is all.

Thus, beside the lives of pioneers, the museum introduced the history of native Americans and of African-American slaves, terrible experiences which no person should ever know. I was reminded of Karl Popper’s lines in The Open Society and its Enemies:

There is no history of mankind, there is only an indefinite number of histories of all kinds of aspects of human life. And one of these is the history of political power. This is elevated into the history of the world. But this, I hold, is an offence against every decent conception of mankind. It is hardly better than to treat the history of embezzlement or of robbery or of poisoning as the history of mankind. For the history of power politics is nothing but the history of international crime and mass murder (including it is true, some of the attempts to suppress them). This history is taught in schools, and some of the greatest criminals are extolled as heroes.

Coincidentally, I am just finishing John O’Farrell’s An Utterly Impartial History of Britain: (or 2000 Years of Upper Class Idiots in Charge). Perhaps spotting the gathering dust on my scholarly history books, Beth gave me this book as a starting point. It is at least an entertaining read, but the author’s endless cynicism, though supported by events, combined with his wearisome ignorance of sound economics, produces a tiresome read. Compare O’Farrell’s history with that of, say, This Little Britain: How One Small Country Changed the Modern World or The Welfare State We’re in and we quickly find that history, as the record of acting people, deserves to be understood through sound theories of human action.

Enter one of my preferred writers — Ludwig von Mises — with Theory and History (online). From the back cover:

Theory and History deals with the theory of economics, i.e., the study of purposive human action, and with history, the record of the past actions of individuals. All actions are determined by ideas. Thoughts and ideas are “real things,” Mises writes. “Although intangible and immaterial, they are factors in bringing about changes in the realm of tangible and material things.” Rather than rejecting the study of historical change as a “useless pastime,” Mises considers it of the utmost practical importance. “History looks backward into the past, but the lesson it teaches concerns things to come.” History opens the mind to an understanding of human nature, increases wisdom, and distinguishes civilized man from the barbarian. Moreover, historical knowledge is of the utmost importance in helping to anticipate and plan for the future.

A major part of this book is a critique of Karl Marx and his fallacious view of theory and history. Marx attributes the creation of tools and machines, as well as the economic structure of society, to undefined “material productive forces”; Mises rejects this materialistic view and points out that tools and machines are actually created by individuals acting on the basis of non-materialistic ideas. Marx predicts that society is moving towards socialism “with the inexorability of a law of nature.” Mises responds: “The outstanding fact about history is that it is a succession of events that nobody anticipated before they ocurred.”

The book is a tour de force of the ideas that have shaped human history and their refutations. In particular, bearing in mind O’Farrell’s sneering treatment of the free market:

The history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has discredited the hopes and the prognostications of the philosophers of the Enlightenment. The peoples did not proceed on the road toward freedom, constitutional government, civil rights, free trade, peace, and good will among nations. Instead the trend is toward totalitarianism, toward socialism. And once more there are people who assert that this trend is the ultimate phase of history and that it will never give way to another trend.

And, closing the book, on attempts at predicting the future:

The fallacy inherent in predicting the course of history is that the prophets assume no ideas will ever possess the minds of men but those they themselves already know of. Hegel, Comte, and Marx, to name only the most popular of these soothsayers, never doubted their own omniscience. Each was fully convinced that he was the man whom the mysterious powers providently directing all human affairs had elected to consummate the evolution of historical change. Henceforth nothing of importance could ever happen. There was no longer any need for people to think. Only one task was left to coming generations-to arrange all things according to the precepts devised by the messenger of Providence. In this regard there was no difference between Mohammed and Marx, between the inquisitors and Auguste Comte.

Up to now in the West none of the apostles of stabilization and petrification has succeeded in wiping out the individual’s innate disposition to think and to apply to all problems the yardstick of reason. This alone, and no more, history and philosophy can assert in dealing with doctrines that claim to know exactly what the future has in store for mankind.

Museums and historians must remind us of the wrongs of the past, and do so through the histories of many aspects of human life, even political power. Let us be guided by them to a better and more open future in which people can be free of all kinds of oppression.

Above all, let us use our reason to reflect on our present circumstances and conclude with Karl Popper that,

even our greatest troubles spring from something that is as admirable and sound as it is dangerous — from our impatience to better the lot of our fellows.

The idea whose time has come, the idea which can carry us forward — from difficulties created by people who wished to better the lot of their fellows, by people who wish to better the lot of future generations — is liberty under the rule of law.

  1. Also, “If one purges the Judaism of the Prophets and Christianity as Jesus Christ taught it of all subsequent additions, especially those of the priests, one is left with a teaching which is capable of curing all the social ills of humanity. It is the duty of every man of good will to strive steadfastly in his own little world to make this teaching of pure humanity a living force, so far as he can. If he makes an honest attempt in this direction without being crushed and trampled under foot by his contemporaries, he may consider himself and the community to which he belongs lucky.” []

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