Sunday, March 27, 2011

Richard Ebeling on the Austrian Blog

Pete Boettke was so impressed by Richard Ebeling's comments on his blog that he decided to create a new post just for him. I think Richard Ebeling is largely correct, but he fails to see the implications of his argument for the study of history.

Here is the link to Richard Ebeling's post:

Basically, Richard Ebeling argues that accurate predictions of the future are difficult because they depend "upon the 'complex phenomena' of individual decisions, political policy choices, ideological influences, and everyday actions based on the expectations held at each moment in time." Moreover, "All of our analysis, expectations and predictions should be implicitly framed with the inescapable humility of what our limited minds can know about the workings of our world. ... The working through the problem -- including an economy-wide economic crisis -- requires more knowledge about the present and the future than any one mind or group of minds can master or ever possess."

This is all great, and I am in agreement with the whole of what Richard Ebeling has to say on these matters. But Richard Ebeling errs when he then takes this attitude and applies it to history. Here is Richard Ebeling on history:

"We know how the Great Depression of the 1930s played out because it is now history. We know, for example, that FDR ran on a "conservative" platform of balancing the budget, cutting taxes, maintaining the gold standard, limiting Federal intrusiveness in state-level affairs, etc. And we know that he did the exact opposite of these things when actually in office. ... We will know all the answers -- when some future economic historian (maybe even an "Austrian") writes the history of our times, and tries to tell those future readers how it all happened and why."

This doesn't add up, and Richard Ebeling should have seen this. Why should "complex phenomena" and "ideological influences" operate only in our predictions of the future? Should not the "inescapable humility of what our limited minds can know about the workings of our world" also be applied to our understanding of history? In fact, I think it should. Too often social scientists confuse "the past" with "history." They are two entirely separate things. The past, of course, is that which has preceded us here in the present; but history is what "historians" do and write. And because these historians confront "complex phenomena" with "ideological influences," it is impossible for them to author an objectively true account of "the past" because "facts" must be selected in an infinitely rich and inexhaustible world, necessarily making those facts that come to be selected ideologically-laden. Moreover, there is no way to compare the relative merits of competing accounts of the past because the past itself is not an account, but a series of past events. Therefore, since there is no fundamentally correct "text" or account to which all other accounts can be compared, all we have are variations (interpretations) of the past, each equally groundless and ideological.

This is where Richard Ebeling makes a big mistake. On his own terms, all we have to do is wait for the present moment to pass before we try to make sense of it. But that does not reduce its inherent complexity and ideological influence; in fact, it magnifies it. Much to the chagrin of Austrians, the past is not "irrevocable" and the future "unknowable, though not unimaginable." The past and the future are both "unknowable, though not unimaginable."

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