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The Lessons of History

Mises Daily: Thursday, February 17, 2011 by

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The alleged "lessons of history" that the traditional version of American history would have us absorb are not particularly subtle: Government is the mighty engine of progress to which we owe the great strides in "social justice" and living standards we have made. As government has become more centralized, the potential for injustice has diminished. Those who would reverse the growth and centralization of government power are foes of human progress who possess no good arguments a reasonable person is bound to consider.

I receive correspondence all the time from perplexed would-be students of history who know there's something wrong with this official version of things, but who don't know which sources or authorities to consult for a more balanced take on events. I have also encountered many people who wish they had a better grasp on American history but don't think they have the time to acquire it or simply don't know where to begin.

That's why I've decided to offer a series of courses on American history, beginning with its colonial origins, via the Mises Academy. The first of these, an eight-week offering called "American Origins: From the Colonies to the Constitution," will begin March 7. We'll start with the settlement and development of the colonies (themselves full of struggles for freedom against government outrages) and continue on to the imperial crisis, the American Revolution, and the drafting and ratification of the Constitution. These topics are the indispensable foundation for any future study of American history.

Murray Rothbard, in his history of colonial America, noted that the narrative structure of his work revolved around the struggle between liberty and power over the course of time. That's the theme of this course as well.

And beginning March 14, I'll repeat my seven-week course "The New Deal: History, Economics, and Law."

Discussions of the economy, especially during times of crisis, are often framed in terms of lessons we supposedly learned during the Depression of the 1930s. If we are not to endure terrible times like those again, we are told, we must support whatever form of state intervention is currently being peddled. The Depression is supposed to be exhibit A of the alleged instability of the free market left to its own devices, while the New Deal represents the indispensable corrective power of the state.

That's why it's so essential for those who believe in a free economy and a free society to know this history cold, and to know it better than anyone. Understanding the true causes of the Depression, as well as the real economic record of the United States in the 1930s, is an essential ingredient in anyone's economic and historical education.

Each side of this debate, the free-market one and the interventionist one, has its talking points. My aim in this course is to immerse people in this important history and provide the kind of background few Americans have, but all of us need.

We'll start with the economy of the 1920s, the Federal Reserve, and the stock-market crash. From there we'll proceed to Herbert Hoover's response to the Depression. Hoover, we're told, let his laissez-faire prejudices get in the way of interventions that would have arrested the crisis. Modern historians are less likely to repeat that version of things, at least not without important caveats, and free-market scholars never believed it in the first place. We'll take a systematic look at the Hoover record.

Then it's on to the New Deal, the series of programs Franklin Roosevelt supported in order to fight the Depression. The New Deal has been described by some scholars as a smashing success and by others as a dismal failure. What's the evidence for these claims? Which side is right? We'll look at all the major New Deal programs and agencies, as well as the relevant economic statistics from the 1930s, to answer these questions.

We'll also take some time to discuss the Supreme Court — both the decisions that initially struck down much of the New Deal, and the later ones that upheld it. You'll do what hardly any undergraduate student ever does and read the text of the decisions themselves.

The course will also cover the economic consequences of World War II. Did the war in fact end the Depression? If not, what were its effects?

In both courses, I'll probably speak for about an hour or so each class session — but I'll make it as lively an hour as possible, so the passage of time won't be so obvious — and then take questions for 30 minutes. After that, I'll stick around a little while longer to talk about any other issue, whether course related or not, that people would like to discuss.

We'll read the work of professional historians and economists, as well as the writing of neglected but important contemporaries. And all the readings for each course are available for free online.

Neither course assumes any prior knowledge; we'll begin from ground zero. But by the end of either one, you can expect to have, not just a bunch of talking points, but a substantial grounding in a critical period of American history.

I hope to see you for "American Origins: From the Colonies to the Constitution," beginning March 7, and "The New Deal: History, Economics, and Law," beginning March 14. It's American history in what Jeffrey Tucker calls the Austro-Jeffersonian tradition.

Mises Academy: Tom Woods teaches American Origins: From the Colonies to the Constitution
Mises Academy: Tom Woods teaches the New Deal