Why Do Historians Have Less Influence Over Public Policy Than Economists?

20 08 2013

Mark Blyth

That question was  addressed by Mark Blyth, a Brown University political scientist, in a recent interview. For a podcast of the interview, see here.

Blyth said: “There’s a funny thing – it was a historian who made this point – I don’t know who he is, it was a British historian, and I heard this story and it makes so much sense. He said ‘Why is it that historians who actually know stuff about planet Earth never get listened to. Whereas an economist, who lives in an entire world of mathematical theorems that actually may or may not gel onto the world at certain points in time, but they’re really powerful.”

Blyth’s advice to historians and political scientists is that if they want their ideas to have some impact on policymakers, they should  “dress it up in math.” Doing so, he suggests, would give them some additional credibility in our number-focused world.

I think that the more intelligent policymakers will be able to see through efforts to impress them by tacking on some numbers. Moreover, I would question the entire premise of this conversation, namely, the idea that historians have less influence over policymakers than economists. Blyth presents absolutely no evidence to prove that economists do have more influence over policy than historians and political scientists. (I’m not certain how one would go about quantifying it, but he doesn’t even try). Ezra Klein made a similar claim back in 2010, again with no supporting evidence.

I believe that historians have actually had a substantial impact on how a variety of political actors think about the present. These actors include legislators, Supreme Court judges, journalists, military leaders, and the general public. Historical ideas filter down into the thinking of decision-maker.

First, many of the economists who have recently influenced public policy are economic historians. They are based in economics departments, but they have also gone to the historical record to test the various theories their more theoretical colleagues have come up with. Consider Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, two economic historians how used the historical record to suggest that once a country’s debt level reached about 90% of GDP, it passed a sort of tipping point at which all sorts of nasty economic consequences rushed in. As I have shown in other blog posts, their research, which has now been discredited, was cited by pro-austerity politicians in a number of countries. Of course, these politicians might have pursued exactly the same policies had Reinhart and Rogoff never published their findings, but the fact the politicians mentioned their research does suggest it has at least some influence over their thinking. I suspect their research was credible because they surveyed financial crises over a lengthy period, 800 years in fact. The historical aspect of their research set them apart from economists who were content with merely look at, say, post-1990 data or just some clever thought experiments.

Second, consider the “Industrial Revolution, ” a historical epoch identified in 1881 by a historian, long after the Industrial Revolution, which is conventionally dated to 1760-1830.  The term “Industrial Revolution” was soon achieved common currency and is frequently used in political discourse today. It was used 3,117 times in the British parliament in the 20th century and structures how we think about social evolution and social policy. Note how there was a spike in usage in the mid-1980s, when the de-industrialization of the UK accelerated. Non-academics continue to use the term even though historians such as Warwick’s Nick Crafts regard it as a misnomer that obscures the very gradual nature of economic change in the period in question.

Search- -industrial revolution- (Hansard)

Third, future military leaders at institutions such as West Point continue to study military history. The study of historical military tactics has also influenced the teaching of strategic management in business schools. The aphorism that generals are always fighting the last war might also be applied to business leaders.

Mexican Cannon Captured in 1848 on Display at West Point

Fourth, ideas about history inform court decisions about issues ranging for gay marriage to the Second Amendment to Intellectual Property. If we wanted to quantify and test Blyth’s claim that economists are more influential than historians, perhaps we could do some quantitative analysis of, say, rulings by SCOTUS.

Chamberlain Meets Hitler

Fifth, diplomatic history structures how we think about foreign affairs. The thinking of US policymakers on decisions about whether to go to war is influenced by two historical examples: Neville Chamberlain and Lyndon Johnson, the first being a leader who didn’t go to war soon enough and the latter a leader who plunged into a war that ruined his presidency. Nobody wants to be either a Chamberlain or a LBJ.

In short, Blyth devotes energy to explaining a phenomenon that may not actually exist, namely the greater policy impact of economists,




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