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To the Victor Goes the History

Summary:
There is something about the history of war, conquest, and statecraft that captures the imagination. Histories of the great deeds of great men fill history textbooks and serve as inspiration for monuments, national parks, documentaries, movies, and plays. For those who think history matters, this lopsided emphasis can be problematic in a number of ways. The history of war, conquest, and statecraft tends to be written by the victor. Consequently, the stories of those who lost the war or were conquered or overridden at important constitutional moments can easily be lost. Without these stories, we may be unaware of particular costs that have been paid in history, and wind up giving too much credit or not enough blame to particular strategies or practices. One of the

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There is something about the history of war, conquest, and statecraft that captures the imagination. Histories of the great deeds of great men fill history textbooks and serve as inspiration for monuments, national parks, documentaries, movies, and plays. For those who think history matters, this lopsided emphasis can be problematic in a number of ways. The history of war, conquest, and statecraft tends to be written by the victor. Consequently, the stories of those who lost the war or were conquered or overridden at important constitutional moments can easily be lost. Without these stories, we may be unaware of particular costs that have been paid in history, and wind up giving too much credit or not enough blame to particular strategies or practices.

One of the ways this manifests in political economy is that the history of war, conquest, and statecraft tends to leave out those features of economic and social life that are actually the most ubiquitous and maybe even the most significant in constituting human society. How people spend their time, what they create, how they cooperate or deal with conflict, and how competing values are mediated within communities are all critically important in shaping the trajectory of a society. What would a society be if not for these fundamentals? Capital-P Politics on the grand stage loses its purpose if there isn’t a robust, productive society churning within and around it. What would all of the contests and battles and proclamations of the ‘great men’ even be about otherwise?

In her article, “Crossing the Great Divide: Coproduction, Synergy, and Development,”[1] Elinor Ostrom suggests that the distorted emphasis offered in textbook accounts of public life has created a distorted view of the essentiality of national-level political processes. Scholars of public administration prioritize improving efficacy within government bureaucracies over improving efficacy of problem-solving within communities. Economics textbooks focus on possible market failures without considering possible government failures. Textbooks in political science prioritize articulating processes of national government over processes of local government and self-governance through non-state organizations like clubs, churches, and professional associations.

A couple years later, in her Presidential address to the American Political Science Association, Ostrom puts a finer point on the matter of why she is concerned about these fundamental biases. When scholars of public administration, economics, and political science ignore organized efforts outside the realm of war, conquest, and statecraft, we may actually be eroding our capacity to peacefully co-exist within a democratic society:

“All too many of our textbooks focus exclusively on leaders and, worse, only national-level leaders. Students completing an introductory course on American government, or political science more generally, will not learn that they play an essential role in sustaining democracy. Citizen participation is presented as contacting leaders, organizing interest groups and parties, and voting. That citizens need additional skills and knowledge to resolve the social dilemmas they fact is left unaddressed.” [2]

Without knowledge of the entire range of ways that people contribute to shaping their environments, there is a very real risk of turning too much to the national government to solve problems that may be much better resolved at more local levels. Not every problem can or should be solved with the sledgehammer of Federal policy; sometimes a lighter touch will do just fine. Further, if the skill sets required to solve problems among our neighbors and communities are never practiced, why should we expect them to work during the moments of crisis and social turmoil when we need them most? Or, as Elinor Ostrom concludes the paragraph excerpted above,

“It is ordinary persons and citizens who craft and sustain the workability of the institutions of everyday life. We owe an obligation to the next generation to carry forward the best of our knowledge about how individuals solve the multiplicity of social dilemmas—large and small—that they face.”

One way to carry forward the knowledge of how individuals have solved a multiplicity of social dilemmas without—and sometimes even in spite of—national intervention is to re-capture the history of civil society, self-governance, and of the contributions of women and men who have faced political oppression. I’m looking forward to sharing some of that history here in future posts on EconLog and hopefully shedding some light on that vast realm of human cooperation and achievement that has taken place outside the realm of history as written by the victors.

[1] Ostrom, Elinor. 1996. “Crossing the Great Divide: Coproduction, Synergy, and Development.” World Development 24 (6): 1073–87. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0305750X9600023X

[2] Ostrom, Elinor. 1998. “A Behavioral Approach to the Rational Choice Theory of Collective Action: Presidential Address, American Political Science Association, 1997.” The American Political Science Review 92 (1): 1–22.


Jayme Lemke is a Senior Research Fellow and Associate Director of Academic and Student Programs at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a Senior Fellow in the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.

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