The Price of Forgetting Historical Wisdom

We are the product of our ancestors and yet all too often, we do not heed their warnings, their age-old cautionary tales, their distilled wisdom. The dead of our society and their trove of insight, honed over history and experience, are flicked away indifferently. The departed are suddenly snuffed out and they have a voice no longer. We don’t invoke their advice. We don’t direct to them any questions.

We do not consider that some things ought to be preserved and that not everything ought to be sacrificed to the alter of progress. (Because what exactly constitutes progress anyways? Movement away from the old because the old is deemed as irrelevant and dumb? How often do we consider that perhaps progressive movement is actually not always a net good?)

In America, we slough off dying generations with businesslike ease. We often fall prey to the presumption that every generation is smarter than the one that came before it — that we have innovated, that we have become more worldly and clever and eclipsed our former deficiencies. On a larger scale, we triumphantly muse to ourselves that perhaps we can innovate ourselves out of previous historical problems and the limitations that haunted our ancestors.

These are very simplistic, linear assumptions embedded in traditional American thought. We cannot help but conceive of the new as clean and pretty and excitingly modern and the old as an embarrassing, lingering residue that stubbornly clings to parts of our society. The old, we often think, is surely mostly irrelevant and obsolete. With insouciance do we shuck the past, shedding its skin. It is all done so rapidly and with a certain North-American pragmatism that the past sometimes seems like a children’s tale. If we look at the past, it is perhaps only in intervals and often not with reverence and heedfulness exactly, but as if it is quaint and sometimes charming, but ultimately of little use to our modern lives.

There is a number of consequences to all of this. One is that we lose our roots, our sense of national flow and solidarity, a feeling that we are adding to tapestry of our ancestors and not merely erecting our own individual lives, participating in self-creation from scratch.

Many might roll their eyes at such an admonition — is it not borne out of fear or anxiety, they might say, that we should advocate for “retaining our roots,” perhaps at the expense of charging towards innovation? But it is not good for a nation of people to wander around without a sense of historical continuity — there are consequences to that. Things feel watery and unmoored and strangely vacuous.

Here’s the thing: It’s easy to forget and to collectively slide away from cultural roots and the sort of caution and disciplined directives that keep us all anchored. This has always been the threat of historical memory. Furthermore, this has always been the danger of cultures because the presence of many people compound this effect. People tend to compare themselves to those presently around them, to corporeal contemporaries, not to the hazy outlines of the deceased. This is the process to which the past can all too quickly slip through our fingers.

And yet, we need to learn the entreaties of our ancestors. But sadly, we believe nothing that we do not see with our own two eyes. It takes trying something again and failing to remind us of what we have known all along. As a whole, we can be a bit like rebellious, naïve children hoping to outwit their parents. We think we can transcend our limitations and skirt consequences, time and again. One would think we have historical amnesia for how tirelessly we run essentially the same experiments over and over again, thinking we will get different results.

Economist and social theorist, Thomas Sowell was especially prescient in noting the following:

“Virtually every stupid idea in vogue today was thought of by somebody in the past — and has led to disaster, again and again. That is why it is dangerous to neglect the study of history, so that we have to keep on learning what is wrong with clever ideas the hard way.”

And so why look at history? Perhaps as young students we disliked reading the tired, antiquated recalls of the past, cynical as to their relevance. No doubt a teacher supplied a reasoning along the lines of “it is so that we remember, so that we don’t forget”. But did that not feel, at times, insufficient, clipped short, suspiciously nonspecific?

The hard truth is, we are slaves to the illusion that the present generation has stumbled upon the ultimate truth. We always assume that by virtue of being at the pinnacle of modernity (and thus, always on the precipice of the present-most moment) that we are living with the brightest minds and the most intelligent and sophisticated awareness.

It is true, we upgrade our existences by adding things — new inventions, new discoveries, etc. But the one thing we cannot upgrade is humanity. We have not transcended wars or conflict or inequality or death or the rise and fall of empires. Some things remain the same.

Some things are locked in cycles and patterns and are inextricably a part of our human DNA. We will never become fully heroic over our human limitations — and thus, our societal limitations — and so that is why we had best listen to the lessons we have accumulated throughout history.

Here’s an example: America has long been in technical violation of the Constitution in regards to its debasement of U.S. currency and the subsequent creation of a fiat currency. Monetary discipline was rejected long ago in favor of creating money out of thin air. Virtually every central banker in history has taken the bait. The sort of monetary exploits that nearly every modern economy engages in nowadays, untethered from the disciplines of sound money and budgets is categorized by the same reckless, short-sighted stupidity.

The reason being, every fiat currency eventually fails and none are spared this fate. George Washington and many of his counterparts knew as much considering their ruinous run-in with just this bitter reality during the era of Revolutionary War expenses in which they debased the currency. However, in the years 1793–1808, America entered a period of unparalleled prosperity. As it was, several years prior to 1793 the fateful paper money had been done away with and sound money had made a comeback.

Surprisingly rapidly, the federal deficit decreased and then disappeared altogether, eventually becoming a surplus. During this time, George Washington was able to see clearly the contrast. He observed the stark results that originated from moving from worthless money, rampant inflation, and political unrest to sound money, an excellent economic climate, and social happiness within the community of American citizens. So convicted were many of the Founding Fathers due to their harrowing earlier experiences as well as the positive effects they were currently witnessing that they became dead set on this not happening in America again.

(And in case you should question the strength of their convictions, let it be said that there is, quite literally, a death penalty for debasement of U.S. currency. 1792 Coinage Act.)

In a letter to a fellow politician in 1787, speaking specifically about losing sight of monetary discipline, Washington wrote:

“We may one day become a great commercial and flourishing nation. But if in the pursuit of the means we should unfortunately stumble again on unfunded paper money or any similar species of fraud, we shall assuredly give a fatal stab to our national credit in its infancy.”

An erosion of economic integrity is but one example of the pleas of the deceased being washed from our consciences. In terms of other national mistakes not intended by our forebears who put plenty of prognostic thought into their possibility, the size of our government sticks out as well as tremendous tax burdens, some of the imperialistic exploits (enter, the controversial wars of Korea and Vietnam) and gut-wrenching levels of national debt, to name a few.

Some may invoke frustration that on the subject of American government we should even bring up our forefathers. Let the dead rest! They say. It’s a new world! But is it? Do principles of governance really change that much? Do humans really change that much, for that matter? That’s a question to ask.

But trapped in history is all too often quiet whisperings of warnings, floating down through the hallway of time to anybody still and receptive enough to listen to them. The past matters. It is made up of people who have lived through painful patches of history or have suffered through the collapsing death of collective illusions and subsequently faced hard, immovable reality. Those of us, living and ensnared in the present moment are vaguely aware at times that we are affected by something like the “tyranny of the present”.

Every American generation tends to forget the dead and to fall prey to, indeed, the tyranny of the present. History becomes something distant and fossilized rather than what it really is, an undercurrent that never really goes away, that in its waters holds age-old secrets, distilled truths, cautionary tales, and a sense of grounding continuity.

In rushing towards progress and innovation, we should first question the wisdom of what we are engaging in. It may be new and it may be enterprising, but is it good, is it wise? After all, some of the adjustable-rate mortgages preceding the subprime mortgage crisis were hailed as strategic and cleverly resourceful but they were not spared their eventual demise. Surely our Founding Fathers would have shaken their heads, deeply troubled at such a creation.

And yet, despite some of the criticism of the persistence of the Founding Fathers in our cultural milieu, these looming figures still do exactly that — persist. Even if we think them silly or obsolete, they still linger in our national consciousness. And why? I think we’re quietly aware that they might know something we don’t.

Writer of economics, psychology, and lots in between.

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