Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Overton Window and Historicism

"[Thymology] is what a man knows about the way in which people value different conditions, about their wishes and desires and their plans to realize these wishes and desires. It is the knowledge of the social environment in which a man lives and acts or, with historians, of a foreign milieu about which he has learned by studying special sources."Mises, Theory and History

A once popular conception of history seems to have crept back into the Overton Window. Although historicism has been defined in numerous ways, it seems to refer to an understanding of history in which individual volition plays only a small part: individual actions are bound by time and place, by culture and history. So of WW2, we might say that Churchill acted in accordance with a nebulous historical and cultural force; we might even allude to a greater destiny being worked through a man whose actions were in a position to have significant influence on the same history that seemed to be moving him. How convenient!

The same views seem to be consistent with a Great Man view of the past in which the turning points of human history rested on the actions of incredible men (and women: I'm looking at you Cleopatra and Helen of Troy). However, this view seems barren in light of individuals whose actions were never recorded and whose histories have never been told. The view also belies a concept of complexity where a world in which the flap of a butterflies wings may not necessarily cause a hurricane, but the coordinated actions of hundreds of thousands of individual human actors are explained away as the necessary lurch of progress.

Several problems exist with a view of history consistent with historicism, not the least of which is that no general laws of human conduct can be inferred from such a view; and, thus, no science towards a better understanding of realizing particular ends can be achieved. Perhaps the most pernicious outcome of the outlook of historicism is the opportunity which is created to justify death and destruction. In light of WW2, of the millions who died in pursuit of their individual ends, we may only say of them: they were valiant cogs in the struggle towards a better, more prosperous and peaceful future. Under this view, we may not say that perhaps those millions died in vain to serve the ends of a few ambitious men's desire for greater power and glory. Almost any outcome of any event can be construed as a satisfaction of historical progress. This is comparable to Marx's view that the proletarian would inevitably struggle towards the realization of a perfect Communism through the material productive forces of history. So, when Stalin starved several million farmers, they were only part of the larger struggle towards a more perfect future - which still fails to materialize more than a century later.

The Overton Window encompasses bundles of ideas which public discourse uses to make sense of the complexity of the present. The Window is influenced heavily by academic, political and commercial forces who rarely have as an ultimate goal the better understanding of truth. Their constituents, rather, benefit in one way or another by continuing the discourse, especially regarding public policy, in line with their individual interests, both economic and otherwise.

"Why one man chooses water and another man wine is a thymological (or, in traditional terminology, psychological) problem. But it is of no concern to praxeology and economics. The subject matter of praxeology and of that part of it which is so far best developed─economics─is action as such and not the motives that impel a man to aim at definite ends."
Mises, Theory and History

Not only does historicism suffer from a lack of theoretical underpinning, it fails to account for the dynamics of human consciousness that we all experience. Historcism substitutes relativity for understanding and, as a direct result, favors a status quo interpretation of past events. As an object of the Overton Window, historicism maintains that the common man has no power over his destiny and, at best, can hope to work towards the ends of their enlightened leaders whom history has seen fit to elevate to positions of power.

A view of history that treats consciousness as discreet rather than universal can not understand economic progress as acting according to natural laws, but instead must attribute progress to leaders and their policies. The Overton Window of the Soviet Union entailed a vision of the future in which capital accumulation resulted from the correct policies rather than adherence to a natural set of laws derived from a theory of human action. The US government today mainly sees problems as nails to hit with the hammer of policy. A shift in the Overton Window might eventually help recapture the gains attained from the application of a science of human action; a failure to shift will result in another historical collapse of an edifice that served a few individuals at the expense of the many.

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