The Relevance (and Irrelevance) of History to Policy
William Thomas, Senior Historian at History Associates, Inc.
Historians have a great deal to contribute to policy discussions. But, before discussing how they might contribute most effectively, I’d like to begin on a note of sobriety.
Historians may be tempted to believe that, in collaborating with policymakers, executives, and policy analysts, they could make immediate and cogent contributions. After all, public rhetoric is usually very banal, and it often makes questionable references to historical events. It would be easy for historians to believe that consumption of respectable journalism, a penchant for critical reflection, and access to a modest library of historical case examples would put them in a good position to be of real service.
That would be wishful thinking. Rhetoric is a superficial feature of political life. Politicians and executives use rhetorical gestures to signal their general governing philosophy and emphases, and to rally and maintain coalitions of the interest groups that make policy possible. If they refer to history, the accuracy of their historical reference is more or less immaterial to whatever their policy positions are likely to be, and whether they will result in good or ill.
As an example, we might look at President Barack Obama’s announcement during his recent State of the Union address of a new “moonshot” in cancer research. Many commentators, mostly non-historians, have rushed to criticize the historical references and resonances of the announcement. Most obviously, the original Apollo lunar landing program bears little resemblance to cancer research in terms of the goals, methods, and scale of the institutions involved. Moreover, while the popular connotation of the Apollo program is that it was an inspiring success, critics, including many historians, would point out that it was an extraordinary investment of resources in something that offered little practical return even as America confronted deep social problems.
The other clear parallel is with President Richard Nixon’s declaration of a “war on cancer” in 1971, echoing President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 declaration of a “war on poverty.” The war analogy, like the moonshot analogy, implies the ability to accomplish a discrete goal through the concentration of effort. And, in fact, unlike the Apollo program, not only did the war on cancer not accomplish its declared goal—curing cancer—researchers have faced a long and difficult road to develop scientific understanding and more effective therapies, despite high levels of funding.
But what lessons do we hope to draw from revisiting these histories? If we concentrate on the rhetoric, we could of course note that Obama’s aspirational goal—“Let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all”—is unlikely to be met by a “moonshot” program. Fine. But this judgment wouldn’t really engage with the underlying program proposal, which is the most important thing. As reported by science journalists, this involves reasonably generous funding approaching $1 billion as well as institutional reforms intended to create a more collaborative research environment. Whatever its disconnect with Obama’s rhetoric, what we would really like to know is: is this specific proposal a good idea or a bad idea?
That’s something that’s actually not very easy to say, particularly absent further details. Nor are historians necessarily well positioned to lend much insight. A billion dollars would surely do some good even if it won’t result in a cure. But, setting aside the important “marginal utility” question—what would be the best possible use of an additional billion dollars in research funding—we still need to ask what exactly this funding would accomplish.
The historical difficulty in making progress against cancer is certainly relevant (and well known), but the key question is, if only $1 billion were available, could current research projects make significant breakthroughs in understanding, or could current therapy development projects make significant strides in efficacy? On the question of institutional organization, what exactly does it presently look like, and is there reason to believe that integrating laboratories, or creating new liaison channels among them, would yield significant benefits? Or are we just saying that because More Collaboration sounds like a Good Thing?
The people best positioned to answer such questions are people working in cancer research, as well as people in related fields who have good knowledge of current conditions in cancer research but can speak with less bias. However, this is not to say that historians have nothing to contribute.
Rather, I am reminded of what the legendary British science adviser Henry Tizard said to the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee lobbying group in 1942 about the need to integrate researchers’ viewpoints into the setting of research and development priorities: “The safest way of reaching the right decision is to have scientists working side by side in the closest collaboration with those who have the administrative and executive responsibility. And the first thing that the scientist learns when he has the benefit and privilege of such collaboration is that he has a lot to learn.”
Frankly, it would be surprising if historians, having mainly conversed with each other, did have much to say that could genuinely help policymakers, executives, and policy analysts in their work. Many historians, like many generically intelligent people, might be able to ferret out some kinds of sloppy thinking. But, in general, I have never seen that historians, qua historians, routinely ask the kinds of questions, or produce the kinds of knowledge, that can materially contribute to the design of effective programs and the making of sound decisions.
With inside exposure to actual problems of policy, though, I believe that historians can (and in a few cases do) contribute a great deal where others might not be able. Let’s start with what historians might get from an exposure to actual policy discussions, highlighting three things:
- A) A good sense of exactly who comprises the current community of decision makers, their advisers, specialist journalists, and stakeholders. Whenever possible, historians should try to be as specific as possible, preferably to the point of thinking in terms of proper names. This allows historians to engage with the thinking of actual experts, rather than stray ideas they may have encountered, in the media for instance.
- B) A knowledge of what concrete changes to existing policies and institutional structures are feasible and under serious discussion. This helps historians to address the actual questions that policymakers must answer, and to avoid speaking in unhelpful generalities.
- C) A knowledge of what the most developed arguments surrounding different proposals actually are. This prevents historians from attacking straw men, and from simply making points that others are already making.
On the basis of that knowledge, historians would be in a good position to provide useful information, much of which may require dedicated research. Here are some notions:
1) Individuals’ arguments in policy debates derive in large part from their past experience. A historian could lend insight into how these individuals’ personal history—training, work, personal contacts, and so forth—might inform their perspectives, and from what traditions they appear to derive their ideas. This in turn can tell us about their particular concerns, emphases, and argumentative strategies, permitting us to make more reasoned decisions about how to engage them or what we can most productively take from their contributions to policy debates.
2) Current situations are necessarily constrained by past decisions leading up to them, but they are not necessarily irrevocably bound by them. Historical research can reveal how once-broad landscapes of possibilities may have been closed off by choices made by predecessors, or how constraints that once limited the choices available to predecessors may have disappeared. We may not be able to transplant past possibilities wholesale into the present, but they may furnish us with notions we might not otherwise have entertained.
3) Similarly, we usually do not have a good sense of whether we are more or less intelligent or wise than predecessors, because we do not fully understand the rationales underlying the policy choices that they made. Recovering those rationales from history in their full depth allows us to benefit from past wisdom, but also to question its soundness and to forge policies free of an unwarranted respect for past actions.
4) Understanding the full rationales originally underlying our current policies also encourages us to understand the circumstances that allowed those rationales to make sense (if indeed they did). Historical research can help determine whether those circumstances still prevail, or if changed circumstances demand adjustments or even complete overhaul.
5) In making arguments today, we may suppose we are making fresh and cutting insights. In fact, those arguments may be stale retreads of arguments that have been made for years or even decades. Rather than assuming that entrenched interests simply have not been listening—which is a possibility—understanding our arguments’ heritage may encourage us take our arguments to a higher level (possibly borrowing advanced arguments from past iterations of the debate). Or it may, if we’re honest, encourage us to question whether our thinking is actually as cogent as we imagine.
6) Many current debates make use of readily available data sets. However, historical research can supply additional relevant information. Such historical data may not be complete or “clean.” Even still, we may be able to use heterogeneous historical data to corroborate, question, supplement, or to help us interpret data in its more standard forms.
7) A lot of policy thought proceeds by drawing comparisons between proposed actions and experience of other recent decisions. Piecemeal historical examples may be of some use, but a thorough and systematic charting of past policies, distilled into an easily accessible and navigable resource, could provide a very rich basis for comparison. Ideally, we would like to link past policy decisions with their outcomes. But, given the difficulties of drawing unambiguous links, it may be enough to begin with simply to build up our vocabulary of past decisions and programs. The most relevant comparisons will probably come from recent history, but the more distant past should be explored as well. For economists, one of the lessons of the post-2008 economy is that to understand how the economy works in liquidity trap conditions, we must go all the way back to the 1930s (or to Japan since the 1990s) to draw our comparisons.
What I am proposing would require hard, disciplined, coordinated work from historians—it cannot be done simply by “parachuting in.” However, I believe that the effort would be worth it, creating a sustained, valued place for historical research and analysis in policy work and executive decision making. If it is to happen, it must begin with little steps and a willingness to collaborate and learn.
Views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of History Associates.