We don’t like to admit it, but humans are creatures of habit. Essentially, that’s what the study of history is: Studying human nature and the behavior patterns of men and women. Professors at large universities will espouse larger and more ominous reasons, and philosophers, those men and women who would debate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin or other such nonsense would make the study of history even more complicated.The simple truth is the study of history is the study of the human condition and the peoples’ responses to it.
With that said, a careful study of history reveals that while the conditions of a given period in time never mirror in exacting detail an earlier period, there can be similarities. Some similarities are of conditions, others are circumstance, such as high taxation leading to some form of revolution be it a mild incarnation such as one party losing complete control of a legislature, or something more ominous, such as a popular uprising leading to violent revolution. In either case, the condition of over taxation led the change and it is incumbent upon the historian to make sense of it, to find the pattern and use that knowledge to inform the next generation of people so they can learn and adjust in order to remedy the poor situation they might find themselves in.
Unfortunately, this is almost never the case.
Humans have an unerring ability to succumb to the same forces, albeit in other forms, to what drove the first calamity, never really acknowledging the mistakes that led to said calamity in the first place as they believe themselves and their time superior to the past, a notion that is simply not true. Technology may be different, the tools people use improved, but the desires of people do not change. Avarice, lust for power, jealousy, envy are only some of the ‘motivating’ factors that drive humans, and the reasons for their actions are quite similar if not exacting to the past. Much like Malthus stated in his Essay on the Principal of Population regarding numbers and population pressure, the same could be said and modified about humans and history.
“A slight acquaintance with the patterns of history will show the immensity of the power of its study when used to compare the present to the past”
This does not mean to say one can predict the future by simple historical study for to believe that contains its own folly. But, it does mean to suggest historical forces and human responses to those forces are generally the same and can be predicted to a certain degree, illuminating a path forward for those willing to engage in such study. History is made by humans, and humans are driven by the same forces despite the time period difference. Therefore, to understand humans is to understand the forces that drive history.
History does not happen in a vacuum; there is always a combination of forces, multiple causation, that fill the vacuum and lead to an event. In the study of history, nothing is random chance but rather a series of events interlinked that lead to an eventual outcome. Discover the pattern and one will discover the forces that drove the pattern.
The difference in response to said event or stimuli lies in two areas: First, the type of government that is in place. A monarchy in absolute form will have a significantly different response to historical stimuli than, say, a republic which is generally beholden to the population and its whims, assuming said population has a certain degree of engagement with the voting process. Should voters turn out in small numbers, those given the responsibility of running the republic are then granted tacit permission to do as they will by the larger majority due to the majority’s failure to participate. Voting populations of this sort are then easily manipulated, bought off with promises of ‘free’ and tend to tow the line the government creates. It is these same populations that live under the guise of ‘democracy’, when in fact, they live under little more than a soft despotism of their own creation.
Take the current state of the United States. Since the founding of the nation in 1776, attempts have been made, some successful, others not, to expand the powers of the federal government over the states. Nullification, the ability of states to ignore federal laws that go against what they believe to be right, has been defeated at virtually every turn by the Supreme Court. Prominently, during the so-called Progressive Era, the federal government, with the consent of the voting public, allowed the government to increase its power with very little pushback. History shows that to their detriment, populations prefer to be ‘taken care of’ rather than to do for themselves.
The creation of the income tax, the federal reserve, and the significant increase in government regulations all served to expand the power of the federal government. Government’s expansion of power was briefly blunted by the presidency of Calvin Coolidge, only to be resumed under Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the creation of the New Deal, a massive overreach of government power the United States is still feeling today.
Expansion of federal government power were all precipitated by crises either real or imagined, given life via journalism whether true or not. This is the pattern and it has been repeated continually throughout history be it during the period of the Roman republic when Consuls declared an emergency and wrested power for themselves, in Germany under Hitler when the Enabling Act allowed the German president to declare an emergency and retain just under dictatorial powers until the crisis subsided, or in the case of the United States under George Bush when the tragedy of 911 allowed him to push through the Patriot Act, enabling ordinary American citizens to be spied upon…all these examples hidden under the guise of ‘public safety’. The pattern is clear; expansion of governmental power can be achieved by couching said expansion under the umbrella of ‘public safety’. Do that and the door will be propped open by an unsuspecting population.
A dictatorship will also have a significantly different response to historical stimuli as it is in control in totality, the army doing its bidding and forcing the population to cede to its will. There may come a time, as we’ve seen in the past, in which said population tires of the dictatorial nature of the regime in power and revolts violently, but those instances are few and far between as either losing a war or severe economic depression seem to be the only driving forces that will force the population to act. Their lives are at risk already, so dying in the name of revolution seems a small price to pay for freedom from an oppressive regime. In the main, humans are docile when it comes to government, including the government that is supposed to be responsive to their whims.
The second driver of human response is the economic condition of said population. Marx was correct in his recognition of economic forces driving history; it is one of many factors but a major one nonetheless. In representative governments, when economic conditions are solid, humans are loathe to change the course of a nation, preferring the status quo to any upheaval. However, when those conditions reach such a point that the population fears for its very survival, rest assured change is afoot. The examples of this are many, and many a government, no matter its makeup, has fallen victim to the unhappy crowd. The French Revolution is one such example.
While there were many forces at play, not the least of which was the liberal spirit of the Enlightenment, the economic conditions were staggeringly poor. Fully fifty percent of the population of Paris were laboring poor, enough to drive even the most loyal monarchist into the arms of radicalism. The same could be said for the various emperors of Rome, many of whom died at the hands of their own praetorian guard for overt cruelty or wanton greed leading to an economy that piled rocks onto an already overtaxed population.
In China, Mao was able to get a foothold in the 1920’s due to the poor economic conditions in the countryside and paired with the failure of Chain Kai-Shek’s regime to defeat the Japanese, fostered a revolutionary movement in China that still exists, albeit in a slightly different economic form, today. A government that promised, as they all do, to cure what ills the “people”, that ambiguous term encompassing the nation’s ‘regulars’, and who, in almost every instance, are never served.
Virtue for those who are in power, is in short supply, be it the present or the distant past. To be sure, there have been some who have exhibited those virtuous traits they all espouse on the stump or in the hallowed halls of government, but for most, in the end, the allure, the grandeur, and the sheer electricity of power become too much and they succumb as most all have succumbed in our past.
This nation, built on the premise of limited government power as defined in its constitution will also fall prey to the temptations of power, government overreach, and the slow march toward despotism. While it may not take the extreme form of a Stalin or Hitler, or even a Robespierre, it will, in some form, become something akin to an authoritarian regime. Fear…that is the tool that props open the door for authoritarianism to snake itself into the room. When a government and its minions in the media can sow fear into a population, the gateway lies open, exacerbated by a population paralyzed by their fear to stand in the government’s way.
This was so during the Nazi rise to power as the communists were painted as the evil lurking within along with German jews. It was this way during the French Revolution as the upper classes were painted red by the Jacobins, and Castro, with his wide brush, painted all capitalists in that manner, promising to save the population of Cuba but ushering in little more than economic collapse while hoarding some eight hundred million dollars.
This is nothing new in history. The difference here is we have, to this point, the power of the vote, and assuming that power remains untainted and the vote is true, can change the course and direction of our nation every two years. This is not a macro notion, but must also be affected on the local level, maybe more so than on the national level. The old saying is true: All politics is local. If we are not careful, history will not look upon our time kindly for we will have been the ones to usher in the beginning of the end. Let history be our guide, not feelings, impressions, or notions of good will. The workings of government cannot be rooted in compassion; that is for the individual and private organizations to address. Government must remain separate from the emotional involvement of cause, remaining unfeeling and limited to the highest degree. For to allow government to permeate the lives of the individual is to invite control which ultimately leads to despotism be it soft or overwhelming.