Are the agreements that we live with today, whether consciously chosen or unconsciously accepted, the only agreements that are possible? Are they “true,” in the sense that they are the only way that life could be? While we tend to unconsciously act as if they were given truths, I find that all of these agreements have shifted over time. Whether the laws of physics, the laws of medicine, the laws of economics, or the laws of politics, they all change, and often by a lot. This constant reframing of what we “know” to be true intrigues me, so I have been looking into the history of thought and practice in many of these disciplines.
I recently recommended a book that explored the evolution of the modern mind. A wild ride through the wars and tectonic shifts in how we define what a mind is. I also recommend two books exploring how we arrived at our current-day understanding of two very influential systems, which we also tend to assume are given facts of reality: the US Constitution and modern economics.
Professor Klarman, of the Harvard Law School, digs deep into the archives, through hundreds of letters from the framers of the US Constitution to describe, in the words of the framers themselves, the process that the framers went through to get from the Articles of Confederation to a ratified Constitution. It was not a forgone conclusion that the convention could legally happen, that they would reach an agreement, or that the document would be ratified. They just knew that the Articles of Confederation were not working, with bankruptcy and civil war imminent, and little else had worked. “By 1787, a decade’s worth of failed efforts at securing incremental reform within the framework of the Articles had convinced many political leaders of the need to pursue more fundamental change–and through other avenues” (p 72). Where many of the states were moving towards democratic systems of local decision making, and many of the political leaders did not support a strong federal model, the framers were successful in changing the foundations of the USA going forward. To get this highly negotiated document ratified, “invocations of divine inspiration for the Constitution by supporters of ratification, were, at least in part, a conscious political strategy to maximize the chance of winning” (p 2). While the Constitution has proved to be a very strong document, its framers wanted it to be revisited soon and strengthened, seeing it only as a better temporary solution than the Articles of Confederation.
While Professor Klarman’s archive-rich narrative includes 181 pages of endnotes, making it a long, nuanced read, London School of Economics guest lecturer Kishtainy‘s A Little History of Economics covers a wide spread of history in a few pages, highlighting key thinkers and tinkerers along the way, showing how they took a legacy of key concepts and the pressing issues of their times, to mold a new perspective on how people come together to produce and exchange goods. It is the idea in a context that made huge shifts that we then consider normal or given today, many years later in a completely different context. “Before Jevons and Marshall, economists imagined people as colorful characters. In Adam Smith’s version of competition, merchants haggle and hustle to make the best deals, and Malthus’s poor liked to breed like rabbits. Now economists place a new character at centre stage: ‘rational economic man,’ a person who decides what to do by weighing up marginal costs and marginal benefits, for example by comparing the price of a spoon with its utility. The economy was seen as being full of cool-headed people who do all these calculations perfectly. This kinds of economy looks calm and harmonious, quite different from how earlier economists saw it. To Marx capitalism was all about the exploitation of workers by capitalists. Workers create the economic value, but capitalists take most of it as profit. In the world of ‘rational economic man’ there are simply lots of people buying and selling things. There’s no such thing as exploitation” (p 65).
Another coup. Take one idea, add some content and a new context, stir, and change the game. We then accept the new game, and forget that there ever was a previous game that others previously also thought was true and given. Two highly recommended books on the history of thought underlying major institutions today.