What good is history, anyway?

December 18, 2014

With public service in our DNA, what we’d really like to do is to peer into the future, to see and shape what’s coming around the bend. So we asked ourselves, ‘Can a deeper understanding of the past help to shape and inform the future?’

The myth of ‘western origins’ in the human rights debate

Challenging assumptions, shifting the conversation

Years ago, Susan Waltz attended a small conference at Princeton University. The premise? That the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was an American invention. “It ruffled a few of my feathers,” says Waltz. “The idea that the Declaration is simply an extension of western political concepts has huge political implications,” she explains. “If that’s the case, why should any other nation adhere to it?” So Waltz spent more than five years reading as much as she could about the construction of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The 900-page transcript of the negotiations that went on for two-and-a-half months? “I turned every single page,” she says.

Interestingly, says Waltz, it was a female delegate from Iraq who proposed the declaration’s gender equality norm. Not only did that not come from the west, she says, but Eleanor Roosevelt opposed it as unnecessary. And it was the Syrian representative who pushed the idea that the United Nations should have the power to come in and investigate when human rights were being grossly abused. Facts like these help to shift the conversation with contemporary leaders, and to protect the legitimacy of the legal framework by which people are working to secure human rights all around the world.

The mismatch between libertarian values and draconian drug laws

Revealing gaps, weaknesses, and blind spots

David Thacher has spent a considerable amount of time doing ethnographic case studies. He’s conducted qualitative interviews and he’s written extensive observations while riding along in police cars, hanging out on corners to watch enforcement activities, and attending court hearings when these cases come up for review. But lately, Thacher is more interested in the past, than the present.

“You get something additional out of the history,” he says, “it’s not just a point-in-time description of our current approach to a problem, it’s an exploration of how that approach evolved.” That kind of temporal or historical view, he says, reveals, “gaps, weaknesses, and other blind spots that accumulated over time—things you don’t see just by looking at the present.”

Thacher has done a number of deep dives into history over the years, including early efforts to police common property like America’s first public parks and libraries. Most recently, he’s looking at the evolution of American drug laws to discover, “How did the country that, on paper, is one of the most libertarian countries in the world end up with some of the most draconian laws regulating what substances we can put in our body?”

To answer this question, Thacher has turned to America’s very first drug law: the regulation of opium dens in San Francisco in the late 1800s. Initially, says Thacher, it was perfectly legal to buy and sell opium in the U.S., and to use it at home or in public opium dens. “People quite explicitly said they weren’t sure it was legitimate to tell anyone they couldn’t,” he says.

But something about the behavior, or the Chinese entrepreneurs who ran the dens, didn’t sit well with local leaders, who realized they could shut down the dens where opium was smoked by building on and expanding public nuisance doctrine. “The trouble,” says Thacher, “is that the dens weren’t actually nuisances.” Opiates produced a sedentary effect. Den clients didn’t brawl, shout, or take to the streets; they reclined on palettes, quietly, for hours at a time.

“By reconstructing the rationale for the original den laws, as well as the shift to more direct prohibition afterwards, you start to see how shaky those rationales really were,” says Thacher. “The hope is to identify weaknesses in the way we think about drug regulation that can help society and the courts as we rethink the way we approach it in the years ahead.”

Fiscal and monetary policy decisions in the wake of recession

Testing the economic theories that guide policymakers

Views about fiscal and monetary policy are influenced by longstanding economic models, notes Joshua Hausman. So these models of the economy have very strong implications for policy. One way to test the models is to study historical examples.

“It’s not so much that the historical example directly tells us something about policy today,” says Hausman. “But that the historical example tells us something about how well our model works.”

To investigate the kinds of policies that might be relevant in the aftermath of recession, Hausman has studied specific policies implemented during the Great Depression. He’s looked at the response to Detroit auto industry strikes, at payments to World War I veterans, and at the mysterious economic surge that took place when Roosevelt replaced Hoover in the White House.

One of Hausman’s recent papers focuses on France, a nation that didn’t recover from the Great Depression until the eve of World War II, he explains. With his coauthors, Hausman is trying to understand why.

“New-Keynesian models would predict that the steps France took in the recession would boost output,” he says. “But they had the opposite effect, disrupting French industry and productivity.” The finding, he says, may point to weaknesses in one of the prevailing economic models used by policymakers.

Magnifying the socioeconomic rift between blacks and whites

Illuminating unintended consequences

“Who’s poor?” Joy Rohde asks the undergrads in her “History of Policy” course. The students supply answers. “Single mothers and their children,” says one. “People in rural communities,” says another. “Racial minorities,” says a third.

Rohde’s students are trying to understand how that came to be, and history provides some clues. In this particular class, students are talking about the Great Depression, how it changed the way Americans thought about the role of the federal government. When unemployment increased from 3 percent to 25 percent over a four-year period, Rohde says, communities decided that the problem was too big to be dealt with locally.

But as powerful as the New Deal was in countering poverty, it wasn’t a perfect cure. One student points out that it magnified the socioeconomic rift between blacks and whites by excluding sharecroppers, farm workers, and domestic laborers—many of whom were African Americans—from the social security system.

“History is a critical analytical tool,” says Rohde later. “What you pull from it isn’t just, ‘this is what happened.’ You get a clear sense of what political scientists would call feedback loops and path dependencies. The same quality that makes policy so powerfully effective can produce huge unintended consequences.”

Holding government officials accountable

Empowering former victims and leaving a richer, more robust historical record

As senior legal advisor to the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), John Ciorciari has seen history’s power through a very particular lens—the aftermath of genocide. Over the past 15 years, Ciorciari and his DC-Cam colleagues have preserved the testimonies of a wide range of groups who lived through the country’s genocidal Khmer Rouge regime from the victims of atrocities to the perpetrators.

With the first group, a major goal is to acknowledge suffering, Ciorciari says. “When people are left out of history...when their grievances are left out of the record book, that’s a recipe for frustration, even armed conflict, in societies that are recovering from atrocities,” he says. Testimonies empower former victims by giving them official standing and a voice, “whether it’s in a formal proceeding like a courtroom, or an informal one like a magazine or radio show.”

With the latter group, the perpetrators, the goal is to elucidate the crimes that were committed, so they can be shared with those who continue to suffer. This is the work that Ciorciari has been most directly engaged in. A secondary goal, he says, is to learn about why these men and women joined the Khmer Rouge in the first place. “Why they participated, followed orders, or sometimes acted on their own, without orders. And what happened to them afterward.”

The collective record—richer and more robust— “constrains any one group from bending history to serve its objectives,” says Ciorciari. “If government officials have an expectation that what they’re doing today will become part of the historical record,” he says, “it will almost certainly affect how they operate.”

Below is a formatted version of this article from State & Hill, the magazine of the Ford School. View the entire Fall 2014 State & Hill here.