Saturday, September 30, 2017

Historical Perspective

CS Lewis advised that we should read three old books for every new one in his introduction to Athanasius' On The Incarnation. Different eras have different perspectives and make different assumptions. They have blind spots that we see immediately, and presumably, they could see ours as well, so reading them provides an indirect route to seeing past our own blind spots.

I am often surprised at how quickly this happens.  Lewis was speaking of reading books much older -  Plato, Milton, Boethius - though I imagine he would have allowed that Dickens and Austen were from an era different from his own.  (Though not so different as from Lewis's to ours, though the years are fewer.) I am reading a mixed popular/academic history of Mid-Victorian Britain written by an Englishman who had taught at Cambridge, Harvard, Oxford, and Sussex, written in 1971. I pickup it up for twenty-five cents, and a companion about Early Victorian Britain by the same author, for another twenty-five. Presumably he wrote a history of Late Victorian Britain as well, though I don't know as I shall read it.

The assumption that central planning, especially by government, solves a great deal is very strong. He may be correct in each individual instance, that Boards of Sanitation, Boards of Housing, and Boards of Health were an improvement over previous ad-hoc regulation, and that Whitehall setting and enforcing standards on each of those was better still.  His picture is of industries and recalcitrant Municipal Corporations resisting these improvements, until they were made to do better from above.  Curiously, he records many places that made improvements without this more intense governmental structure, but uses them only as proofs that the changes could be made, not as evidence that towns and cities might figure these things out on their own, given time.

He may be right, as I said. Some places may have gone on allowing dangerous housing or unsanitary water forever, and needed to be taken in hand. But the historian looks at what England did do to solve these problems, which is regulation from farther up the governmental ladder, assumes that this was the only way to get from Point A to Point B, and faults those places that came in later for not getting with the program. He does not set out to prove this in any way, because he does not see it as needing proof. It is clear that he believes that all knowledgeable people know this, and he is merely recording the timeline and incidents of how Englishmen of the previous century figured this out.

There are many people today who would believe this as well.  But in 2017 they would be aware that there had been some spectacular failures of central planning, even if they thought these were avoidable.  Also, historians today would know that there were voices that disagreed, which needed to be answered. (Or would they? Perhaps they still go on as before, and only in libertarian or conservative circles is there any debate.)

There is a second piece he simply misses about wealth and employment in the era.  He notes that the wealth of the nation doubled between 1851 and 1881 and tries to discover if the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.  He gives a tentative yes to this because he compares the wages in various types of employment and sees that their yearly income did not increase, and so concludes the money must have gone to the upper classes. Yet the chart on his very next page records that the number of agricultural workers, the very lowest-paid group, was halved over that period. Mining and manufacturing, poorly paid but better than hiring out yearly at farm labor, anyway, showed slight increase. Other better-paying employment grew even more  building, transport, shopkeeping, and professional grew by 25% - there were in fact huge increases in number of people making their living some fields: fourfold in clerking and banking; doubled in education, doubled in trade, doubled in art and amusement. The numbers making their living in literature and science was too small to show up in national percentages, but there was an increase from 2,000 to 9,000 so employed in that span.

It is true that the 10% who were still making their living in agriculture were not any better off thirty years later, and as this is a generation, those sons and daughters were no better off than their parents. But half the sons and daughters had gone on to do something else, something still miserable by our standards but something better in their own eyes.  It may be more than half of the English sons and daughters who moved on, because there was still an influx from Ireland and Scotland moving into some of those agricultural jobs, though they moved more toward manufacturing and dock-work.

We do still see this reasoning now occasionally, when numbers are published that the average wages of such-and-such workers have stagnated, or even gone down, from 1970-present, after allowing for inflation. Aside from ignoring that this includes (overall) expensive health care that can actually treat some things (and more vacation, safer conditions, better unemployment) it also ignores that a smaller percentage of people do those jobs now. Still, I think - it is merely my impression and I welcome yours - these claims are put forth by advocacy groups, not by more serious students of history and economics.  Relatedly, people who might make political use of such wage numbers also like to take credit for those less-visible improvements I listed above, and don't want them discounted as worth nothing.

1 comment:

Texan99 said...

In recent years I've gravitated to Project Gutenberg books about the Spanish conquest of the New World, sometimes contemporaneous accounts and sometimes 19th-century or early-20th-Century summaries. It's an eye-opener. Most of what I'd picked up over the years about these events was wrong.