The Anti-Economist — From the February 2013 issue

Revised History

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Last month, Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States, the documentary series the director made with historian Peter Kuznick, completed its ten-episode run on Showtime. Those who unthinkingly dismiss Stone as a conspiracy theorist might be surprised by this scrupulously accurate warts-and-all consideration of the American century, which complicates our self-serving national folklore. More than thirty years after its publication, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States has attained the status of a classic, but we could use more efforts in this direction. “There is no such thing as impartial history,” Zinn acknowledged, but revisions like his and Stone’s provide a necessary corrective to the ignorance and whitewashing that often proceed from national embarrassments.

Unfortunately, we almost entirely lack similarly comprehensive correctives to prevailing economic history. It has been a century since the publication of Charles Beard’s famous An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, which argued that the Founding Fathers designed the Constitution partly to serve their own material interests. Since then, romantic and ideological myths about how America became prosperous have too often gone unchallenged. This is more than an academic concern: these misapprehensions continue to drive poor policymaking today.

What myths would a good alternative economic history debunk? The first might be that America owed its rapid economic growth in the nineteenth century to the small size of its federal government. This widely accepted narrative neglects the many regulatory and legal reforms that went into effect in those years, reforms guaranteeing fair competition in business and the right of ordinary people to buy land. The myth also ignores state-financed investments in canals and railroads; the development of free primary (and, later, high school) education, paid for with taxes; and the building of sewers and water-sanitation systems in cities, which controlled disease. It overlooks high tariffs, imposed by the federal government, that spurred the development of manufacturing. This is not to mention the economic benefits of slave labor (hardly a laissez-faire arrangement), which required government enforcement. For good or for ill, intervention by the state into economic life was a reality of the time.

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