Does History Repeat Itself?

History is unpredictable. So says Nassim Taleb in his book, The Black Swan. This may seem to be a paradoxical statement at first because history, by definition, is an attempt to explain events after the fact. “Of course,” most astute readers would say, “history is unable to be predicted for the simple reason that it is not in the business of predicting, but of recording and analyzing.” Perhaps, but this misses Taleb’s point, which is, that “these [historical] events were unexplainable, but intelligent people thought they were capable of providing convincing explanations for them—after the fact.”

Consider for a moment the old adage that “history repeats itself.” While this may be true, it should also be remembered that “history” is not a thing unto itself. Future events know nothing of past events. History doesn’t repeat itself in the sense that history has a mind or a conscience, but it does have a cadre of reporters. Perhaps instead of saying that “history” repeats itself, what we should say instead is that “historians repeat themselves.” The history of Japan is not the history of Canada, and the history of World War I is not the history of World War II. Connections between the two series of events can be looked for and found, but this does not prove, by any stretch, that Japan or World War 1 predicted the stories of Canada or World War II. When historians apply the same methodology to divergent historical events, it should not be terribly surprising when they come to similar conclusions. They are, according to Taleb, “great at self-delusion.” And, it turns out, so are we.

In today’s political climate of blaming everything on the government, and—especially in the United States—on the president (unless you voted for him, then it’s the other political party’s fault), we have become quite skilled at playing the historian’s game of self-delusion. While it is physically and intellectually impossible to determine what caused Event X to happen, regardless the amount of thought and research, this does not stop us from continuously pontificating about how things would be different “if…” Like Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite, we spend too much time thinking and debating about how “different” things would be if only certain past events had happened the way we wanted them to at the time. As much as we may hate the dry recitation of historical events in the chronological order they occurred, this is, in reality, the most we can say about history with any degree of accuracy. It may be fun and interesting to speculate about how such-and-such an event happened in relation to another (e.g., Washington woke early that morning because he was concerned about his ability to lead the men…), but the simple fact is that we don’t really know, and never will, what the relationship—if there even was one—between the two events. Life is messy; and that applies equally to the past, present, and future. Taleb elaborates:

Histories and societies do not crawl. They make jumps. They go from fracture to fracture, with a few vibrations in between. Yet we (and historians) like to believe in the predictable, small incremental progression… we are just a great machine for looking backward.

In a similar way, we make the same consequential errors looking ahead in time. Even though we can’t definitively say what caused Event X to happen in the past, our historical naiveté doesn’t prevent us from making dizzying leaps of logic forward. Saying things like: “the next president needs to do such-and-such,” or “gold will exceed $2000 an ounce this quarter,” or “the team will go to the state championship with Uncle Rico at quarterback,” or “it’s going to be a great year for business,” or (my personal favorite) “gas prices are going to skyrocket to $10 a gallon this summer,” etc., etc.

If history teaches us anything (and it certainly does, or at least should) it’s that we really don’t know much. Ludwig von Mises wrote his classic work Human Action, based on the fact that economists (and analysts in general) fail to account for the “randomness” of human decisions, treating economics in the same way as they would treat biology or chemistry. Human beings are not science experiments and human activity is not, and never will be, a science in the sense that it is predictable—whether in the past or in the future. In truth, the only thing we really know is that we don’t really know.