Why conservatives don’t learn from history

By Lorenzo

My current main intellectual interests, the history of money and the history of moral exclusion, do not have much in common. But one theme which comes up in both is how poor conservatives typically are at learning from history.

This may seem somewhat surprising–surely conservatives are all about “the lessons of history”? In theory, yes. In practice, conservatives make the same mistakes over and over again.

Opposing emancipation

Consider moral exclusion. Over the last couple of centuries, the Western world has been moving through the “emancipation sequence”. In the Anglosphere, the emancipation sequence has been the abolition of the slave trade and then slavery; Catholic emancipation; Jewish emancipation; female emancipation; black civil rights; queer emancipation–the steady expansion in equal protection of the law.

Napoleon granting Jewish emancipation

Napoleon granting Jewish emancipation.

The recurring role of conservatives in this sequence has been to be on the wrong side. Wrong not only in the sense of the losing side, but also in the sense of taking positions that later conservatives reject. Hence it is not part of mainstream contemporary conservative thought to publicly regret the abolition of slavery, votes for women, legal or other bars on Jews or Catholics, and so on. Yet here conservatives are, opposing queer emancipation–and it is already clear that they are, yet again, on the losing side and taking positions that future conservatives are going to reject. Yet again, conservatives have bought into the notion that there is some group that has to be denied equal protection of the law; clearly having learnt nothing from the rejected-by-subsequent-conservatives previous conservative buying into such claims.

Not much evidence of learning from history here. Indeed, it seems to be precisely the opposite–a dramatic failure to learn from history; a making of the same mistakes over and over again.

Disastrous obsession

In the case of monetary history, the recurring mistake has been an obsession with money not losing value. Not money holding its value, but money not losing value–money increasing in value is just fine. In effect, inflation is treated as the only monetary evil and less inflation is always better.

The most disastrous instance of this obsession was 1929-1936. While international trade collapsed, unemployment soared and political extremism grew in strength, conservatives insisted that the gold standard had to be persisted with. Worse, as prices dropped dramatically, conservative voices were raised warning about the (completely non-existent) dangers of an inflationary outbreak. The gold standard was treated as a fetish, a guarantee of order, while it generated disastrous economic disorder. An economic disorder which led directly to mass rejection of the public policy framework conservatives at the time thought they were defending.

CPI depression

As if to provide a textbook example of conservative inability to learn the lessons of the past, conservative commentary has taken exactly the same role during the Great Recession as it did during the Great Depression; treating inflation as the only monetary evil; warning of non-existent dangers of an inflationary outbreak; treating inflation targeting as a fetish, a guarantee of order, while it generates economic disorder; wanting ever lower levels of inflation.

The Great Recession has not been the level of disaster the Great Depression was. Mainly because the central banks have not screwed up on the same order of magnitude they did when they destroyed the gold standard by making its economic costs unbearable. For inflation targeting is more inherently tied to monetary stability in a given year than the gold standard–persistent undershooting of 2%pa inflation targets is not the same as a 25% fall in consumer prices in three years. So, as the Great Recession has not generated the same level of economic disorder that the Great Depression did, it has not generated the same level of political extremism.

But conservatives yet again have been focusing on non-existent inflationary dangers; not being able to see monetary tightening when it is in front of them; discounting the importance and effects of surging unemployment. It’s deja vu all over again (via).

Discounting the past

So, why do conservatives keep making the same mistakes over and over again? One reason is that they fail to identify with past conservative failures. Thus it just does not occur to modern conservatives that their opposition to queer emancipation is a reprise of past conservative opposition to Jewish emancipation, right down to repeating the same arguments against the excluded group–they are against God, treating them like the rest of us is against tradition, they will corrupt everything they touch, they prey on children, they spread disease, etc. This pattern of non-identification with previous failures repeats throughout the emancipation sequence and inflation obsession. You cannot learn from the past if you select out the awkward bits. The lessons of past conservative failures are lost if they are deemed “not to count”, to not apply to you.

Quite a lot of this in history

History includes quite a lot of this.

Selecting out the awkward bits is a wider problem than just failing to identify with past conservative failures. If what you are defending is (your conception of) the inheritance of the past, then giving that inheritance inherent virtue means selecting out of consideration past experiences which undermine that deemed virtue. Since exploitation, brutality and oppression are also part of the selection processes of history, deeming what is produced by said selection processes to have inherent virtue is to either suppress awareness of said exploitation, brutality and oppression, or to deem it justified, or some combination of the two. Which blocks clear-eyed consideration of the past; including listening to voices that pierce that suppression or undermine the justification or both.

As such romanticisation of the past is built on systematic discounting of human experience, it is antithetical to genuinely learning from the past. Commitment to the same selective discounting of the past is going to lead to making the same mistakes; over and over again. Such as taking past losers from the selection processes of history to be rightfully losers. Which also, of course, makes others “rightfully” winners. It is attractive to think that people like you are “rightfully” winners; to have that sense of entitlement to decide who is, and who is not, entitled to equal protection of the law (or even, “proper” versions of the human).

And if you don’t think that is a sense of entitlement? Then who do you think has the right to decide that you are not entitled to equal protection of the law? Or that you are not a “proper” version of the human?

The irony is, the notion that past conservatives were rightfully losers thereby blocks learning from their failures.

Mis-taking order

Systematically misleading romanticisation of the past is intimately tied in with a problematic notion of social order. Not only a confusion between what is required to have any social order and preserving a particular social order but also confusing what is basic with what is merely useful in a given time and place. (Not to mention the little question of useful to whom?)

At each stage in the emancipation sequence, conservative voices warned that giving that group equal rights would undermine the very basis of social order. Each time, they turned out to be completely wrong. Preserving a particular configuration of social order was quite different from preserving social order. Social order proved to be able to cope just fine with the emancipation sequence; indeed, has generally been strengthened by it.

Undermining personal responsibility has been more problematic. But that is a quite different matter. Using “personal responsibility” as a weapon against targeted groups tainted the value of personal responsibility by associating it with nastiness and inequity. Expanding equal protection of the law strengthens personal responsibility by reducing the ambit of acceptable bad behaviour towards others.

As for confusing what is basic and what is merely useful in given circumstances, the conservative fetish with money not losing value is an excellent example thereof. The point of money is to facilitate transactions. Driving up the value of money in such a way as to dramatically shrink the number of transactions is not “preserving” money, it is to undermine its basic function. Money’s role in facilitating transactions is what is basic; things such as gold standards or inflation targeting are just means to managing that role. Operating them in such a way as to seriously and persistently drive down the level of transactions is to mistake ways of managing with basic function, to sacrifice the ends to particular means. It is to make a fetish of order, not to genuinely understand or defend order. On the contrary, to mistake the means for the real ends can be a great way to generate disorder if the real end is undermined.

Giving (full) credence

The trick is not to romanticise the past, but to given genuine and full credence to it. Including the oppression, the exploitation, the brutality and the voices and experiences of the victims thereof. To see the past as morally ambiguous may undermine deeming the inheritance from it has having inherent virtue but also allows one to genuinely learn from the past rather than making a serious of comforting, and seriously misleading, fetishes of it.


  1. Posted November 20, 2013 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzzo what doe you mean by your claim that conservative oppose “queer emancipation”? because this conservative has long been an advocate for people being able to choose and openly love any adult person they please as long as it is mutually consensual. I do not think that I am the only conservative who thinks this way either.

  2. Greg
    Posted November 21, 2013 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    Don’t answer Iain Hall’s hypocritical question. This well-known internet (Australian) troll is famous for flip flopping, word twisting and generally making absolutely no useful contribution to adult discussion let alone the question to improve the human condition. He can be credited with writing a mocking piece of opinion on gay rights entitled “Marriage rights for GAY dogs NOW!!! WOOF!!!!!”….where but now he wants everyone to believe he’s a devout gay rights activist (and his own short term history) Pay him no attention whatsoever, he is a pathological narcissist who thrives on attention, and I’ve already given him more attention than he deserves writing this. You have been warned.

  3. John Turner
    Posted November 21, 2013 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    I have recently read an excellent book by Professor Mariana Mazzucato of the University of Sussex and watched an video of a presentation she made about six weeks od so ago the London School of Economics. An excellent set of slides accompanied a speech by A/Professor Stephanie Kelton at a Field Institute seminar in Toronto, Canada. The slides are available at Kelton’s link at neweconomicperspectives.org.
    I found the chart showing the sustainable fiscal space available to any sovereign (currency issuing) government very interesting. The evidence from the Current Account and Government Sector balances for Australia indicate that the Howard/Costello Government managed to keep the Private Sector balance in an unsustainable area of the fiscal space diagram for most of the years they were in government.

  4. Simon Hasleton
    Posted November 21, 2013 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    Here’s another failure to learn. Conservatives who see themselv es as the clients of the financial Right, know that alone they lack the numbers to win an election in a democracy as currently defined. They are then faced with choices. They may either seek to manipulate the electoral system
    by keeping their opponents away from the polling booths, or by manipulating electoral boundaries

    They may also seek to establish an allied constituency among those who feel (or can be persuaded to feel) deprived of status or the legitimacy of opinion, by some supposed elite.

    Thus the Tea Party, or Mr Abbott’s supporters in social class 4 and 5. The vilification of the Boat People and the supporters of action on climate change provide local examples.

    However, conservatives also rely on the support of an educated middle class.Which does support action on social, environmental and climate issues.

    Push the Tea Party line too hard, and as with the US Republicans, the moderates will.turn away – especially if the alternatives (Labour and the Democrats) can present as principled and capable managers

  5. Posted November 22, 2013 at 4:54 am | Permalink


    Don’t answer Iain Hall’s hypocritical question.

    There is nothing at all hypocritical about my question.

    This well-known internet (Australian) troll is famous for flip flopping, word twisting and generally making absolutely no useful contribution to adult discussion let alone the question to improve the human condition.

    I am a very long term friend to this blog and its originators Greg and perhaps you need to realise that a conservative point of view is not by definition wrong.

    He can be credited with writing a mocking piece of opinion on gay rights entitled “Marriage rights for GAY dogs NOW!!! WOOF!!!!!”….

    Have you even read the piece that you cite? it is not at all a mocking piece of opinion at all although it does contain a photo and a title that takes the piss out of a dressed up dog at a Gay marriage rally.

    where but now he wants everyone to believe he’s a devout gay rights activist (and his own short term history)

    One does not have to agree with every agenda item from the Gay marriage push to be an advocate for gay rights. You seem to me to be suggesting that its an all or nothing gig.

    Pay him no attention whatsoever, he is a pathological narcissist who thrives on attention, and I’ve already given him more attention than he deserves writing this. You have been warned.

    We all thrive on attention Greg, but as I said earlier I am a very long term friend of this blog and I am rather sure that those who comment or write here are grown up enough to take my comment entirely as they please and to ignore what I say if those comments are off topic.

  6. Christine Hyde
    Posted November 22, 2013 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    So Conservatives are always wrong, so why do they bother? Liberals are always right? President Assad might be seen as an extreme conservative and not likeable but liberals have enthusiastically supported Mao. No one of any persuasion has thrown the contents of Fort Knox out in the street to be put in the tip. Everyone knows what economics is; your work and planning leads to being able to do and buy things you need and like and to provide a future for your children. Suddenly it’s gone. You wonder why there are no structural engineers to spot the cracks, there are only plenty of theories amid the shambles. Is it only Conservatives that feel a need for social order, in their case presumed to mean clinging to power? Are all liberals anarchists, presumed to mean that they live in permanent disorder? Do anarchists never cling to power?
    Good for you, raptor lawyer, to argue a point, but you must have noticed that we are in a rather fortunate society that muddles through to a reasonably agreeable but imperfect orderliness .Expect the unexpected is the motto. Not order and never consensus. The inspired happiness clause probably works for us, it’s easily understood and is deemed to have value. A bit like gold. Why is this so?

  7. Posted November 23, 2013 at 3:18 am | Permalink

    Great post. The discussion seems quite related to Peter Singer’s concept of “the expanding circle” whereby the notion of who our social order should embrace as ethical equals expands over time.

    What do you make of current attitudes to immigrants? Is it conceivable that at some point in the future current conservative (and even mainstream liberal) views of immigrants will be seen as retrograde by conservatives then? Related: http://openborders.info/blog/the-expanding-circle-and-open-borders/

  8. Posted November 24, 2013 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    I think the reason that comments have dropped off so markedly on this blog are directly because of comments like those of Greg. When I discovered this blog I was so happy to have found a place where left and right could meet and discuss events of the day with minimal ill will. It was neither left nor right in its outlook and a reasoned argument was king.

  9. Posted November 24, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Its really sad Henry that so many of the tribal left are terrified of real debate on nay topic. I may be a man with a “reputation” most of which is undeserved but I do know how to play nice.

  10. Pedro
    Posted November 25, 2013 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    Surely there is no surprise that conservatives do not learn from the past. Drawing lessons and making changes based on those lessons is a radical act. The conservative position is that the present, or at least the very recent past, is the highest and best form of social organisation and is to be defended. Any significant change is to be feared.

    The fetish against inflation in all circumstances is just a manifestation of the general fear of change.

    The weird dislocation in the conservative mind is the failure to understand that the present they love is a consequence of the battles lost by their conservative forebears.

  11. Posted November 25, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Permalink


    any concept of open borders can only work when both sides of the line have roughly equal economic opportunities as soon as you have a substantive inequality there will be problems with people wanting to move en-mass to the places that they perceive to offer more chances of prosperity/
    Now given that the nature of western technology is requiring an ever smaller number of people to do the same amount of work why would you be surprised that so many of us are thinking that we should import fewer people and therefore give our own children that better chance at prosperity?

  12. Posted November 26, 2013 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    [email protected] That (many) conservatives have and do oppose equal protection of the law for their queer fellow citizens is an obvious contemporary political fact, from opposing decriminalising of homosexual acts to opposing equal marriage.

    [email protected] Try and avoid abusive profiling of other comenters please.

    [email protected] Still not buying the MMT story, sorry. Given Australia avoided the GFC and Great Recession, your specific claim lacks credibility.

    [email protected] Since 1966, the Coalition and the ALP have been in power federally about half the time each. This suggests both sides are about equally advantaged/disadvantaged in building a majority electoral coalition. Saying that conservatives repeat mistakes is not the same as saying they are EVIL!!! On the specific point of borders, the Howard Government ran the least Eurocentric migration policy in our history up to that time and increased support for migration at the same time. Giving people a sense that they had a say in migration policy was a big part of that.

    [email protected] Saying that conservatives repeat mistakes is not the same as saying they are always wrong. Nothing I said has any of the overwrought implications you draw from it.

  13. Posted November 26, 2013 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Seriously not a fan of Peter Singer’s thought. Accepting some notion of planetary custodianship is not the same as accepting animals as moral beings.

    [email protected] I suspect the biggest reason for drop off in comments has been the drop off in posts.

    [email protected] Maybe. But surely the initial presumption would be the other way: if the past is a source of inspiration, then surely one would expect to be better at learning from it? That is certainly the conservative self-presumption.

    I would also point out that not all proposals for change are good ideas. Modernism–the delusion that the new is always better–has been something of a blight; sometimes a devastating one.

  14. HetroJim
    Posted November 27, 2013 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    Interesting historical analysis we’re seeing. Lincoln was a Democrat.

    It wasn’t Labor supporting the White Australia policy.


  15. Posted November 27, 2013 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    [email protected]
    (1) Lincoln was not a conservative.
    (2) The Republican Party was not a conservative party when it was founded. It had a conservative and a radical wing, but the notion that Republican = conservative is a much more recent development.
    (3) All sides of Australian politics supported the White Australia policy and both sides were involved in getting rid of it.

    Your historical understanding is a lot poorer than you think it is.

  16. Will
    Posted November 28, 2013 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    Great post. It is an interesting feature of conservative cognition that it doesn’t internalise the any kind of reliable anchoring to past battles and how their brethren featured in those fights which might prompt the kind of lightbulb moment where they confront a succession of wrong-headed fights they have waged.

    I won’t attempt a serious thesis at why this is, but I suspect it is tied to anchoring to idealised conceptualisation of the past, rather than tractable realities, and the ascendency of an out-group filtering process which isn’t grounded in history.

    As for Singer, I don’t agree with his thesis but I don’t think it’s quite right to say he believes all animals are moral beings. I mean, it depends what you mean. So let’s say moral being is interchangeable with the threshold philosophical category “personhood” – which is commonly defined in modern bioethics as part of special cognitive capacities, or agentic powers, including the capacity to think of oneself through time. Now, it’s very clear Singer does not attribute such capacities to non-human animals. However, he states that not all homo sapiens have such special capacities, including very young infants below a certain age, and those with serious mental impairment or injury.

    His argument, which is frequently misunderstood, is that there are non-human animals, including oranghutans and dolphins, for examples, with capacities that are relevantly equivalent to certain humans who have sub-personhood capacities, yet we don’t have a non-arbitrary “speciest” basis on which to assign them greater moral concern. From there he argues that capacity to experience pain or sentience ought to be morally relevant.

    So contrary to implied idea that Singer is overly inclusive in setting his horizon of moral concern, Singer is rather ruthless. He has absolutely no direct problem with painlessly killing non-human animals or indeed those disabled with sufficient cognitive impairment and infants. That is, such entity don’t have inherent rights, only rights that we might assign them based on indirect moral concern, such as consequentialism or normative super-structures we impose as a society.

    The inclusive part of his theory is that he believes that we ought to care about pain or suffering, including non-human suffering.

  17. HetroJim
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Rich Lowry must be lying about Linclon being conservative. You must be right, Linclon was a southern Democrat..


  18. Posted December 3, 2013 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Lots of conservatives supported slavery, especially in the UK, which is what I linked to. Though slavery was always something of a cross-over issue–Samuel Johnson was an anti-slavery Tory, for example.

    And you do realise that the antebellum Democratic Party was a states rights, strict constitutionalism, free trade, agrarian interests Party? Both US Parties have changed considerably over time.

    As for Rich Lowry’s point, it would be hard to find any practising US politicians from almost any time in the C19th who would not come across as conservative in 2013.

  19. HetroJim
    Posted December 4, 2013 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    You made sweeping statements

    1. Conservatives are always behind the eight ball.

    2. But now you’re saying political movements were different to the present and that political parties 100 years ago would be considered conservative by today’s standards.

    So you’ve invalidated the thread’s argument.

  20. Posted December 10, 2013 at 6:48 am | Permalink

    [email protected] I made no such sweeping statements. I claim there was a strong pattern of conservatives making recurring errors, all the more striking since they could be identified in such different errors as moral exclusion and monetary policy.

    And, clearly, by “conservative” I meant conservative at the time, that was the whole point of noting that part of the recurring pattern was future conservatives rejecting the position of past conservatives to the point of failing to learn from them.

    So, since you require misrepresenting what I said to rebut it, clearly you haven’t — and apparently can’t.

  21. HetroJim
    Posted December 12, 2013 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    I’m not misrepresenting anything you said, merely highlighting your own contradictions.

    You seem to be all over the place. If, as you describe, its very difficult to contextualize conservatism from different eras, your piece makes really no sense at all. You may as well argue horses and cows are the same.

  22. Posted December 16, 2013 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] I never said conservatives are always anything, so yes you did mischaracterise me.

    That later conservatives reject the positions of former conservatives is part of the revealing pattern. So, it is also perfectly possible to identify conservatives in their contemporary context, you are the one who wants to class someone in the mid C19th by whether they sound like a conservative in the early C21st.

  23. HetroJim
    Posted December 17, 2013 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    [email protected] I never said conservatives are always anything, so yes you did mischaracterise me.

    Put the first part of the above sentence in coherent English please, as I have no clue what you’re saying.

    That later conservatives reject the positions of former conservatives is part of the revealing pattern


    So you’re trying to now change the goal posts? Earlier you stated that nearly all political groupings of the past would be considered conservative in modern day context.


    So, it is also perfectly possible to identify conservatives in their contemporary context, you are the one who wants to class someone in the mid C19th by whether they sound like a conservative in the early C21st.

    I most certainly did, that’s because someone like Lincoln did say a lot of things a modern day American conservative would agree with. Lowry even wrote a book on Linclon’s identifiable conservative traits.

    It appears to me you have some hidden beef with conservatives. What is it? Open up.

  24. Posted January 30, 2014 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    [email protected] It is hard to convey what a sense of history means to some one who clearly lacks it.

    Conservatism, by its nature, is a moveable feast. So that what Lincoln said in 1860 sounds conservative in 2013 is utterly unsurprising and tells us nothing about whether Lincoln was a conservative in 1860. In fact, it makes it more likely that he was not, since an 1860 conservative would stand for all sorts of things modern conservatives would reject.

    In 1860, the Democratic Party was more conservative than the Republican Party. Clearly, that is no longer true, but the notion that Republican = conservative is a recent decades thing.

    If you don’t get that conservatism is a moveable feast, you cannot understand its nature.

    And my beef with conservatism is that they are clearly repeating past mistakes. Opposition to equal protection of the law has never been a winning position in the long run.

    As for “I never said conservatives were always anything”, I was making the point that saying conservatives display a recurring tendency is not to say that conservatives are always wrong or always anything.

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