Historians are Too Romantic

Yesterday, my always interesting friend Chris Nelson mentioned a local public works project that struck him as useless.  As we chatted, it struck me how often we give very old things more praise than they are due.

Think of public works projects and boondoggles.  You can probably think of several off the top of your head.  The bridge to nowhere in Alaska, the Big Dig in Boston, Auto World in Flint, ugly windmills dotting southern Ohio, and basically every government project ever in the city of Detroit come to mind.

Give it a few hundred years, and I wouldn’t be surprised if archaeologists and historians treat the crumbled remains of these hideous resource-wasters as brilliant and important stepping stones for humanity.  If you go only by the plaques adorning them and official ceremonies surrounding them, you could conclude nothing else.

Maybe it wouldn’t be as easy to do this now, with so much access to contemporary opinions and information about these dumb projects, but it’s very easy to do with the past.

Watch any documentary about old castles or great tyrant-led serf-funded projects of bygone eras and you might conclude that every cathedral, bridge, wall, and tower was a picture of beauty, ingenuity, and efficiency.  What if many of these remains were the ancient or medieval equivalent of the Motor City’s useless People Mover?  How much graft and architectural error went into these projects?

Knowing what we know about humans, and especially the nature and incentives of force-funded centralized prestige projects, no doubt many of the cherished monuments of the past were big dumb symbols of fatally conceited rulers.  We get to see the remains of buildings, but what we can’t see – and what Frederic Bastiat reminds us we must look for – are all the things that didn’t get built or accomplished because of these massive boondoggles.

All projects are not created equal, all castles are not examples of government waste (many were private endeavors), and perhaps those that survive longest do because they were the most valuable and well-constructed.  Still, we’d do well to take a dose of rational choice realism with our romantic forays into past architecture.

Just as it is naive to assume every practice and belief of the past was dumb superstition, it’s naive to assume every ruin was a brilliant and valuable construction.  It’d be fun to see (and maybe one exists, I don’t pretend to be a history buff) a project that documents great boondoggles through the ages, tallying budget overages, deadlines missed, waste, graft, obsolescence, and idiocy.

If the Great Men approach to history is dangerously simplistic (and it is), so too is the Great Works approach.