Without President X, Wherever Would We Be?

I talk a lot about the conventional version of history, and the problems with it. I talk about the lack of curiosity on the part of students who simply repeat the conventional version, without bothering to ask simple questions.

Here’s part of my pitch for my 2011 book Rollback, for example:

We know these myths by heart. Government acts on behalf of the public good. It keeps us safe. It protects us against monopolies. It provides indispensable services we could not provide for ourselves. Without it, America would be populated by illiterates, half of us would be dead from quack medicine or exploding consumer products, and the other half would lead a feudal existence under the iron fist of private firms that worked them to the bone for a dollar a week.

Thus Americans tolerate much government predation because they have bought into the myth that state intervention may be an irritant, but the alternative of a free society would be far worse. They have been conditioned to believe that despite whatever occasional corruption they may observe in politics, the government by and large has their well-being at heart. Schoolchildren in particular learn a version of history worthy of Pravda. Governments, they are convinced, abolished child labor, gave people good wages and decent working conditions; protect them from bad food, drugs, airplanes, and consumer products; have cleaned their air and water; and have done countless other things to improve their well-being. They truly cannot imagine how anyone who isn’t a stooge for industry could think differently, or how free people acting in the absence of compulsion and threats of violence – which is what government activity amounts to – might have figured out a way to solve these problems. The history of regulation is, in this fact-free version of events, a tale of righteous crusaders winning victories for the public against grasping and selfish private interests who care nothing for the common good.

Now watch this 2-minute video by some young student. My parody is his reality. In the old days, we didn’t have the minimum wage [gasp!]. We suffered from “monopoly”! (Really? Has he looked at any data?) Then our wise presidents stepped in, etc. Then we got the Great Depression, which had no cause (but was probably caused by capitalism!), and the Depression in turn was cured by World War II.

Here’s how to reply to much of this:

On “monopoly,” I recommend my article “The Misplaced Fear of ‘Monopoly.’

On working conditions and the free market, the best analysis is George Reisman’s.

On the Great Depression, which did have a cause after all, see Murray N. Rothbard, America’s Great Depression, or, more briefly, the relevant section of my book 33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask. For the basic gist, see this overview of the Austrian theory of the business cycle.

On antitrust (the video cheers the Clayton Antitrust Act), see Dominick Armentano, Antitrust: The Case for Repeal, and Thomas DiLorenzo, “The Antitrust Economists’ Paradox.”

Finally, World War II did not end the Great Depression. This is not difficult to prove:

I say all this not to make fun of the guy who made the video. I’m writing this for two reasons: (1) to show how easy it is to fall into the “government is the indispensable source of our happy lives” fallacy, since to understand the full picture requires much more knowledge and thought; and (2) to help people equip themselves to answer these common claims.

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  • Anonymous

    @ 1:20 in the video the commentator say ” at this point most of the Gilded Age problems had been solved but then the Great Depression hit.” Of course he probably does not realize the irony of this statement.

  • Michael Mills

    Eh… there is a chronic boredom in classrooms that stifles curiosity most likely by design as in an effort to teach by pre-approved curriculum teachers sacrifice creativity and initiative which translates to snoozefest.

    And heaven forbid that you ask a question that isn’t on the pre-approved answer sheet…

  • Frank M

    I love the Google news archives. You can find such gems as this:
    “Mr. Roosevelt denounces the Hoover administration for putting the government too much in business.” (Eugene Register-Guard, 8/21/32)
    I wish I had this resource back when I was in grade school or high school history class.

  • Joshua Vaughn

    So is he saying that getting off the gold standard was good and social security was beneficial?

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.lallier2 Robert Lallier

    I read somewhere about some reality TV show on the Discovery Channel called “Naked and Afraid,” where they get a man and a woman and take away everything from them, including their clothes, and put them out in nature and see how they manage to survive for some period of time, like a week or so.

  • Nathan Diehl

    Holy smokes. Watch some of this guys other videos. . . . I mean, I just don’t know what to say. Tom, I kinda feel bad you posted a link to him. For those of you who don’t investigate, let’s just say he sings AC/DC better than he does U.S. history. [seriously too stunned to face palm anyone at this juncture]

  • Nathan Diehl

    After careful consideration, Tom, I think you’ve stumbled upon a one stop shop for internet memes. This guy does it all!

  • vince

    I see that he talks about how they said that world war 2 was a time of prosperity when it really was not. But world war 2 was prosperity for the big world bankers who funded the wars and made money on the interest on the money that countries had to borrow in order to keep the war going on. That is why the big bankers like to have war because they make so much money from it. that is why they call world war 2 a period of prosperity but it was only prosperity for the bankers.

  • aaron bernard

    Hi, as you can see i’m the guy you’re talking about. I just wanted to say, thank you nathan for glancing at my other videos, which i am aware are not the greatest either, but nevertheless thanks for giving me “a day of fame”

  • Nathan Diehl

    Hey Aaron! Sure, your videos may not be the greatest, but they are entertaining! And you should keep making them =) You seem to be having a great time! This is a truly awkward way to be “discovered” lol. Good luck, man!

  • Barrex

    A lot of Austrian economics, free market, libertarians etc. use argument that big empires (USSR,Roman, Persian, Ottoman etc.) destroy their currency before they are destroyed and that western civilization is following same path. I know that Roman and Ottoman empires had hyperinflation but it is hard to find data about it. I have presentation and need some data… or charts/graphs so I can compare stages that empires went through, examples of more recent hyperinflations (Yugoslavia, Zimbabwe,USSR) and stage that we are currently in. Anyone knows where I could find those graphs? or data?

  • Pastor KoRect

    What a great blog you have! It should be required reading for every American, especially those who do not have any interest in it. I have not been on this blog for a few weeks and I returned today to a ton of great stuff.

  • Anonymous

    Aaron, please don’t take any of this criticism personally.

    You made a video where you faithfully put out what you had been taught. The issue is with what you had been taught – not with the video quality itself (which isn’t artistically all that bad).

    There are a lot of myths and fallacies that you repeat in the video. But 99% of public school students are told the exact same myths and fallacies, so there’s no shame in repeating them. There would be a shame if you didn’t use this opportunity to look into some other viewpoints, and make some of your own decisions.

    If you’re really interested in this period, I highly recommend Murray Rothbard’s “American Economy Lecture” series available on Youtube (http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLhHoP6xcuALRyP6sjJuDhzI4_eNJMiAzU)

  • lmgtfy

    I know!!! The answers are on Google. I swear I saw them there.

  • http://azzmador.com/ Azzmador

    If you think the kid’s video on economics is funny, you have to watch him sing!


  • Barrex

    Nope. I tried that before posting here. There are some about more recent ones but not about Persian and older empires…

  • OFelixCulpa

    Required reading for every American? I wonder if you have missed the point.