Robert Higgs of the Independent Institute asked this question yesterday in regard to the push back he receives when he attempts to correct the historical record of widespread inconsistencies. The short answer is that people are skeptical of accounts that contradict a prevailing view, even if true. Of course I can’t really say why, when confronted with what certainly could be the truth, some people attack the messenger rather than engage in internal reasoning and studying of the facts.
From a personal perspective, I was once as much in the dark about our history as every other person whose education is the product of the public school system where each pupil receives only a smattering of American history, enough to have a rough idea of where we came from, but leaves complete gray areas about why or how, or the purpose. The moments at which we realize the rather thick haze surrounding what we think to be true come at different points for each person, if they ever notice it.
I realized the thick haze surrounding what I thought to be true shortly after 9/11. Being confronted with the extreme incompetence and ineffectiveness of the many (perhaps too many) agencies within our Federal government that were established in the name of safety and security, I acquired an insatiable curiosity about how government can be so expensive and fail so miserably at its most basic of duties. It was the day I lost a rather innocent and naïve trust in government to do the right things for the right reasons, and embarked on a years-long course of study, although rather meandering at first, to find those answers.
Finding the truth about what our government is when one is well into adulthood isn’t such an easy task, and for me it was especially so when pop culture throughout my lifetime supported and reinforced the innocent trust in government. No one, at least as far as I could tell, was questioning the very basic foundation of government, calling out the incompetence and failure as a symptom of that it was – lack of focus.
I started out studying modern history looking for something, anything that could be a clue to what was wrong. Surely, whatever it was to have gone wrong happened within the last few decades, I thought. I found myself enclosed in a pile of books from covering topics from J. Edgar Hoover, to Nixon, Carter, Reagan, and onward. I spent days and weeks sifting through them trying to find some logical golden thread that would lead me straight to the problem. I found nothing. Frustrated to the point of nearly giving up, I thought of something that never occurred to me before. Perhaps it would be easier to find out what our government was intended to be and then work my way from there. I cracked open a copy of “The Federalist” someone had given me as a gift several years prior, that I had never read. I was shocked and amazed at the differences between what Hamilton, Jay, and Madison had told the founding generation the Federal Government would be versus what it is today.
Since I had to squeeze my studies into free time, I had been reading during breaks at work. One of my colleagues inquired about the book I was reading, and I remember remaking to him that “The government is doing an awful lot of things it was never intended to do.” The next day, he had a copy of “The Federalist” and was reading during break too!
I have to admit, though, my response to Mr. Higgs was rather pointed and emotional, and he did not deserve it. It was that way because my self-directed journey has been very long and arduous, and is far from complete. It has taken me from the Revolutionary era, through the 19th century and into the 20th where I have decided to take a breather. I have a difficult time studying the last 2/3rds of the 20th century; picking up and forcing myself to read the works of Woodrow Wilson and others from the same line of reasoning disturbs me. Even though I am reluctant, I can say without a doubt, that is where we went wrong. It has everything to do with the dangers and battles we face in the present. In addition to that, Mr. Higgs’ complaint only highlights the immense amount of work we have in front of us in order to take that knowledge of the truth about history and transform it from being just documents and books sitting on a shelf collecting dust into the salvation of great nation.