October 10, 2013

HISTORY ALWAYS REPEATS ITSELF:

The maturing of democracy : Picking up the tab : a review of  The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present. By David Runciman  (The Economist, Oct 5th 2013)

Mr Runciman's main targets are false promises and undue hopes. Failure is as normal in democracies as success. A historian of ideas, he takes a long view. Democracy lives, and has always lived, in crises. These are mild at times, severe at others. Either way, democracies, being flexible, tend to muddle through. Mr Runciman stresses "muddle". Crises do not reveal great truths. Nor do democracies learn much from crises. Democracies are complicated and opaque, which partly explains the mood swings from elation to despair and back. Not to see that is to fall into the "confidence trap" of his book's title.

Mr Runciman illustrates his thoughts with seven critical episodes: unforeseen war (1918), unexpected slump (1933), threats to post-war Europe (1947), possible annihilation in the Cuban missile crisis (1962), stagflation (1974), short-lived triumphalism (1989) and financial meltdown (2008).

Add those up, and you get a fair list of the challenges facing present-day democracies. So why do they repeat mistakes? Oddly, perhaps, for a historian, Mr Runciman suggests that ignoring the past is a democratic strength. Old problems recur, but never quite in the same form. Unlike autocracies, which are "fatalistic" and inflexible, democracies expect the future to be different. Counting on ceaseless change, in other words, helps democracy adapt and muddle through.

Posted by at October 10, 2013 3:03 PM
  

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