We would all like to think that humankind is getting smarter and wiser and that our past blunders won’t be repeated. Bookshelves are filled with such reassuring pronouncements, from the sage advice offered by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May in Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers to the rosy forecasts of Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, not to mention Francis Fukuyama’s famously premature claim that humanity had reached “the end of history.” Encouraging forecasts such as these rest in part on the belief that we can learn the right lessons from the past and cast discredited ideas onto the ash heap of history, where they belong.
Those who think that humanity is making steady if fitful progress might point to the gradual spread of more representative forms of government, the largely successful campaign to eradicate slavery, the dramatic improvements in public health over the past two centuries, the broad consensus that market systems outperform centrally planned economies, or the growing recognition that action must be taken to address humanity’s impact on the environment. An optimist might also point to the gradual decline in global violence since the Cold War. In each case, one can plausibly argue that human welfare improved as new knowledge challenged and eventually overthrew popular dogmas, including cherished but wrongheaded ideas, from aristocracy to mercantilism, that had been around for centuries.
Yet this sadly turns out to be no universal law: There is no inexorable evolutionary march that replaces our bad, old ideas with smart, new ones. If anything, the story of the last few decades of international relations can just as easily be read as the maddening persistence of dubious thinking. Like crab grass and kudzu, misguided notions are frustratingly resilient, hard to stamp out no matter how much trouble they have caused in the past and no matter how many scholarly studies have undermined their basic claims.
Read the rest of this interesting article on Foreign Policy