Emotions often engage in a narrative. Curiosity is aroused. Who’s the ‘good guy’? Who’s the ‘bad guy’? What will happen next?
Those who wish to instill ethical principles into their listeners know the power of a story. So do politicians who are promoting an ideology or who are seeking to get elected.
Historians understand the centrality of narrative. History is, essentially and necessarily, narrative. The business of historians is often to sort out and compare competing narratives.
While some have speculated about ‘doing history without narrative,’ most efforts in such a direction have floundered. They seem to strive for something which is practically impossible, if not absolutely so. Jonah Goldberg writes:
The brain was wired to take in information via stories. (It helps if they’re sung and rhyme a lot, but that’s a topic for another day.) Every important lesson of your life comes with a story.
Narrative will be implemented by both sides of serious ideological debates. Those who would assign the bulk of power and authority to the government, and who see the government as providing the solution for most problems, are often called ‘statists.’
To justify the inevitable reductions of individual political liberty, statists employ narratives. The paternalistic government, which benignly taxes and regulates, rescues citizens from a variety of crises and emergencies. Goldberg continues:
Ever since Hegel or maybe Plato, statists have been telling a story about government in which government itself is the hero in an epic struggle.
It became necessary for the government, and for the statist on behalf of the government, to find a continuous supply of problems and disasters so that the government can once again reveal itself to be the deliverer, and so that the government can once again justify regulating the life of the individual and imposing taxes.
The American political vocabulary of twentieth and early twenty-first centuries does not do justice to the problem of statism. Talk of ‘Republicans’ and ‘Democrats’ - talk of ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ - doesn’t capture what’s at stake.
The question about statism is the question about whether we look to the government as a provider and rescuer, or whether we look to society itself, and the individuals and groupings within society, as a source of creativity and inventiveness, as the engine for constructive effort.
For Hegel, the state was the mechanism by which God worked out His will. For Marx, the State was an expression of cold immutable forces.
In historical development, Marxism and the various types of socialism which it spawned moved from seeing the government as the means to seeing the government as the end. Some versions of communism, in the early and mid-nineteenth century, aimed for the eventual dissolution of government, once it had been used to attain communal ownership of nearly everything: a sort of ‘anarcho-communism.’
But a larger segment of socialists eventually moved to a vision of the government as absorbing everything, owning everything, and regulating everything. “For the socialists who followed, control of the state was a kind of” desideratum, “but over time it became the hero itself.”
The narrative of the statist, then, incorporates the government as hero, and therefore must find the government to be an embodiment of ethical principles. Heroes, after all, are the good guys. When the typical statist of the early twenty-first century
talks about the moral arc of the universe bending towards justice, the physical manifestation of that pie-eyed treacle is always government.
Statist narratives, therefore, are stories of how the government has not only rescued its citizens, but done so in a morally noble manner. Statist histories of the past, analyses of the present, and speculations about the future follow this formula.
There is no room, in the statist narrative, for a hero who is not in some way linked to the government. There is no room for private citizens who freely assemble to form a social effort apart from the government to address any problem.
As Jonah Goldberg phrases it, when the statists of the early twenty-first century
talk about the progress we’ve made as a society, the hero is always the state (and the heroic individuals who bent it to their will). It doesn’t matter that the market, non-state institutions, and heroic individuals tend to solve most of the problems in life; the government is always shoehorned in as the indispensable author of beneficence.
What remains, then, it to examine competing narratives.
Take, for example, the statist narrative about women’s rights. The Progressivist movement would have the reader believe that women were rescued from abject servitude by the federal government, which enacted the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. It was the benevolence of the centralized state which launched women into political equality, according to this narrative.
Yet a different narrative can be assembled from the available data. Quite aside from the point that it was the individual state legislatures, not the national government, which ratified the amendment is the point that women were already voting long before the amendment was even proposed. Women began voting in Wyoming in 1869, Colorado in 1893, in Idaho in 1896, in Utah in 1896, and in Montana in 1914. This trend continued until women were voting in 41 out of 48 states before the amendment was ratified. It was evident that the few ‘holdout’ states would soon follow the others.
Another statist narrative alleges that the ordinary citizens were saved from monopolies, trusts, and ‘robber baron’ industrialists when the federal government undertook to disperse these large commercial holdings. The statist narrative further alleges that the large corporations would inflict high prices on consumers who had no choice but to buy from a monopoly.
The competing economic narrative points out, first, that large holdings like Standard Oil achieved large market shares by offering low, not high prices to consumers. Second, Standard Oil never had 100% of the market share and so was never a true monopoly, and in fact faced competition throughout its existence which forced it to keep its prices to consumers low. Third, far from being invincible bastions of power, these industrialist empires, like Vanderbilt’s corner on the railroad market, often lasted only a few years, before competition reshaped the economic landscape: railroad dominance shifted from Vanderbilt to J.P. Morgan. The federal government’s efforts at “trust busting” were ineffectual and largely symbolic: Standard Oil was past its peak, and had been steadily losing market share, by the time the statists intervened to “save” the consumers from purported danger it posed.
A third common statist narrative tells us that FDR’s ‘New Deal’ rescued ordinary Americans from the depths of the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s high rates of taxation, massive national debt, wage-and-price controls, and make-work programs were the necessary steps to save Americans from poverty.
The competing liberty-based narrative tells us that the Great Depression was impervious to FDR’s efforts - it was in fact worse in 1937 than in 1932 - and Roosevelt’s efforts were in some cases shockingly irrational. Thousands of hogs were butchered and the meat thrown away, while families hungered: the New Deal’s attempt to ‘jump start’ consumer demand for agricultural products. The massive efforts of WWII masked, but did not end, the Great Depression. It was after the war that three factors coalesced to finally put the nation’s economy back onto a steady footing: a reduction in government spending, a reduction in taxation, and efforts to pay down the national debt. It was the postwar downsizing of government which ultimately laid the specter of the Great Depression to rest.
We see, then, that for each statist narrative, there is a competing narrative which is based on liberty and on the independence of the individual, instead of on the statist’s desire to see power centralized in a national government. Although abstract principle of ideology may ultimately be more attractive to pure reason, it is narrative which often decides the practical political perceptions of both the people and the historians.