OK, so the Cubs didn’t win the world series, and that means we don’t have to accept the scriptwriters of Back to the Future part II as Hollywood’s version of Nostradamus. But yesterday’s celebration of “Back to the Future Day” still has me thinking about efforts to predict the future. One of my favorite thinkers from the nineteenth century was the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, author of the classic Democracy in America. In addition to a plethora of penetrating insights into the nature of American politics and culture as the United States was evolving into a democratic nation, Tocqueville also offered some uncanny predictions about America’s future. I originally posted the essay below as part of a series on Tocqueville’s observations on American democracy.
. . . Predicting the future is not something historians are comfortable with. If it’s a glimpse into the future that you’re after—and you don’t have a crystal ball—you would do far better to consult a social scientist. Professional historians, when they are true to their craft, rarely are willing to make predictions about the future. Social scientists (political scientists and economists, for example), do this all the time. Why the difference?
The difference is not primarily in the kind of evidence that they employ, nor is it the attention that they pay to the past. The key distinction lies in how they think about human behavior. Let’s compare economists and historians to make the point. Economists frequently look at historical evidence: data on trends in GNP, unemployment rates, consumer behavior, government spending, and the interrelationships between any and all of these. In this sense they are no different from historians. Their goal in consulting historical evidence, however, is to produce or refine a model—an overarching generalization—of how the economy functions. The simpler the model the more “elegant” it is.
Aided by one or more theories of human behavior, the economist looks for patterns in how men and women act, individually and collectively, with the goal of identifying predominant tendencies that both explain what has been and project what will be. If Congress raises the minimum wage, what does the historical evidence suggest will be the impact on employment? If the Federal Reserve Board lowers the discount rate, what will be the effect on business investment and the overall impact on GDP? See the pattern? The past is prologue. What has happened helps to predict what will be.
Historians, most of them anyway, believe that human behavior is far too complex to reduce to a few generalizations and think that social scientists tend to be guilty of oversimplification. This conviction, by the way, is why professional historians absolutely reject the (now) trite aphorism of the Spanish atheist Georges Santayana that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We believe that human behavior is far more complicated than the mechanistic repetition that the quote, almost always taken out of context, seems to imply. Against the maxim (and the countless politicians and pundits who repeat it), we believe that the value of studying the past is not that it helps us to predict the future, but that it equips us to face it more wisely.
There are echoes of both the historian and the social scientist in Tocqueville’s study of American democracy. Let me give you two examples. On the one hand, like the historian, Tocqueville paid great attention to the particularities of the American setting, and his precise descriptions of American values and institutions have been valued by scholars ever since. On the other hand, like the social scientist, he clearly hoped that his careful observations of democracy in the United States would lead to transferable insights about democracy in general.
Again, like the historian, Tocqueville professed a healthy skepticism of predictions about the future. At one point in Democracy in America, he observed, “It is difficult enough for the human mind to trace some sort of great circle around the future, but within that circle chance plays a part that can never be grasped. In any vision of the future, chance always forms a blind spot which the mind’s eye can never penetrate.” And yet, like the social scientist, Tocqueville did believe that his careful observations about the past and present warranted at least modest speculation about the future. At times he missed the mark badly, but in several instances his educated guesses were uncannily on target. Here are two examples that struck me forcefully:
The first involves Tocqueville’s vision of America’s place in the future international balance of power. Writing in the 1830s, at a time when the U. S. Navy was miniscule, the young Frenchman predicted that the U. S. would “one day . . . become the leading naval power on the globe.” A century later that was true. Looking into the unknown, Tocqueville told his readers that the United States was destined to expand all the way to the Pacific Ocean, an event that transpired within a generation. Finally, he foretold that the day would come when the United States would be one of the two most powerful nations in the world. The other? Russia. “Their point of departure is different and their paths diverse,” he acknowledged. “Nevertheless, each seems called by some secret design of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world.” Can anyone say “Cold War”?
Tocqueville’s forecast of the United States’ international power grew out of his appreciation of America’s vast natural resources and commercial vitality. His assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of American democracy led to a second prescient prediction. It appears in an extended footnote to a chapter on the likelihood that democratic governments will grow in power. It is so eerily accurate (in my opinion), that it is worth quoting at length:
Democratic ages are times of experiment, innovation, and adventure. There are always a lot of men engaged in some difficult or new undertaking which they pursue apart, unencumbered by assistants. Such men will freely admit the general principle that the power of the state should not interfere in private affairs, but as an exception, each one of them wants the state to help in the special matter with which he is preoccupied, and he wants to lead the government on to take action in his domain, though he would like to restrict it in every other direction.
As a multitude of people, all at the same moment, take this particular view about a great variety of different purposes, the sphere of the central government insensibly spreads in every direction, although every individual wants to restrict it. In this way the simple fact of its continuing existence increases the attributes of power of a democratic government. Time works on its side, and every accident is to its profit; the passions of individuals, in spite of themselves, promote it; and one can say that the older a democratic society, the more centralized will its government be.