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06.02.2024

Historiography should focus more on entrepreneurs and less on politicians

Our view of history is often distorted when it comes to the economy. On the one hand, the industrial revolution is often only perceived in terms of social misery. On the other hand, the importance of the economy and, above all, entrepreneurs is massively underestimated.

Gerhard Schwarz
NZZ
ETH Zurich, Switzerland: Old machine laboratory. General view of the 110 hp direct current engine of Maschinenfabrik Oerlikon directly coupled to the vertical steam engine of Escher Wyss & Cie. in Zurich (Wikimedia Commons)

 

A lively discussion recently turned to the widespread forgetfulness of history. The fact that what came before us is not just yesterday’s news, but shapes the present and the future, seems to be disappearing from our consciousness.

However, it is not only history that is formative, but also what is taught about history in Germany, Austria and Switzerland – if it is taught at all. Broadly speaking, there are two influential influences that are often encountered.

The culprit is quickly found

On the one hand, there is the generally negative portrayal of the industrial revolution as a single social disaster. And “to blame” for the sometimes horrific social ills is, of course, evil capitalism, as Friedrich Engels once described in his work “The Condition of the Working Class in England”. Admittedly, this is only anecdotal evidence, but this is exactly how most people have it in their heads.

The fact that women and children were already working in pre-industrial times, albeit not to the same extent and hardly outside the family, is usually ignored, as is the fact that it was only thanks to the industrial revolution and advances in productivity that the population, which was exploding due to the falling mortality rate, was able to earn a living.

Not to mention the extraordinary development of science and technology. If the industrial revolution is portrayed too negatively, and this is often the case, an anti-capitalist seed is discreetly sown.

Secondly, the negatively connoted industrial upheaval of the 18th century in England (and later on the continent) is one of the few economic topics that pupils are confronted with in history.

History is often too exclusively political history. It is about emperors and kings, rulers and revolutionaries, politicians and elections, wars and conquests. Economics plays little or no role, and if it does, then rarely in a positive sense.

Yet our daily lives, especially in times of peace, are shaped more by the history of business than that of politics. The way we live, eat, dress, move around, protect ourselves against diseases or fight them today is mainly thanks to visionary entrepreneurs who once took risks, believed in ideas, stubbornly pushed them through against the odds, founded companies and succeeded (while many others failed).

A breeding ground for economic hostility

By failing to adequately reflect this in history lessons, we subtly create a breeding ground for economic hostility, or at least for a lack of respect for the successes of the economy. If the achievements of entrepreneurs over the last three centuries were compared with those of politicians, it would become clear why liberals, in contrast to people with planned economy or welfare state convictions, think so little of the primacy of politics.

There were and are mistakes here and there, but politicians are responsible for the big disasters, not entrepreneurs.

Translated with DeepL