Applied history

Dr Matthew Birchall
Insights Newsletter
5 August, 2022

Historians can be a tedious bunch. As someone who frequently hijacks dinner parties with history lectures, I would know. It turns out that there is less popular appetite for lengthy forays into imperial history than I imagined.

But do historians make good public policy analysts? There are two reasons to suggest they do.

Most important is the premium that the discipline places on evidence-based reasoning. Too many of the ideas that currently inform policy in New Zealand seem to be built upon shoddy intellectual foundations.

The past is a wonderful antidote to wishful thinking. Historians are taught to engage closely with source material, and to signpost their findings. You cannot just make it up. For my PhD, I assembled over 40,000 photographs of archival documents. Vast reams of paper never made the cut.

The point here is not that I like reading; it is that scrupulous attention to detail is the bedrock of informed analysis. The advice that the late Newsday editor Alan Hathway gave to Robert A. Caro, the great biographer of LBJ, is surely the definitive statement on the matter: ‘Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddam page.’ It is hard to feel at home on a fantasy island when you are firmly grounded in reality.

Second, historians can inject much needed context and perspective into contemporary debates. Political commentators do not think twice about making international comparisons, and yet they often overlook historical analogues or precedents. This is a mistake.

My current work on infrastructure in New Zealand is a case in point.

Conventional thinking on the subject focuses on the central state. Julius Vogel and Muldoon’s ‘Think Big’ predominate in this telling. Yet a more careful examination of the documentary record reveals a parallel tradition in which local government played a greater role in project finance. This is the stuff of revenue bonds and special purpose authorities, the precise model that our chief economist Eric Crampton advocates.

There is still much that we do not know. How and why did revenue bonds flourish in the twentieth century? Were they successful? Why did the model fall from grace?

History is contingent, full of caveats, and more than a little dry for dinner party patter. But it is also surprising and a stir to the imagination. The history of New Zealand infrastructure reveals that sometimes the best ideas are hidden in plain sight.

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