Who died and left Clio in charge?

George W. Bush is indifferent to the “judgment of history.” Good for him.

This comment by GWB, as quoted by Woodward, is attracting some criticism:

Asked by Woodward how history would judge the war, Bush replied: “History. We don’t know. We’ll all be dead.”

Actually, I agree with Mr. Bush on this one. Asking what the long-term consequences of one’s actions figure to be is a sensible activity, with due deference to the difficulty of prediction. But asking how “history” (i.e., future historiographers) will treat it is both fairly futile — since it involves two nested predictions, one about the actual future and other other about the future of historiography — and beside the point.

What “history” almost surely won’t do is ask whether, on the information available to the decision-maker, the decision made was prudent or not. Yet that is the only sensible standard for a decision-maker to apply to himself: to act, in the moment, with the available information, as prudently as his or her human limitations, and the limitations of the insitutional surround, will allow.

If GWB loses less sleep than his predecessors about “the judgment of history,” good for him.

Update Matt Yglesias pulls off a neat trick: commenting on Bush’s comment before Bush even made it. (And he brings up the Chou En-lai quote I meant to use but didn’t.) Matt then has some nice reflections on the relationship between unpredictability and the validity of consequentialist reasoning.

It’s surely true that the less predictable the results are, the greater the weight that should be given to the principles pursued and the means employed. But consequences must count for something. I just don’t want to confound a concern for consequences with obsessing about “the verdict of history.” The problem with the verdict of history is that the judge can often be bullied or bought.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com