Living Life Forwards

by David Post on April 29, 2009

“Life must be lived forwards, but it can only be understood backwards.”1

“One of history’s uses is to remind us how unlikely things can be.2

I have considerably less to say about Steve Teles’ book than the other participants here. That should not be taken as criticism of the book – indeed, I think that The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement is a terrific book, scholarship of the highest order, and I learned a great deal from it – about the rise of the “LLN” (Liberal Legal Network) in the 1960s and 70s (and in particular about the role that the Ford Foundation, under its then-President MacGeorge Bundy, played in developing that network, about which I knew very little prior to reading this book), about the early failures of the counter-revolutionary attempts (by groups such as the Mountain States Legal Foundation and the Center for Constitutional Litigation), about Henry Manne, and Richard Mellon Scaife, and the Olin Foundation, about the rise of “law and economics,” and about many other people, events, institutions, and ideas that played an important role – at least, Teles has persuaded me that they played an important role – in the rise of the conservative legal movement.

It’s a fascinating story, well-told. As someone who lived through the period he describes, it’s very interesting to see how things happened, how X was connected to Y which was connected to Z, how particular events, seemingly insignificant at the time, were to have deep and lasting impacts on the political debate and landscape. It’s a story, a re-creation of the past, and it helps us understand how the world came to be what it is today – always a useful and important thing to do.

If I thought Teles missed something, or misinterpreted something, or gave undue weight to development X while slighting development Y, I’d try to persuade you of that. But I don’t – I’m no scholar of this period or these issues, and as far as I can tell, Teles got the story more-or-less right. I buy it. I have nothing whatsoever to say about the book on its own terms – about its facts, and the placement of those facts into a plausible cause-and-effect chain leading up to the present.

There’s a good reason that generals, as the saying goes, are always fighting the last war. It’s the same reason the drunk looks for his lost keys under the streetlight rather than in the dark alley where he actually dropped them: The light’s better there. We won’t find our keys, and we won’t learn how to fight the next war – but what else can we do? It’s just as Kierkegaard said – we live forward, but can only understand backward. That’s just part of the human condition, the way the world is constructed.

Teles’ book describes how the last war went – unraveling (or perhaps it can be better be called re-raveling) the past. It confirms, as all good re-ravelings confirm, that we can make sense of the past – that from the millions, and hundreds of millions, and billions, of events and people and actions and institutions and connections between people, and events, and actions, and institutions, some mattered a great deal for what happened next, while most mattered not at all, and that we can, if we work hard enough, single out the ones that mattered – the hiring of Henry Manne as Dean of the University of Miami, say, or the founding of the Mt. Pelerin Society, or the publication of Law and Economics.

The problem, for me at least, is that nobody knew at the time, and nobody could possibly have known at the time, that these events (or the many, many others Teles describes) mattered. Suppose Teles had written his book, complete and comprehensive up to “the present,” in, say, 1975. Would he, or anyone else, have been able to detect, from among the billions of events and people and actions and institutions in 1975, and all of the connections between those people, and events, and actions, and institutions, which ones mattered and which ones didn’t? Would he have known, based on all of his deep understanding of the events leading up to Henry Manne’s deanship, that it mattered?

Of course not. For all Teles knew – for all anyone could know – Henry Manne could have been hit by a bus the day he began work at the University of Miami. Or he could have failed miserably and been laughed out of town.

We see in retrospect – Teles’ 2009 book shows us – that had that happened, the rest of the story would have unraveled very differently. History is like that; it’s an absurdly complex network of events and causal links between events, and we know that a perturbation at one point in the network can have profoundly disproportionate effects on the trajectory of the whole system. Manne’s deanship, we now can see (thanks to Teles’ 2009 book), was one such perturbation.

But no one knew at the time, and no one could have known at the time, that Manne’s deanship mattered, for the simple reason that it did not matter “at the time,” it only came to matter because of what happened next. Had Henry Manne been hit by a bus the day after he became dean, his having become dean would not, in fact, have mattered. Teles’ 2009 book – a guidebook to the things that mattered leading up to 2009 – would have given Dean Manne, at most, a footnote: “Who knows what would have happened had Dean Manne not been tragically cut down in 1975? Perhaps the federal takeover of law schools in 1994, and the Socialist revolution of 2000, would never have occurred? We’ll never know . . .”

So not only is Teles’ 2009 book radically incomplete as a description of what happened – he’s missing all of those bus accidents where people who would have mattered had the accidents not occurred were struck down – but it gives us no guide about what matters today. 2009 is just like 1975 – it’s “the present.” And the future is always what happens next. Just as Teles’ 1975 book would not have shed any light on the things that were mattering in 1975, his 2009 book doesn’t shed any light on what matters in all that is going to happen this afternoon.

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” There are few, if any, sillier clichés out there. Remembering, and understanding, the past is a wonderful thing, because it enriches our understanding of human experience and how the world got to be the world that it is. But I cannot for the life of me see how that understand will help me avoid mistakes in the future – or the present (which was the future, up until a moment ago). If and when I am transported back into the past, I promise not to repeat the mistakes that were made then – I’ll give Henry Manne a security detail, and tell them to keep him away from buses. But how that helps me, going forward into 2009, I fail to see.

1 Kierkegaard, The Concluding Unscientific Postscript to The Philosophical Fragments.”

2 Jonathan Spence, “Treason by the Book.”



eric 04.29.09 at 3:42 pm

do you believe that the study of history has any purpose, then, beyond personal satisfaction? Is there no reason at all to understand, as you say, “how the world got to be the world that it is”?


PGD 04.29.09 at 5:11 pm

Weird essay. This is good history, but history is pointless?

Since all anyone ever knows is the past, then the past better give us at least some guidance as to the future, or else we’re all just a bunch of blind idiots.


anxiousmodernman 04.29.09 at 5:36 pm

If your goal is political action of some sort, the study of history is necessary but not sufficient guide to that action. Lining up history’s facts and the (possible) causal links between them does not magically reveal the correct “next move” in the political game, but, if time permits, it is certainly a worthwhile exercise. How could it not be? Aren’t we better off not being ignorant of the facts of our situation? And the facts of the situations related to our situations?

Perhaps the good historian erects a lamp post in the dark alley, so that every now and then even us drunks find our keys, get home safe, and live to fight another day. Unless we’re hit by a bus, of course.

I believe this slim volume has some good things to say on the subject.


Deborah 04.29.09 at 5:41 pm

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” There are few, if any, sillier clichés out there. Remembering, and understanding, the past is a wonderful thing, because it enriches our understanding of human experience and how the world got to be the world that it is. But I cannot for the life of me see how that understand will help me avoid mistakes in the future – or the present (which was the future, up until a moment ago).

Perhaps, if we had remembered about tsunamis as that tribe of islanders did in Malaysia, more people might have run for higher ground and less lives might have been lost.


Barry 04.29.09 at 6:16 pm

IMHO, this post is weak tea. In the other posts, and in the book, Teles points out that the people behind this movement didn’t know what would happen from any *specific* action. They were willing to try multiple actions, methods, goals, people and organizations, and then throw resources behind those which seemed to work well. And to keep doing that, over the years and the decades, to build upon successes, to build organizations, and to enable those who were sympathetic to found careers in these areas. Two critiques of liberal organizations are that they frequently have a ‘only in my niche’ philosophy, and will only fund on a short-term project basis, as opposed to cooperating with other groups, and keeping people around long enough to build expertise and connections.


Barry 04.29.09 at 7:58 pm

To continue (since the last sentence was starting something which wasn’t finished) –

As a movement builds networks, expertise, connections, etc., it is preparing the ground to take advantage of future opportunities, even though they aren’t known yet. It’s altering the viewpoints of existing organizations to see events in the world in a way more flattering to the goals of the movement, both regularly-occurring and unusual events.


steven teles 04.30.09 at 3:22 am

Who is Barry? Smart comment!


mcd 04.30.09 at 4:36 am

Who knows what would have happened if John F Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King had not been tragically cut down by “lone nuts”.

Perhaps not all bus accidents are capricious.

Comments on this entry are closed.