Historians Should Learn the Economic Way of Thinking

Simon Schama is one of the world’s great historians. Indeed, I am currently having my children watch his magisterial “History of Britain,” and they are enthralled by it. In this brief contribution to Britain’s Prospect magazine he says some very important and insightful things, but one thing stood out for me:

I would make it completely illegal for flight attendants to presume to tell people how to fasten a seatbelt. Is there anybody in the entire world who doesn’t know how to fasten a seatbelt? It’s so insulting.

This is where the economic way of thinking is as useful as a knowledge of history. The economic way of thinking tells you that incentives matter and that therefore when something seems odd, you should look at where the incentives lie. Often the incentives for stupid and wasteful behavior are outdated government regulations that no one can be bothered to change. So it is with the seat belt demonstration, at least under American law (other jurisdictions undoubtedly have similar regulations). Behold the Code of Federal Regulations § 121.571, “Briefing passengers before takeoff”:

(a) Each certificate holder operating a passenger-carrying airplane shall insure that all passengers are orally briefed by the appropriate crewmember as follows: …

(iii) The use of safety belts, including instructions on how to fasten and unfasten the safety belts. Each passenger shall be briefed on when, where, and under what conditions the safety belt must be fastened about that passenger. This briefing shall include a statement that the Federal Aviation Regulations require passenger compliance with lighted passenger information signs and crewmember instructions concerning the use of safety belts.

So it is not that the redundant demonstration should be illegal, but that it is in fact legally required.

To return to Schama’s insights, he is right when he says that history “should never be self-congratulation; it should keep people awake at night.” In a way, so should economics.