While catching up on things (though some catch-up is going to involve even older topics than this, there's a couple of more theoretical topics I've been meaning to tackle for months that I hadn't found the time for, and now have) I came across this rather good post by Krugman.
This is basically the problem that attracts me so much to political science, and to a slightly lesser degree economics and history. What fascinates me is how much focus we human beings place on the things we can't change, and how often we ignore the things we can. If there is any point to the scholarly endeavor, I think it lies in giving a good first approximation of what aspects of our lives are under the control of human societies, and which aspects are simply outside of any kind of conscious control. The most important aspect of policy is in realizing both the limits of policy and its possibilities. Ignoring either is something that policymakers must be held accountable for.
Yet what strikes me more than anything else in history is the extent to which this distinction is not made. Repeatedly, endless amounts of time and effort are squandered on trying to impact things that no human society has ever shown any appreciable ability to impact. Also, repeatedly, great suffering is caused by inaction on issues that many human societies have shown that they can successfully grapple with.
This I find endlessly fascinating. How frequently the same problems crop up, with virtually the same actions being used to combat them, always futilely, differing only in the dates, names, and locations (the three things which I always found high school history to focus on, despite them being the endlessly repetitive element of the story, with the real story being ignored, it's a wonder that anyone likes history after being subjected to high school). A large part of the calling I feel to spend my time on writing about politics/economics/sociology is driven by this quest to recognize these patterns of futility, while also trying to discover why some societies have a kind of learned futility regarding issues that they do have control over.
The only thing I'd add to Krugman's column is that it extends far beyond the economic sphere into the political and social. In the long run, things are determined almost solely by impersonal forces. To take just one example that touches on all three, the industrial revolution would have happened no matter what individual actions were taken, the signs of it were just too many and there were too many false starts to see it as anything but inevitable. However, in the shorter run, the policies adopted by Great Britain mattered very much. Having their specific sets of policies undoubtedly accelerated the process by several decades (parts of Europe were showing a great deal of movement in this direction, France, and possibly Germany, would probably have been only a few decades behind, outside Europe, China would have eventually gotten there, but it could have taken another century, other places far longer than that), which meant an untold reduction in human misery simply by having that transition happen sooner. How many millions, if not billions, of lives have been able to have been lived because of economic growth being 50 years ahead of where it would have otherwise been? Human happiness was increased immeasurably by this acceleration, even if it would barely show up on a graph showing centuries or millenia (not to even mention the basic advantage of the industrial revolution occurring in a state with a political culture such as Britain's rather than France or Germany's).
The point being, in the long run, policies just don't really matter. There is simply too much variety in human affairs. Someone, someplace, will be doing things right, so if one society screws up*, it doesn't change long run trajectories much. However, for us actual individuals, the short run matters a great deal. It matters a great deal to me and other proponents of democracy that the industrial revolution happened where it did and not somewhere else, and it matters very much to me that the US makes the right decisions and gets its growth back on track sooner rather than later. That in the long run we will probably make up for the lost growth doesn't matter that much, right now people are suffering, right now people need jobs, right now the economy is crap. What we do, or do not do, will virtually certainly have little long term impact (though it may have a medium term impact in relation to the relative power positions of the US, China, India, and Europe) beyond the meaningless march of names, places, and locations with no greater meaning. But it has very real consequences for the people that are suffering today, even if it doesn't to the poor child having to remember the names, places, and dates in a high school history textbook.
*And these long run screw ups don't always match up well with any of our grand theoretic models. For instance, Song China focused heavily on its economic development and while it was certainly lacking in many elements necessary for a modern economy, it certainly did look a lot like it was approaching take off and probably would have solved these bottlenecks given time. However, its focus on the economy did to some extent mean a lack of focus on its military. Since weapons technology had not yet advanced far enough (if they had 18th century military tech, especially fortresses, things would have played out rather differently) they got their asses kicked by a bunch of dirt poor nomads* with little aside from horses and bows (and siege trains) which made all their economic advances for naught. Their policies looked good in many ways, but being part of the exposed zone they simply couldn't cope with the military pressure. This is what I mean by contingency, lacking sufficient military technology or a sufficient military infrastructure it was simply impossible for them to develop enough for take off. Europe was sheltered from these influences, and in any case, had these weapons by the time that other economic and technological developments had occurred that were necessary for take off. The Qing managed to solve the nomad problem, and fairly likely would have eventually had the economic developments necessary for take-off, though they were many decades behind Europe in some key areas (banking and firm structure in particular come to mind).
**Slight exaggeration for rhetorical purposes. They initially got their asses kicked by partially sinicized nomads, then got finished off by the Mongols, who by that point certainly weren't poor. The general point remains