Pursuit of Policy Contrary to Self-Interest
A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity. In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be. Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?
Why, to begin at the beginning, did the Trojan rulers drag that suspicious-looking wooden horse inside their walls despite every reason to suspect a Greek trick? Why did successive ministries of George III insist on coercing rather than conciliating the American colonies though repeatedly advised by many counselors that the harm done must be greater than any possible gain? Why did Charles XII and Napoleon and successively Hitler invade Russia despite the disasters incurred by each predecessor? Why did Montezuma, master of fierce and eager armies and of a city of 300,000, succumb passively to a party of several hundred alien invaders even after they had shown themselves all too obviously human beings, not gods? Why did Chiang Kai-shek refuse to heed any voice of reform or alarm until he woke up to find his country had slid from under him? Why do the oil-importing nations engage in rivalry for the available supply when a firm united front vis-à-vis the exporters would gain them control of the situation? Why in recent times have British trade unions in a lunatic spectacle seemed periodically bent on dragging their country toward paralysis, apparently under the impression that they are separate from the whole? Why does American business insist on “growth” when it is demonstrably using up the three basics of life on our planet—land, water and unpolluted air? (While unions and business are not strictly government in the political sense, they represent governing situations.)
Elsewhere than in government man has accomplished marvels: invented the means in our lifetime to leave the earth and voyage to the moon; in the past, harnessed wind and electricity, raised earthbound stones into soaring cathedrals, woven silk brocades out of the spinnings of a worm, constructed the instruments of music, derived motor power from steam, controlled or eliminated diseases, pushed back the North Sea and created land in its place, classified the forms of nature, penetrated the mysteries of the cosmos. “While all other sciences have advanced,” confessed our second President, John Adams, “government is at a stand; little better practiced now than three or four thousand years ago.”
Misgovernment is of four kinds, often in combination. They are: 1) tyranny or oppression, of which history provides so many well-known examples that they do not need citing; 2) excessive ambition, such as Athens’ attempted conquest of Sicily in the Peloponnesian War, Philip II’s of England via the Armada, Germany’s twice-attempted rule of Europe by a self-conceived master race, Japan’s bid for an empire of Asia; 3) incompetence or decadence, as in the case of the late Roman empire, the last Romanovs and the last imperial dynasty of China; and finally 4) folly or perversity. This book is concerned with the last in a specific manifestation; that is, the pursuit of policy contrary to the self-interest of the constituency or state involved. Self-interest is whatever conduces to the welfare or advantage of the body being governed; folly is a policy that in these terms is counter-productive.
To qualify as folly for this inquiry, the policy adopted must meet three criteria: it must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight. This is important, because all policy is determined by the mores of its age. “Nothing is more unfair,” as an English historian has well said, “than to judge men of the past by the ideas of the present. Whatever may be said of morality, political wisdom is certainly ambulatory.” To avoid judging by present-day values, we must take the opinion of the time and investigate only those episodes whose injury to self-interest was recognized by contemporaries.
Secondly a feasible alternative course of action must have been available. To remove the problem from personality, a third criterion must be that the policy in question should be that of a group, not an individual ruler, and should persist beyond any one political lifetime. Misgovernment by a single sovereign or tyrant is too frequent and too individual to be worth a generalized inquiry. Collective government or a succession of rulers in the same office, as in the case of the Renaissance popes, raises a more significant problem. (The Trojan Horse, to be examined shortly, is an exception to the time requirement, and Rehoboam to the group requirement, but each is such a classic example and occurs so early in the known history of government as to illustrate how deeply the phenomenon of folly is ingrained.)
Folly’s appearance is independent of era or locality; it is timeless and universal, although the habits and beliefs of a particular time and place determine the form it takes. It is unrelated to type of regime: monarchy, oligarchy and democracy produce it equally. Nor is it peculiar to nation or class. The working class as represented by Communist governments functions no more rationally or effectively in power than the middle class, as has been notably demonstrated in recent history. Mao Tse-tung may be admired for many things, but the Great Leap Forward, with a steel plant in every backyard, and the Cultural Revolution were exercises in unwisdom that greatly damaged China’s progress and stability, not to mention the Chairman’s reputation. The record of the Russian proletariat in power can hardly be called enlightened, although after sixty years of control it must be accorded a kind of brutal success. If the majority of Russians are materially better off than before, the cost in cruelty and tyranny has been no less and probably greater than under the czars.
The French Revolution, great prototype of populist government, reverted rapidly to crowned autocracy as soon as it acquired an able administrator. The revolutionary regimes of Jacobins and Directorate could muster the strength to exterminate internal foes and defeat foreign enemies, but they could not manage their own following sufficiently to maintain domestic order, install a competent administration or collect taxes. The new order was rescued only by Bonaparte’s military campaigns, which brought the spoils of foreign wars to fill the treasury, and subsequently by his competence as an executive. He chose officials on the principle of “la carrière ouverte aux talents”—the desired talents being intelligence, energy, industry and obedience. That worked for a while until he too, the classic victim of hubris, destroyed himself through overextension.
It may be asked why, since folly or perversity is inherent in individuals, should we expect anything else of government? The reason for concern is that folly in government has more impact on more people than individual follies, and therefore governments have a greater duty to act according to reason. Just so, and since this has been known for a very long time, why has not our species taken precautions and erected safeguards against it? Some attempts have been made, beginning with Plato’s proposal of selecting a class to be trained as professionals in government. According to his scheme, the ruling class in a just society should be men apprenticed to the art of ruling, drawn from the rational and wise. Since he recognized that in natural distribution these are few, he believed they would have to be eugenically bred and nurtured. Government, he said, was a special art in which competence, as in any other profession, could be acquired only by study of the discipline and could not be acquired otherwise. His solution, beautiful and unattainable, was philosopher-kings. “The philosophers must become kings in our cities or those who are now kings and potentates must learn to seek wisdom like true philosophers, and so political power and intellectual wisdom will be joined in one.” Until that day, he acknowledged, “there can be no rest from the troubles for the cities, and I think for the whole human race.” And so it has been.
Wooden-headedness, the source of self-deception, is a factor that plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts. It is epitomized in a historian’s statement about Philip II of Spain, the surpassing wooden-head of all sovereigns: “No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.”
A classic case in action was Plan 17, the French war plan of 1914, conceived in a mood of total dedication to the offensive. It concentrated everything on a French advance to the Rhine, allowing the French left to remain virtually unguarded, a strategy that could only be justified by the fixed belief that the Germans could not deploy enough manpower to extend their invasion around through western Belgium and the French coastal provinces. This assumption was based on the equally fixed belief that the Germans would never use reserves in the front line. Evidence to the contrary which began seeping through to the French General Staff in 1913 had to be, and was, resolutely ignored in order that no concern about a possible German invasion on the west should be allowed to divert strength from a direct French offensive eastward to the Rhine. When war came, the Germans could and did use reserves in the front line and did come the long way around on the west with results that determined a protracted war and its fearful consequences for our century.
Wooden-headedness is also the refusal to benefit from experience, a characteristic in which medieval rulers of the 14th century were supreme. No matter how often and obviously devaluation of the currency disrupted the economy and angered the people, the Valois monarchs of France resorted to it whenever they were desperate for cash until they provoked insurrection by the bourgeoisie. In warfare, the métier of the governing class, wooden-headedness was conspicuous. No matter how often a campaign that depended on living off a hostile country ran into want and even starvation, as in the English invasions of France in the Hundred Years’ War, campaigns for which this fate was inevitable were regularly undertaken.
There was another King of Spain at the beginning of the 17th century, Philip III, who is said to have died of a fever he contracted from sitting too long near a hot brazier, helplessly overheating himself because the functionary whose duty it was to remove the brazier, when summoned, could not be found. In the late 20th century it begins to appear as if mankind may be approaching a similar stage of suicidal folly. Cases come so thick and fast that one can select only the overriding one: why do the superpowers not begin mutual divestment of the means of human suicide? Why do we invest all our skills and resources in a contest for armed superiority which can never be attained for long enough to make it worth having, rather than in an effort to find a modus vivendi with our antagonist—that is to say, a way of living, not dying?
For 2500 years, political philosophers from Plato and Aristotle through Thomas Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton, Nietzsche and Marx, have devoted their thinking to the major issues of ethics, sovereignty, the social contract, the rights of man, the corruption of power, the balance between freedom and order. Few, except Machiavelli, who was concerned with government as it is, not as it should be, bothered with mere folly, although folly has been a chronic and pervasive problem. Count Axel Oxenstierna, Chancellor of Sweden during the turmoil of the Thirty Years’ War under the hyperactive Gustavus Adolphus, and actual ruler of the country under his daughter, Christina, had ample experience on which to base his dying conclusion, “Know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed.”
Because individual sovereignty was government’s normal form for so long, it exhibits the human characteristics that have caused folly in government as far back as we have records. Rehoboam, King of Israel, son of King Solomon, succeeded his father at the age of 41 in approximately 930 b.c., about a century before Homer composed the national epic of his people. Without loss of time, the new King committed the act of folly that was to divide his nation and lose forever its ten northern tribes, collectively called Israel. Among them were many who were disaffected by heavy taxation in the form of forced labor imposed under King Solomon, and had already in his reign made an effort to secede. They had gathered around one of Solomon’s generals, Jeroboam, “a mighty man of valor,” who undertook to lead them into revolt upon a prophecy that he would inherit rule of the ten tribes afterward. The Lord, speaking through the voice of a certain Ahijah the Shilonite, played a part in this affair, but his role then and later is obscure and seems to have been inserted by narrators who felt the Almighty’s hand had to be present. When the revolt failed, Jeroboam fled to Egypt where Shishak, the King of that country, gave him shelter.
Acknowledged King without question by the two southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin, Rehoboam, clearly aware of unrest in Israel, traveled at once to Shechem, center of the north, to obtain the people’s allegiance. He was met instead by a delegation of Israel’s representatives who demanded that he lighten the heavy yoke of labor put upon them by his father and said that if he did so they would serve him as loyal subjects. Among the delegates was Jeroboam who had hurriedly been sent for from Egypt as soon as King Solomon died, and whose presence must certainly have warned Rehoboam that he faced a critical situation.
Temporizing, Rehoboam asked the delegation to depart and return after three days for his reply. Meanwhile he consulted with the old men of his father’s council, who advised him to accede to the people’s demand, and told him that if he would act graciously and “speak good words to them they will be thy servants forever.” With the first sensation of sovereignty heating his blood, Rehoboam found this advice too tame and turned to the “young men that were grown up with him.” They knew his disposition and, like counselors of any time who wish to consolidate their position in the “Oval Office,” gave advice they knew would be palatable. He should make no concessions but tell the people outright that his rule would be not lighter but heavier than his father’s. They composed for him the famous words that could be any despot’s slogan: “And thus shalt thou say to them: ‘Whereas my father laid upon you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. Whereas my father chastised you with whips, I shall chastise you with scorpions.’ ” Delighted with this ferocious formula, Rehoboam faced the delegation when it returned on the third day and addressed them “roughly,” word for word as the young men had suggested.
Excerpted from The March of Folly by Barbara W. Tuchman. Copyright © 1985 by Barbara W. Tuchman. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.