Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Promising book: The March of Folly

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Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly was mentioned recently with respect to Israel’s seeming interest in starting a war in the Mideast. James Fallows mentioned it, so I picked it up at the library and started it this morning. This fairly leapt from the page (page 5, in fact):

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 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.)

At that point I stopped reading to contemplate the modern-day GOP, which is pursuing its own line of follies: taking aggressive action against Latino and Hispanic voters (a rapidly growing population), taking aggressive action against women (more than half the existing population), working to increase tax breaks for the very wealthy (they have a lot of money, but there aren’t many of them) while killing off programs that offer aid and support to everyone else, who represent almost the entire country, and so on.

I think this is going to be a very interesting book.

UPDATE: Cold, overcast day. Grilled some Halloumi cheese (it browns, doesn’t melt) and squeezed a lemon over it: yummy in person and great for this sort of day. And the book just gets better. Page 7:

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.”

Or: ideology making one blind to facts. Examples about. The first to leap to my mind was Angela Merkel and her austerity program that is destroying the EU economy, despite the effective course being plain.

Well, no need to go abroad, eh?

Written by LeisureGuy

24 March 2012 at 11:02 am

Posted in Books, Government

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