Monday, November 05, 2012

Inexplicable patterns are not always signs of malevolence

Barbara W. Tuchman, in The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, describes the English government in the 1770s in terms that make me think of Bertie Wooster's Drones Club (see the video below). Filled with people who not only didn't understand the American colonies but who didn't feel the need to understand, the English government passed foolish law after foolish law, laws which were unenforceable and damaging to English economic and political interests. When events proved the laws to be foolish, often they were repealed piecemeal. The more rational Parliamentarians complained not that the policy was poorly conceived, but that there was a total lack of coherent policy. The king and cabinet were muddling through based on misinformation and prejudice. Admittedly they may have shared a prejudice against the colonial peoples, but they appeared incapable of acting even to actualize policies embodying that prejudice.

Tuchman suggests that the founding fathers of the USA could not conceive that the government in England was bumbling so egregiously. Instead they imputed a hidden policy to end self government in the colonies in order to exploit the colonists for the benefit of the English aristocracy. Not surprisingly, they led a revolution. As English military officials had warned, the revolution succeeded and England lost its most important colonies.

I suggest there is a lesson here. Foreigners will tend to assume that one's government acts rationally, and will often perceive pattern in the random actions of incompetent foreign policy, imputing malevolence to the authors of that policy. We of course are at risk of making the same mistake when pondering the purported purposes of other nations.

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