Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Thinking about "The March of Folly"

I just finished reading The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam by Barbara W. Tuchman. It is the first of her books that I have read.

It is a great pleasure to read the book because of Tuchman's command of the English language. The prose is crisp and clear. Her word choice is precise. Metaphors are fresh and well chosen.

Tuchman tells a great story. The price of the book is more than justified for her brief retelling of the story of the siege of Troy. But she goes on to tell the story of the renaissance popes, the story of the government in England before and during the American Revolution, and the story of the government in Washington before and during the American Vietnam War. In Tuchman's hands, each story is vividly if succinctly told, carrying the reader along in a rush.

Still, I think the book is fundamentally flawed. Tuchman writes most of the book as if the subject of the chapter (church or state) had a mission (defined by a short "mission statement") and was to be managed by its leaders to rationally achieve that mission. The recent election should have made clear that, at least for the United States, different parties disagree on the mission of government and certainly on the appropriate policies to move forward.

I suggest that in practice, the conduct of government (church or national) is not determined by the rational decisions of the head of government or of a small group seeking rational consensus. It arises from circumstances, from the behavior of the bureaucracy, from the larger politics of the situation, and especially from the interplay of the interests and capabilities of the individuals involved. Tuchman writes as if she knows what the policy of the government should be in each of her stories, and that deviations from her preferred course of action are follies perpetrated by the protagonists of her narrative.
  • The story of the Trojan Horse is not history, it is just that a story. That story serves to illustrate Tuchman's idea that leaders make decisions that are dysfunctional, harmful to the government they are presumed to serve,  in spite of the existence of viable alternatives and in spite of warnings of the danger inherent in the decision. Still, she is depending on a myth which has evolved to exemplify that message.
  • The renaissance popes were men of their time and place. They lived the lives of renaissance princes, exploiting their position to advance their families fortunes. Indeed, they were concerned with the welfare of their mistresses and their children. They lived in dangerous times, and held secular power over the papal territories as well as ecclesiastical power. However, their secular power was challenged by kings and princes, their ecclesiastic power by the college of cardinals and the potential for church councils, and their income by the willingness of people to contribute. I am not certain that a Borgia pope would necessarily put the long term health of the papacy before all other concerns.
  • Similarly, King George and the wealthy aristocrats of his cabinets "had their own fish to fry". While they may have felt a responsibility of governing, and may have enjoyed the prestige of their offices, they also were devoted to other things -- including the delights of their country estates, gambling and drinking. I am not sure that any of them would have given up their pleasures simply to save the American colonies for the state.
  • Tuchman points out that various American presidents put their reelection before the needs to resolve the situation in Vietnam in terms of the long term interests of the nation. She may underestimate the psychological tendency of people serving in government to accede to the perceived will of the president . (I found that hard to credit that until I had felt it personally while working in the White House and until I had observed the change in behavior in others I knew well.) I suspect too, that much of the policy chosen by American presidents was strongly influenced in reaction to the perceived political threat from right wing politicians from McCarthy to Goldwater.
I suspect that in trying to tell these four stories so briefly, Tuchman has been forced to omit too much -- factors that were of significance in the decision making of the times. How important was the Caribbean and the slave trade to England during the late 18th century? How complex was the effort to contain Communism and how worrisome were the civil rights and student protest movements in the Vietnam era?

I think there is also a problem in that the view is tempocentric -- that it assumes that the values of the time are the "right values".
  • The rise of the protestant religions can be seen as having greatly strengthened Christianity. It is hard to see that Christianity would be as widely spread or as vibrant today had there not been the reformation and the counter reformation.
  • England went on after the American Revolution to lead in the conquest of Napoleonic France, and in the creation of a global empire, eventually using lessons from the American Revolution in the creation of the Commonwealth. The alliance of the United States and the Commonwealth led to victories in two World Wars.
  • The Soviet Union fell apart, the Warsaw Pact was dissolved and the European satellites joined the West. The Communist block accepted capitalism in a big way.
The passage of time changes culture, changes everything. In closing, Tuchman quotes John Adams as stating that government "is little better practiced now than three or four thousand years ago." In fact, the institutions of government were very different in Adams' time than in classic times, or indeed in the time of the "divine rights of kings". I would suggest that the the key work in the quotation is not "little" but rather "better". I would further suggest that there has been an accumulation of knowledge about governance, management, politics, and economics, Moreover, institutions have evolved to better educate people for participation in government.

However, culture and its institutions evolve, they are seldom if ever developed according to plan. We see that there has been a global spread of participatory government, yet different cultures develop "democratic" governance institutions in very different ways. Even similar cultures sharing common histories do government in different ways -- think of the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Few if any of us have the ability to see how our culture and institutions will evolve, which if any of our current practices will be admired in the future and which ridiculed.

In retrospect it may seem more foolish to have tried to stand in the way of the independence of the American colonies than to have acceded to it, or more foolish to have fought a war to enable a country to choose central planning for the economy than to fight a war to contain Communism. I found myself questioning Tuchman's apparent assurance that she knew which was the right policy and which to be folly.

Ultimately, I found the book full of profiles of people I didn't like, with a few exceptions of people who could see foolishness when it faced them. The rest, as Tuchman acknowledges in her final chapter, included the wooden headed, those who refused to believe the truth when presented to them, those with excessive personal ambition, the lazy, the crazy, the stupid, the corrupt, and those simply way out of their depth. I suspected that such people inhabited the higher levels of government even before reading the book. Now I have more and better examples at hand in my library.

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