Large groups of people do extraordinarily pig-headed things from time to time.
Republicans can drive a car more or less as well as Democrats or Communists. Of the millions of autos on the road, driven by Rosicrucians, Rotarians, Riverkeepers, and all manner of people with all manner of ideas, there are relatively few accidents.
Making their own decisions about their own lives, people of all sorts get along passably well — even when they are driving automobiles at high rates of speed with a Democrat headed right for them. They obey simple, general rules — keep to the right (or left!) — and decide the minor details for themselves.
Usually, they get where they are going. But trust these people with public affairs and there’s a good chance you’ll wind up driving tanks through Poland.
The human brain is well adapted to driving a car and to looking out for itself. Without conscious thought, it makes life and death calculations on a second-by-second basis, for the most part successfully. But it evolved while living in small groups without the abstractions of large-scale, modern, public life.
The ability to do abstract thinking, or to understand the dynamics of large groups, was unnecessary. That is probably why the ability to do this kind of thinking is so rare. The typical brain is not equipped for it. Ask the human brain to coordinate the ordering of a pizza for a family of five, and the results are outstanding. Put it to work on Obamacare, NSA snooping, firearms control, or public finance, and the results can be astonishingly silly.
Ambitious people pretend this isn’t the case. They feel it is their responsibility to read the papers and try to understand the headlines. They identify the hero, the villain, the love interest, and the conflict. They root for the good guy, curse the guy in the well-tailored business suit, and pray their side will win.
They cannot imagine a team without a captain or an army without a general or a war without a victor. They need to think someone is in charge — someone who can win this struggle against an uncertain fate.
Few people can stomach the idea that public life is out of the conscious control of the authorities in whom they have placed so much faith. They lack what Nietzsche referred to as an ‘amor fati’…a faith in, and an affection for, fate. People don’t like fate. Fate is the bad stuff that happens when no one is in charge, when chaos reigns.
Instead, they believe in the ability of right-thinking experts to ‘do something’ to bring about a better outcome than fate had in store for them. They want a leader who will slay their enemies and bring the home team to victory. They want officials to deliver up full employment, someone else’s money, the America’s Cup, and free beer on tap 24/7.
They want someone in the driver’s seat who will take them where they want to go.
But where do they want to go? They don’t know. And history is largely a record of fender benders, sideswipes, and pileups on the way there — a place, it turns out, they really shouldn’t have been going in the first place.
History ignores the trillions of very good decisions made by private citizens in their private lives.
We don’t see the calculations of the boatmen, bringing their barks to shore just before the tide turns. We hardly notice the bowman who sends his arrow to a spot just a few feet in front of a racing rabbit. Nor does history spend much time on the brakeman who carefully brings the 11:07am from New York to a halt directly in front of travellers standing on the platform at Pennsylvania Station in Baltimore.
But the competence of the brakeman, boatman, and bowman makes us overconfident. If we can bring a train to rest at exactly the right spot, why not an economy? If we can impose our will, by force, on a rabbit…why not on Alabama? If we can drive a car, why not a whole society?
It seems reasonable enough. And it agrees with our core intellectual bias — well-established since the time of Aristotle and re-established during the Renaissance — that we are able to see, understand, and direct our future.
But if that were true, history would be a lot less colourful than it is. What actually happens is that people take on big projects. And fail miserably.
For instance, the people of nation X demand cheap bread. The government assigns its finest minds to the project. Soon, people are starving.
Military history offers plenty of examples of strategic miscalculations, misunderstandings, and gross recklessness. These various buffooneries appear antiseptically in the historical record as simple ‘errors’. But they are errors of a special sort.
They are the kind made when you undertake large-scale projects in the modern world using brains evolved and adapted for much smaller problems.
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