So we have a nervous start to the New Year, with a plunge in the Chinese stock market and tensions in the Gulf. There is a widespread sense that the establishment in many countries is “out of touch” and leadership is faltering. I was arguing the other day that there is often a deeper pattern to these problems. The Republican establishment in the US ignored all evidence that didn’t match their preconceptions until an anointed prince like Jeb Bush was running at only 4% in primary polling.
This is in fact one of the deepest patterns in history. The great historian Barbara Tuchman pondered in The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam why policymakers and leaders so often do things which seem self-defeating and stupid.
A phenomenon notable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests.. Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?”
She called it Wooden-headedness.
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 all too easy to decide a policy was wrong in retrospect, of course. But wooden-headedness means policies or decisions which are self-defeating and ruinous based on things which are clearly apparent at the time. And it is remarkably common. She traces it from ancient Greece through the policies of Renaissance Popes, Phillip II of Spain and the decision of the Japanese government to go to war with the United States in 1941. US intervention in Vietnam in turn, led by the “best and the brightest” in the Kennedy administration, was beset by folly.
Folly’s appearance is independent of era or locality; it is timeless and universal, although the habits and beliefs of a particular time determine the form it takes.
One of the most interesting examples is the folly of the British government in its policy on its American colonies. The governing elite believed that trade with and possession of the thirteen colonies was utterly essential to Britain’s wealth and future, but insisted on the right to tax without the colonist’s consent. It was, she says, the unworkable pursued at the expense of the possible.
Instead of confronting trade-offs or looking for alternatives, politicians in London were largely diverted by the game of faction, who’s in, who’s out. And here is the most remarkable fact she notes: No British ministers visited America between 1763 and 1775 despite thinking the fate of the empire depended on possession of America.
There is often remarkable reluctance to go and look at the facts on the ground with a fresh eye. And it is not easy to do, whether it is sailing the Atlantic in the 1760s or working out why a business product is withering in the marketplace. But it is also essential. Instead of prediction, it is a matter of taking a fresh look at what is already there. It is about discovering what you’re not seeing. It is about blind spots.
Most predictions about what will happen in 2016 will tun out to be wrong, of course. But at least we can try to look for contrary evidence and test assumptions about views, so we are not woodenheaded. Like most establishments and bureaucracies.