Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The March of Folly by Barbara W Tuchman

The March of Folly by Barbara W Tuchman.

After a very long time, I picked up a history book. I don’t subscribe to “History repeats itself” school of thought. I am more of “History does not repeat, but rhymes” view of Mark Twain. Picking this one was easy since many of the high profile authors quote her (Eg: Peter Senge). Sure enough, it was one of the best reads.

Any first rate book, usually declares the framework and key definitions before delivering the main message. The clarity with which she defines folly and why events were picked is bound to appeal to the reader.

Misgovernment, she declares, comes in 4 kinds. (1) Tyranny and oppression. (2) Excessive ambition. (3) Incompetence and decadence. (4) Folly or perversity. The focus is on the last one. To qualify for folly she asserts that, it must have been perceived counterproductive in its own time – not by hindsight. Add to that, there must be feasible alternative action that exists.

With such robust framework in place, she takes up four case studies. (1) The Trojans take the wooden horse within their walls (2) The Renaissance Popes provoke the protestant secession (3) The British lose America (4) America betrays herself in Vietnam. All the four chapters start with a strong message and ends up with even stronger note – occasionally, one may tend to think the views are subtly biased. None of the four would be discussed here for I would not like to add further angles to them!

What would worry the reader is that folly is after all not a monopoly of any geography, religion or time. Neither any form of government (From Democracy to all the way to Autocracy) can possibly offer hope. Eventually, that inevitable folly happens. She is fond of quoting John Adams “Government is little better practiced now than 3000 or 4000 years ago”. If that is the case, there may not be immediate resolution; we would have to endure a very long path before hopefully we find a solution.

Author’s main point is this: “Any path or process or policy which conflicts with self interest eventually results in folly or perversity”. She gives many examples to support this point. I have heard a lot of stories about Solon, may be because he is really far off in the rear view mirror historically speaking, which lends itself for more fertile imagination. The story here is even more interesting.

Circa: 6th Century B.C, Chief Magistrate Solon was asked to save the state. It was in a state of economic ruin with harsh debt laws and poor trade. He enjoyed an unusual distinction of being trusted by poor as well as rich – because, he neither participated in the oppression of poor nor supported the cause of poor. He was also a man of wealth and substance. He gave a body of laws which focused on ensuring fair dealings between weak and strong and also on government. Taking no chances, he extracted an oath from Athenian council to maintain his reforms for TEN years – It cannot be repealed without his approval. Finally, he made a master move. In the pretext of travelling to see the world, he sailed into a self imposed exile for ten years. He could have easily retained such huge powers of the state and perhaps become a tyrant. But if he were around, then there would have been lot of requests pouring in to change or add/delete some law or other thereby earning ill will. What is evident is in the absence of overriding personal ambition, a person with a strong common sense would see many things through.

Only one example she gives for the reversal of folly - President Anwar Sadat’s abandonment of enmity with Israel. It ranks lonely in history she says, and stands undiminished by the subsequent assassination.

To me, it appears the output of folly is more like “termite effect” - they keep working constantly on the beams and their work is invisible, but alas not the end result.

When desire disagrees with the judgment of reason, then there is a disease of the soul – but it looks like, that disease would appear now and then without a hint. She identifies three stages. In the first stage, there is mental standstill that fixes the boundaries and principles of the problem. In the second stage, the dissonance and failing functions are witnessed, while the initial principles only rigidify. If wisdom persists, re-examination coupled with re-thinking would occur resulting in a possible course correction. But then, she is convinced that they are “as rare as rubies in the backyard”. In the third stage error multiples and eventually consumes destroys the system.

Über philosopher P.D.Ouspensky wrote only one novel called “The strange life of Ivan Osokin”, there Ivan gets a chance to go back in time again to his early school days and manhood and early love. Alas, it is the same thing happens all over again. It was written to illustrate we don’t live life – but life lives us. Certainly, a scary thought and proposition. Come to think of it, folly seems to be happening like that of what happened Osokin. At a systemic level, it may be difficult to eliminate but at the individual level, hopefully we can keep a guard with a dose of humility and rationality

Thanks for reading this far….