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….




Ramesh N Raghavan said...

Nice summary of what really Folly is, and as you have pointed out, we can see many of them in actions, not just in the traditional governments, but also in other forms of governance like large corporations. An initial misstep is often amplified by subsequent actions. Meaningful and well intentioned feedback on a initial proposal is often dismissed as "resistance to change" (which is a current favourite management theory), and the person driving this so called "change" gets more and more rigid, and blind folded, allowing for the march of folly. Reversing it looks quite difficult till it runs the course leaving behind a lot of mess and failures when again "change" becomes inevitable. The damage takes a very long time to fix.
I don't remember where I read, but often corporations are more prone to follies as the corporate chieftains are not elected by any democratic means and wrong choices can be more easily made. At least in a democracy there is some faint hope in a fairly conducted election, but corporates in many ways are more closer to autocracies...
Should borrow the book from you when I can and read it ..
Thanks for the nice post.

Mukund Srinivasan said...

I have heard that history, if nothing else, has given us a sense of what leadership should and shouldn't be, given that we have the benefit of hindsight and generations of study and research to scrutinize the impact of each and every event in history. As I read through the summary, especially the four follies, I couldn't help but relate to management dichotomies associated with each of those - might be a worthwhile topic for another day, but thanks for this thought provoking note, Madhu-san...

Mukund Srinivasan said...

I couldn't resist commenting on NRR's post on democracy - even that, NRR, is subject to some level of indiscretion on the part of voters, when it comes to politics. A very active example is the 2G scam in India, unearthed just months ago!

Suresh said...

Nice post.

A person with high moral values is generally needed if the march of folly has to be stopped. And governments don't want such person. That is why many people went on saying that Gandhi had become irrelevant in Independent India. Infact he was the conscience keeper of the nation and no government wants such a person. Then there were people like Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan. Today there is none and we can see that the PM himself recommending a tainted judge for the CVC position!!

Nimmy said...

Interesting post, as usual, Madhu! Every time I read your review, the thing that comes to my mind immediately is "I should pick up this book next time I shop for books" ;-) Your choice of books are all worthwhile. This book and your post reminds me of a wonderful article (by a late economist) I came across many months ago - you may have already read it. It has become one of my all-time favourite reads. http://www.searchlores.org/realicra/basiclawsofhumanstupidity.htm

PS: Speaking of history, have you read Bryson's "The short history of nearly everything"?

Nimmy said...


Pratap R C said...

Looks like it is a book on history (like many other) rooted on logic, capturing events as snapshots of a puzzle, with an elaborate exercise of piecing them together. Thanks Madhu-san for the warning. Even I can write some history,

Alexander is not Greek

Napoleon is not French

Hitler is not German

Stalin is not Russian

Like all history there is a grain of truth in what I might have just written.

The Road - a book to read for those who are not in a rush to understand this world :)