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Wednesday, June 05, 2019

"THE MARCH OF FOLLY" By Barbara Tuchman

I began to re-read this book (originally published in 1984, now available as an e-book on Bookbub for $1.99) and realized that its theme fits in nicely with the one that I blabbered about (maybe it should be “bloggered”); that is, the common folly of people who act against their best interests. [See my posts on this blog relating to "Borenstein's Law."]

In trying to explain to my colleagues in criminal defense why our clients act so recklessly, not just in committing crimes, but in doing so in a manner making it likely that they will be caught, and then dealing with the police and their lawyers in the same foolish, self-destructive way, I concluded that it was not abnormal human behavior — but rather, quite common — to act that way. The innocent, too, often act in ways that make them appear to be guilty, usually out of distrust, fear, or ignorance of the system.

Using well-known examples, I proved that even people who are intelligent, worldly, successful and rich fall prey to the human frailty of acting contrary to their best interests, often resulting in their downfall.

In studying the problem, I came across several theories intended to explain this behavior. One was an ancient Greek concept, called Akrasia . Another was the theory of Type “T” personality, relating to the craving for thrills. A third, related cause, was lust: sexual desire for some involves a need to dominate and to humiliate others. Literature is full of examples of characters who risked marriages, careers, and their very lives just to insert a bit of drama into their routine existences.

Tuchman’s book gives examples of governments that pursued policies that were clearly contrary to their nation’s best interests, often with disastrous effects. Whether by starting a war or other committing “wooden-headed” actions, there are so many examples in history (as well as the quasi-history of the Bible’s descriptions of the follies of some Hebrew kings; and the Greek "historical / mythical tale of the Trojan Horse) that Ms. Tuchman concludes that instances of wise decision-making are harder to find. (She does cite the example of Anwar Sadat / Menachem Begin in 1979; even though Sadat paid for it by his assassination, it ensured peace between Egypt and Israel after 30 years of belligerence.)

Tuchman poses the hypothesis this way:

“A PHENOMENON noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity.

 “In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be.

 “Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?”
[Tuchman, Barbara Wertheim, “The March of Folly” (Kindle Locations 157-161)]

“Folly or perversity”, she finds, is one kind of misgovernment, often combined with three other kinds: “tyranny or oppression;” “excessive ambition;” and “incompetence or decadence.”

She defines self-interest as “whatever conduces to the welfare or advantage of the body being governed; folly is a policy that in these terms is counter-productive.”

This definition is the same in my thesis: the welfare or advantage to the client defines his/her self-interest, and whatever action the client commits or decision he/she makes contrary to that is folly.

As a scholar, Tuchman disciplines herself when she requires that to qualify as folly, the policy must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight. For her, this means judging it by the values of its own time and place. So, she seeks evidence that contemporaries saw the problem.

Second, she demands evidence that a “feasible alternative course of action must have been available.” This also finds a parallel in my sphere. For example, my client insisted on testifying even though I advised against it. His best chance of acquittal was to rely on the weaknesses of eyewitness identification. But by claiming self-defense, he had to admit his presence at the scene, thereby removing all doubt about the ID’s and placing his dubious credibility on the line, thus assuring his conviction.

Just as I noticed that degree of intelligence, social class, culture, or ethnicity has no bearing on whether someone will act against his self-interest, Tuchman concludes that the same holds true for governmental folly. Democracies may act just as foolishly as communist regimes or fascist regimes or monarchies; all classes are susceptible to these missteps.

She acknowledges that “folly or perversity is inherent in individuals” but she does not shrug her shoulders to accept it in government because, she argues, the consequences of governmental folly are so dire for humankind . . . and the planet that we should not accept it as the norm.

The practice of “self-deception” is common in governments. “It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs.”
Military planners have been guilty of this many times, at the cost of millions of lives. The First World War is a prime example. Most of Hitler’s blunders in The Second are due to his wooden-headed refusal to adapt to the evidence of changing conditions.  

Of course, the parallels to criminal cases are clear: I can’t count the numbers of clients who went down in flames because they refused to accept a plea offer of a lesser crime after being confronted with overwhelming proof of their guilt of the greater one. “It is,” Tuchman writes, “acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts.” Tuchman adds: “The refusal to benefit from experience” is also a hallmark of this kind of wooden-headedness.

I agree with that. My client who shoplifted at the same May Company department store in which he had been arrested six months before and was caught by the same security personnel who remembered him is but one example in my memory.

Tuchman also has some examples that do not find easy parallels in my business, but are interesting nonetheless.

She mentions the case of Montezuma who led the Aztecs to their destruction by adhering to his delusion that Cortez and his soldiers were omnipotent aliens sent by the gods to fulfill a prophesy even after there was ample proof that they were mortals who could be easily outnumbered and defeated by his armies.

“One cannot quarrel with religious beliefs, especially of a strange, remote, half-understood culture. But when the beliefs become a delusion maintained against natural evidence to the point of losing the independence of a people, they may fairly be called folly. The category is once again wooden-headedness, in the special variety of religious mania. It has never wrought a greater damage.”
 [Tuchman, “The March of Folly” (Kindle Locations 347-350). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]

Although she doesn’t cite it, I wonder if Prohibition could be seen as another example of “religious mania” defining policy in the face of logic, common sense, and understanding of human behavior. The impulse to enforce morality by legislation is certainly folly. 

In one respect I found a chance to quibble with the historian.
She rightly expresses her admiration for the class of men who we call our “founding fathers.” 

“[T]hey were fearless, high-principled, deeply versed in ancient and modern political thought, astute and pragmatic, unafraid of experiment, and — this is significant — ‘convinced of man’s power to improve his condition through the use of intelligence.’” [Tuchman, (Kindle Locations 429-430)].

She accounts for this amazing “burst of talent from a base of only two and a half million” by citing their exposure to values of The Age of Reason. During their time, there was:

“a wide diffusion of education, challenging economic opportunities, social mobility, training in self-government — all these encouraged citizens to cultivate their political aptitudes to the utmost. With the Church declining in prestige, and business, science and art not yet offering competing fields of endeavor, statecraft remained almost the only outlet for men of energy and purpose. Perhaps above all the need of the moment was what evoked the response, the opportunity to create a new political system. What could be more exciting, more likely to summon into action men of energy and purpose?” [Tuchman, (Kindle Locations 433-437).

Two things occurred to me. First, I recalled that the man who is thought to be one of the greatest of the founding fathers, the epitome of all the values Tuchman ascribes to them, is Alexander Hamilton. Despite his rationality when it came to the needs of government, he made foolish decisions in his personal life that were disastrous to his career ... and to his very life.

Second, most of the founding fathers were lawyers or at least had training in the English Common Law, as well as experience in legislating as members of town councils or colonial legislatures. They came from a tradition of respect for the law, and when it came to stating their case for independence, they framed their argument in rational terms, eschewing the hate-speech of violent revolution. 

Once independence was gained, they approached the task of governing with the same lawyerly care, devising a Constitution and Bill of Rights that has lasted ... until now. 

In concluding her first chapter of her book which was published in 1984, Barbara Tuchman warned us about the danger of incompetent governance.

“For two centuries, the American arrangement has always managed to right itself under pressure without discarding the system and trying another after every crisis ... Under accelerating incompetence in America, this may change. Social systems can survive a good deal of folly when circumstances are historically favorable, or when bungling is cushioned by large resources or absorbed by sheer size as in the United States during its period of expansion. Today, when there are no more cushions, folly is less affordable....” [Tuchman, Barbara Wertheim (2011-07-20). The March of Folly (Kindle Locations 442-444). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]

Sadly, enough Americans in 2016 voted against their own best interests to empower a foreign country to manipulate our political system so as to cripple the democracy, perhaps irrevocably.