Tolstoy on Hayek

by Russ Roberts on July 18, 2007

in Complexity & Emergence

David Brooks summarizes ($) President Bush’s view of politics and history:

He’s convinced leaders have the power to change societies. Even in a
place as chaotic as Iraq, good leadership makes all the difference.

When Bush is asked about military strategy, he talks about the
leadership qualities of his top generals. Before, it was Generals
Abizaid and Casey. Now, it’s Generals Petraeus and Odierno.

When
Bush talks about world affairs more generally, he talks about national
leaders. When he is asked to analyze Iraq, he talks about Maliki. With
Russia, it’s Putin. With Europe, it’s Merkel, Sarkozy, Brown and the
rest.

He is confident in his ability to read other leaders: Who
has courage? Who has a chip on his shoulder? And he is confident that
in reading the individual character of leaders, he is reading the
tablet that really matters. History is driven by the club of those in
power. When far-sighted leaders change laws and institutions, they have
the power to transform people.

Then Brooks gives us Tolstoy’s view. Very Hayekian and very nicely said:

Tolstoy had a very different theory of history. Tolstoy believed
great leaders are puffed-up popinjays. They think their public
decisions shape history, but really it is the everyday experiences of
millions of people which organically and chaotically shape the destiny
of nations — from the bottom up.

According to this view,
societies are infinitely complex. They can’t be understood or directed
by a group of politicians in the White House or the Green Zone.
Societies move and breathe on their own, through the jostling of
mentalities and habits. Politics is a thin crust on the surface of
culture. Political leaders can only play a tiny role in transforming a
people, especially when the integral fabric of society has dissolved.

If Bush’s theory of history is correct, the right security plan can
lead to safety, the right political compromises to stability. But if
Tolstoy is right, then the future of Iraq is beyond the reach of global
summits, political benchmarks and the understanding of any chief
executive.

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{ 28 comments }

Bruce G Charlton July 18, 2007 at 12:30 pm

Nice post.

But there is another aspect: would we prefer a leader who thought that their actions were important, or a leader who felt that their actions made no real difference?

Which leader would be likely to make the best decisions?

I think a leader who really believed in the importance of leaders would be a better leader.

Why would someone who who believed he made no difference to the big picture become a leader at all? Possible answers: to line his own pockets, to promote his relatives, to satisfy his voracious sexual urges, to persecute his enemies etc.

So – it should be very reassuring to Americans to hear that GWB believes that his decisions do make a difference.

The alternative would be far worse.

SheetWise July 18, 2007 at 12:35 pm

They can both be right. If "it is the everyday experiences of millions of people which organically and chaotically shape the destiny of nations" — those millions still need a pokitical environment that will allow them to shape it.

Half Sigma July 18, 2007 at 12:39 pm

If leaders don't matter, then why do you support CEOs getting paid hundreds of millions of dollars?

Patrick R. Sullivan July 18, 2007 at 1:02 pm

I agree with SheetWise. The two views aren't mutually exclusive. That said, the existence of leaders who did make big differences–both for good and ill–demonstrates the validity of the Bush outlook. People like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Churchill, Lincoln, Thatcher, Reagan….

Methinks July 18, 2007 at 1:36 pm

One more vote for Sheetwise's view. I think that not only are the two views not mutually exclusive but I think that one naturally flows into the other.

The chaotic jostling of society gives rise to particular kinds of leaders who then have an effect, to varying degrees, on that same society.

Brad July 18, 2007 at 2:09 pm

The frustration with Bush outside Neocon circles with regards to Iraq is that when Saddam Hussien and the Baath Party are in charge of Iraq, Bush's view is closer to the truth. But when Saddam is displaced, Tolstoy's view is spot-on. The three factions in Iraq don't even aspire to be a country without some synthesis of personality cult worship and state terror. I'm sure I'm in the last 5% to think that getting rid of Saddam was a good idea at the time. I wish we'd have set down some simple post-Saddam groundrules like "hands off the Kurds" and "no Iranian or Syrian control of oil" and then just let the Iraqis figure things out for themselves. Perhaps some directive against terror that doesn't make us a security force, so we could arbitrarily get rid of bad seeds like Sadr as warranted.

At any rate, I'm no longer confident that we have the stomach to just play bad cop when needed and not get bogged down in good cop responsibilities.

Dewaine July 18, 2007 at 5:53 pm

It seems the political leaders who made the most difference made the worst difference.

I cannot think of many exceptions.

Francois Tremblay July 18, 2007 at 5:57 pm

"That said, the existence of leaders who did make big differences–both for good and ill–demonstrates the validity of the Bush outlook. People like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Churchill, Lincoln, Thatcher, Reagan….

So basically they are all immoral assholes. Well, I guess that proves something, but perhaps not what he meant…

SaulOhio July 18, 2007 at 7:52 pm

I agree that history is mostly driven by the vast number of individuals, and the ideas thay believe. However, the wrong leader, such as Bush (or Kerry, or Clinton) can really screw things up.

M. Hodak July 18, 2007 at 10:11 pm

David Brooks did not invent this "great man" vs. "social forces" debate, and he appears to add nothing to it, except for the idea that Bush has never heard of this debate either, which should be of little surprise to anyone.

I disagree that a leader ignorant of this debate is worth much at all. To what Dewaine said, it's much easier for someone to cash in on what prior generations have built for their own aggrandizement than to incrementally build on what you have to leave the organization better than you found it.

kurt July 18, 2007 at 10:17 pm

I think the problem with David Brook's assessment is that he takes the words of George Bush on face value. History is shaped by the actions of people, but there is no such thing as a "destiny" of a nation. Nations are fictional entities only existing in the minds of people themselves.

Troy Camplin, Ph.D. July 19, 2007 at 2:22 am

We need to differentiate between leaders and rulers. Leaders come out of the masses and lead them through ideas and examples. They may get punished for it, as many tragic heroes do, but eventually the people come around to emulating them. This is how societies move into greater levels of complexity.

Rulers are those who try to make people do what they want. They believe in a top-down world and that they are the only ones competent enough to provide good governance.

History books tend to concentrate more on rulers than leaders (which may explain the tendency of historians to be Leftists), but the truly important people of history have been the leaders.

Mathieu Bédard July 19, 2007 at 4:07 am

This reminds me of Bastiat's The Law

Floccina July 19, 2007 at 11:03 am

Bruce G Charlton wrote:

"But there is another aspect: would we prefer a leader who thought that their actions were important, or a leader who felt that their actions made no real difference?

Which leader would be likely to make the best decisions?"

Warren G. Harding and his normalization campaign and to a lesser extent Bill Clinton come to mind as presidents who seemed to operate as though they thought that their actions were not important and looking at the relative success of the country during their times in the white house, I like that kind of leader.

Tim July 19, 2007 at 4:24 pm

Actually Tolstoy's view of history is not dissimilar to Fernand Braudel's approach. He examined, in minute detail, the everyday lives of the people, and felt that it was this which really shaped economies and nations.

Sam Grove July 19, 2007 at 5:13 pm

Reality creates the people who create the reality. Social reality, that is.

vidyohs July 19, 2007 at 5:35 pm

On the theoretical level Tolstoy wins, but on the practical level Bush wins.

Enculturation drives the people who shape the world at the micro level.

But, he who has the power to shape the enculturation can also shape the way people shape the world at the micro level.

I look at the USA since the onslaught of socialism and its adept use of the propaganda tools of theater, movies, TV, radio, Teacher's Unions, and press and I see the dramatic and priogressive bending of the individual's enculturation to a particular life view and I know it is no accident. Leaders did this to us. That they were socialist leaders is obvious. FDR, HT, LBJ, JC, and BC were not necessarily the prime leaders in that shift in enculturation, but they were definitely aiders and abetters.

John Cartledge July 19, 2007 at 10:31 pm

I find it very odd that it is David Brooks who is pointing this out – is this REALLY the neo-con "national greatness" David Brooks? Maybe he's finally waking up to the fact that society works best from the bottom up.

Mr. Econotarian July 20, 2007 at 10:21 am

On the "Tolstoy history" theme, will Islamic terror end if we kill Osamma Bin Laden? If we kill every single "Al Quaeda" member?

Nope. Which points to the fact that the War on Terror is unwinnable through military action alone.

Ray G July 20, 2007 at 6:09 pm

Lots of extremes, not so much balance.

Of course leadership matters. One single man in the right position can change the tide of the entire world, for good or bad.

And of course, in the long run, life is a bottom up game. But the powerful leaders have a great influence in shaping that bottom.

And of course, Islamic terror will continue after the various leaders have been killed.

But the fact is that efficient military action most certainly can end the war on terror.

As long as Rome was content to fight a half-hearted war on their own soil, Carthage remained a seemingly eternal thorn in their side. But efficient military action taken to their door step meant an end to the Carthage problem. (And no, that doesn't imply the use of non-conventional weapons.)

Sam Grove July 21, 2007 at 1:30 am

Gee, the world is interactive.

SheetWise July 22, 2007 at 4:17 pm

Ray G -

"And of course, in the long run, life is a bottom up game. But the powerful leaders have a great influence in shaping that bottom."

That's the question — do they shape it, or reflect it? Seems to me the answer can be found in how they rose to power.

In either case, their influence will be strongest at the base of the pyramid.

John F July 22, 2007 at 7:58 pm

Reagan's tax cuts mattered. They gave the bottom, the top, and the middle a self-interested reason to earn and save.

The putative European Miracle, when the West made Islam the past, was probably, at root, reluctant leaders trying to compete with other reluctant leaders for the best use of scarce resources.

Russia, because of convinced leadership, had a bad go of it for awhile.

Leadership matters, for better or worse; moreover, a convinced leadership of a whole world government, limiting the opportunity of the bottom folk to vote with their feet, would be the European Miracle in reverse.

Bush's quandary is not a matter of generic leadership, it is clearly leading toward the wrong goals in foreign affairs, yet pretty good in the economic arena.

Here's hoping our democracy is not waiting for some metaphorical Macedonian (female probably) to lead us to greatness.

Steve Roberts July 23, 2007 at 8:31 am

I suggest that it's like gardening. It is easy for an individual to destroy plant growth, but a person cannot do the opposite and make the plants grow, he can only provide favourable conditions (if he can) and leave it to the plants themselves to do the growing bit. Thus a bad leader can damage a nation, but a good leader is limited to allowing it to improve itself.

Jon July 23, 2007 at 1:04 pm

Well said Steve!

I believe is was C. S. Lewis who said that earth is most likely to turn earth into hell while trying to make it heaven. I paraphrase of course.

muirgeo July 24, 2007 at 2:15 am

"So – it should be very reassuring to Americans to hear that GWB believes that his decisions do make a difference."

Posted by: Bruce G Charlton

Most definitely I believe George Bush's decisions make a difference…..however, unlike some I'm not reassured by this fact.

Having now read Hayeks, Road to Serfdom I'm quite certain he would not have heaped praise on Bush as a promoter of his views.

shawn July 24, 2007 at 10:58 am

jon…I'd be interested in that Lewis quote, if you can find it.

Sciolus July 26, 2007 at 4:45 pm

Lao Tzu said that the greatest leader influences the people toward a goal, so that when it's done, the people say, "We did it ourselves."

Of course, the great leaders are also uninterested in making a name or legacy of themselves. And the fact that our commander in chief emphasizes so much on leadership just means he is not one.

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