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Tolstoy on Hayek

Posted By Russ Roberts On July 18, 2007 @ 12:08 pm In Complexity & Emergence | Comments Disabled

David Brooks summarizes [1] ($) 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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