“What are they thinking”, we sometimes cry out in near despair as we look on at the folly of governments and their agents, here and around the world, dismantling and destroying before our eyes the very substance of our social and economic fabric.
The economic fabric is, in most if not all western societies, the patient currently in intensive care. The medical teams are furiously arguing with each other about the treatments being applied to bring the wounded subject back to some level of well-being. The austerity faction has the upper hand but no one is really sure – with the exception of the opposing team – what history’s verdict is going to be on that. We are hoping for the best.
What there is no doubt about in anyone’s mind is what the judgement of history will be on why we got here. Everyone now knows that the folly of greed brought the house down about our ears.
But while we worry and fret over this patient, a deeper and more sinister folly remains rampant and untrammelled in the corridors of the powerful and is tearing apart something which will be much more difficult to restore to health. Every day – and for some decades now – the people entrusted with the care of the common good are putting new measures in place which are one by one destroying the very core elements which sustain our human and social well-being.
Booms and busts have been and will always be, we are told, part of the economic cycle. They come and go and as we muddle through them we learn a little each time – and then promptly seem to forget it again, falling back to some earlier position as in a game of snakes and ladders. But generally our muddling along seems to work out on average like three steps forward and two steps backwards.
With our social fabric the story is frighteningly different. For some reason, probably because the process of collapse is more silent and slow-moving, we are being lead onwards blindly into what a a growing clamour of voices is warning us will be a morass of social dysfunction and disintegration.
How is this happening? Part of the answer may be found in a wise and sobering book by one of the great popular historians of the Twentieth century, Barbara Tuchman. In The March of Folly, she dissects the “wooden-headedness” of the world’s leaders – of every political persuasion, from tyrannical despots to dedicated democrats – in their pursuit of public policy. This is a book which makes sober but certainly not consoling reading and explains something of the riddle we are forced to contemplate in our own day and age.
A phenomenon noticeable throughout history, she writes, 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 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 suggest? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?
Tuchman wrote her book in the early nineteen eighties so she did not have a chance to witness or comment on the economic follies of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. She did not need to. Her case is watertight without them. From the lesson on man’s folly shown to us in the mythological tale of the wooden horse of Troy, through the follies of Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, down through to the follies of any number of empire builders who ended up destroying their own work, to any number in our own day, the embarrassment of the powerful should be assured.
The mystery she puts before us is why can mankind, elsewhere than in government – and in government she includes all agencies engaged in the shaping of public affairs, like trade unions, representative organisations, and others – accomplish such marvels: inventions to harness wind and electricity, raising earth-bound stones into soaring cathedrals, construct the instruments of music, and so much more, and yet make such a mess of government. She quotes John Adams, the second President of the United States who had just witnessed one of the greatest follies of the 18th century – Britain’s blundering loss of her extension into the North American continent. Adams wrote in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, “While all other sciences have advanced, government is at a stand; little better practiced now than three or four thousand years ago.”
Indeed, if we look at the United States today and compare it with the achievement of its founding fathers, we would have to question whether its governance is a “little better” or a good deal worse than in John Adams’ day.
No country or state has a monopoly of the commodity we call folly when it comes to public policy. The Chinese state is forging ahead to economic world-dominance while at the same time it is cutting its own throat with a one-child policy which will cripple it in the not too distant future as pampered spoiled brats grow into selfish adult males who will wreak havoc on a limited female population brought about by the whole-scale culling through sex-selective abortion. India, another state promising itself great achievements in the economic sphere, is silently destroying itself with its unlimited sex-selective abortion on demand.
Meanwhile in Europe the old countries which began their domination of the planet a millennium ago are slowly dying under the weight of their self-indulgence, aided and abetted by governments at every turn. Rampant divorce rates are wrecking families. Marriage is being destroyed in the rush to facilitate homosexual self-indulgence in the name of a concept of equality rooted in an utterly flawed anthropology. Marriage has been further weakened by fiscal arrangements which facilitate cohabitation without commitment. The unintended consequence of this: rampant child abuse – where mothers seek to nurture multiple children begotten serially by nameless fathers.
All of this is fostered in one way or another by governments.
Tuchman qualifies her concept of folly in a way which makes it more than just idiocy but makes it culpable. Idiots can be excused. Culpable fools should not be excused.
To qualify as folly the policy adopted by a government or a representative agency must meet three criteria, she says. Firstly, it must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight. Judging a past era by the standards is a rampant modern practice which generates its own kind of folly. The injury which is perpetrated by the folly must be something recognised and predicted and warned against by contemporaries. Secondly a feasible alternative course of action must have been available. Thirdly, to remove the problem from reasons of personality, a third criterion must be that the policy in question should be that of a group, not an individual ruler, and should persist beyond any one political lifetime.
The follies we fret over and predict above, as the harbingers of social disaster, fulfil all these criteria.
President Obama and his administration are constantly being warned of the legacies they are bequeathing to their society as a consequence of the destruction of the institution of marriage in which they are currently engaged. The same is true of the Dutch, the French, the British and now the Irish. David Cameron – with his government – is proceeding relentlessly with his redefinition of marriage in spite of a petition from well over half a million of his citizens to stop his folly – not to mention the wise and solemn warnings from the leaders of all the main religious denominations.
In relation to another folly, the world’s legislators were well warned by the teachers of the Catholic Church about the consequences, moral and social, which would follow the generation of a contraceptive mentality by the whole-scale ignoring of its teaching on human life and human sexuality in Humanae Vitae and the provision of contraception services to all and sundry. There are plenty of warnings on record to both the Chinese and the Indians about the folly of the abortion and semi-eugenicist practices which their policies are generating.
The governments of the world’s oldest states, and some relatively new ones, are verifying once again the truth placed before us by Barbara Tuchman and John Adams. Tuchman concludes:
If John Adams was right, and government is “little better practiced now than three or four thousand years ago,” we cannot reasonably expect much improvement. We can only muddle on as we have done in those same three or four thousand years, through patches of brilliance and decline, great endeavour and shadow.
That is a worrying thought, for the stakes involved in our current follies seem much more serious than any since the follies she listed which lead to the tragic religious rupture of Europe in the sixteenth century. The injuries which mankind will sustain from our current follies will require much more than some geo-political adjustment or economic tweaking to put them right. The consequences may require much more than a bit of muddling on.