When leaders appear to be promoting a short-sighted, evil, or counter-productive policy, are they in fact simply conducting an experiment, testing an hypothesis (perhaps with you as the test material) they wish to apply to a completely different issue?
It is tempting, for those of little faith, to jump to judgment on our leaders, assuming that they share our values. Perhaps we believe in peace and jump to the conclusion that government policies that so obviously provoke war demonstrate the “stupidity” of leaders. It is undeniably easy to name leaders who give every indication of stupidity, but governments are not run by a single individual; policy is almost always the result of the input of at least half a dozen, and perhaps of many dozen, individuals. Becoming a leader is not easy; a particular one may conceivably be a hapless front-man for some shadowy elite group, but if that is the case, then still policy is flowing from a group (perhaps a financial elite or a military-industrial complex or a group of rich ranchers or the army’s leading generals or a frustrated faction out to change the world). The policy-making group may be composed of folks all of whom harbor some delusion but all are unlikely to be stupid. After all, they had the smarts to get power! More than that, leadership requires or at least is associated with inventiveness. Leaders tend to be activists with all sorts of ideas. These ideas may certainly be short-sighted, inimical to the interests of the country, or even counterproductive for the individual policy-makers themselves. But if you have set yourself the task of figuring out what is going on, jumping to the conclusion that these policy-makers are simply “stupid” is probably the wrong place to start.
Neatly trim your hairy initial thoughts with Occam’s razor. That may not lead to truth, but it will give a logical foundation on which to erect your mental framework. Assume that policy flows from a group with intelligence. If that policy appears short-sighted or counterproductive, consider that the policy-making group may have different goals than you. National security may, for example, be not at all in the interest of a jet-setting group of rich men on the make, nor is national security necessarily in the interest of an international reform movement or a fundamentalist group intent on overthrowing the international political system.
But to observe that leaders are probably not, in comparison with the average person, “stupid,” is certainly not to claim that they are, in comparison with thoughtful and well educated students of human behavior, “intelligent.” Perhaps the assumption that they are inventive is the best starting point. Leaders are people who go to considerable effort to acquire power and, along the way if not from the start, can generally be assumed to have wild imaginations about what they would do with that power. Do they have vision? Not necessarily. But the probably do enjoy experimenting…more than you might have imagined.
Before exploring the question of whether or not leaders play with their power like a mad scientist building Frankenstein just to see what Frankenstein’s first words might be rather than because of any particular objective that he might want Frankenstein to achieve, a couple comments on the marvelous ability of leaders to drop rocks on their own feet may be in order. The question of whether a given policy is an example of “dropping rocks on one’s own feet” or in fact for some ulterior motive known only to the leader is central to understanding human politics. Here, an example will suffice.
In a concise little study of U.S.-Latin American relations, Amira Armenta focuses on the counter-productive nature of U.S. policy, which presumably has been designed to achieve control over Latin regimes for the benefit of, say, U.S. corporations or some concept of U.S. national security, but which repeatedly provokes utterly unnecessary waves of anti-Americanism that end up costing the U.S. money and decision-maker time that could better have been applied to real global challenges.
La misma myopia que ha caracterizado la politica de seguridad de EEUU para el continente se puede percibir tambien en su politica economica. Cuando Washington predica su modelo de mercados abiertos y de libre comercio como receta magica para la prosperidad ecomomica, en realidead esta impulsando la penetracion de EEUU en los mercados latinoamericanos mientras mantiene al mismo tiempo una linea protectora y de subsidios para supropia industria agricola. Los impactos de esta judaga no tardan en revelarse: pobreza que genera malestar social, incremento de la delincuencia, migracion. Despues se preguntan, de donde surgen el chavismo, el indigenismo, el zapatismo y todos esto movimientos socials y politicos que acusan de populistas, radicals, izquierdistas, etc. [En el patio de atras 58.]
Heavy-handed economic exploitation provokes anti-American rebellion. Support for the rapidly spreading cancer of soy monoculture in Paraguay at the expense of the livelihood of the people may indeed be provoking yet another anti-American movement at the present moment. One may fairly ask if an elite can ever learn.
Policies can surely be counter-productive, but that judgment is derived from a long-term perspective. Over the long term, someone else will be in office. It is worth considering the evidence that leaders frequently are folks really just don’t think about the long term; rather, they like to tinker…with our fates.
One example is Gaza, which for years has been treated by leaders on all sides as a laboratory to experiment with hypotheses about running a global war against activist Islam or about making oneself a great Muslim champion.
Another example [“Men as Test Mice” on Historical and Literary Lessons] is suggested by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag archipelago, wherein he describes the development of the Stalinist policy of imprisoning everyone with a mind of his own:
Юридической же формы, как и у раскулачивания, у не?
не было. Уголовный кодекс был сам по себе, а ссылка сотен тысяч человек --
сама по себе. Это было личное распоряжение монарха. Кроме того, это был его
первый национальный эксперимент подобного рода, это было ему интересно
…the German exile had no juridical basis. The Criminal Code [which dealt with all manner of individual infraction: WM] in itself was one thing, and the exile of hundreds of thousands of people was something else entirely. It was the personal edict of a monarch. In addition, this was his first experiment of the sort with an entire nationality, and he found it interesting from a theoretical point of view.
The thesis of Greg Grandin that Latin America “has long served as a workshop of empire, the place where the United States elaborated ,tactics of extraterritorial administration and acquired its conception of itself as an empire like no other before it” [Empire’s Workshop (N.Y.: Holt Paperbacks, 2006, 2)] is yet another suggestive perspective, and is filled with examples of lessons learned in Latin America that were later applied in the Mideast, though it is of course difficult to find evidence to demonstrate the degree to which practitioners in Latin America may have had non-Latin countries in mind at that time as ultimate targets.
Perhaps seemingly vicious, short-sighted, or self-defeating policies really are not about the particular subject population. Perhaps the policy-maker’s perspective is no more about “victory” than is a scientist’s daily experiment. Sure, the scientist will be happy to get the desired outcome, but failure to concoct a particular chemical in a test tube is also educational. Indeed, it is the only road to ultimate discovery. Did Stalin really care about a few tens of thousands of German residents or were the vast millions of subject Central Asian Muslims in his mind? Did Washington really see tiny Nicaragua as a threat or were the contras really a test of a broader Cold War-rollback hypothesis?
To what degree can vicious, short-sighted, or self-defeating policies most accurately instead be understood as experiments to validate hypotheses designed for application elsewhere?