A Review of Barbara Tuchman’s “The March of Folly”

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

The title of this post is a bit of a misnomer, because I’m not going to go through the Tuchman’s work in any great detail. That’s because I think that Tuchman’s central conceits — folly being “against self-interest” and “timeless and universal” — are misconceived and ahistorical. Which is really too bad, because I like Tuchman very much; her Guns of August (though superseded by subsequent scholarship, including The Sleepwalkers) sparked my lifelong enthusiasm — not a passion, or even a hobby, but an enthusiasm — for military history. That’s one thing a good popularizer should do, and I’m sure many readers have had similar experiences. (The Proud Tower put me onto Der Rosenkavalier, at least after I was old enough to understand it, at some point in my thirties.)

The title The March of Folly — “folly” from Old French folie “folly, madness, stupidity” (12c.), itself from fol “fool” — must strike a chord with readers who have adopted the phrase “this is the stupidest timeline.” That is why the idea of reviewing it appealed to me, at least. In March, Tuchman provides several cases studies of events along our stupid timeline. Tuchman summarizes the follies of “the bad Popes” at the end of Chapter Three, “The Renaissance Popes Provoke the Protestant Secession: 1470–1530.” I’m quoting a great slab of it because it can stand as a proxy for Tuchman’s method:[1]

The folly of the popes was not pursuit of counter-productive policy so much as rejection of any steady or coherent policy either political or religious that would have improved their situation or arrested the rising discontent. Disregard of the movements and sentiments developing around them was a primary folly. They were deaf to disaffection, blind to the alternative ideas it gave rise to, blandly impervious to challenge, unconcerned by the dismay at their misconduct and the rising wrath at their misgovernment, fixed in refusal to change, almost stupidly stubborn in maintaining a corrupt existing system. They could not change it because they were part of it, grew out of it, depended on it.

Their grotesque extravagance and fixation on personal gain was a second and equal governing factor. Once, when reproved for putting the temporal power of the Papacy before the welfare of the True Church which consists of the peace of Christendom, Clement VII had replied that if he had so acted he would have been plundered to his last farthing, unable to recover anything of my own. This may stand as the excuse of all six. None had the wit to see that the head Church had a greater task than the pursuit of his own. When private interest is placed before public interests, and private ambition, greed and the bewitchment of exercising power determine policy, the public interest necessarily loses, never more conspicuously than under the continuing madness from Sixtus to Clement. The succession from Pope to Pope multiplied the harm. Each of the six handed on his conception of the Papacy unchanged. To each — with some larger view in the case of Julius — the vehicle of Church government, Saint Peter’s See, was the supreme pork barrel. Through sixty years this conception suffered no penetration by doubt, no enlightenment. The values of the time brought it to extremes, but personal self-interest belongs to every time and becomes folly when it dominates government.

Illusion of permanence, of the inviolability of their power and status, was a third folly. The incumbents assumed that the Papacy was forever; that challenges could always be suppressed as they had been for centuries by Inquisition, excommunication and the stake; that the only real danger was the threat of superior authority in the form of a Council, which needed only to be fended off or controlled to leave them secure. No understanding of the protest, no recognition of their own unpopularity or vulnerability, disturbed the six minds. Their view of the interests of the institution they were appointed to govern was so short-sighted as to amount almost to perversity. They possessed no sense of spiritual mission, provided no meaningful religious guidance, performed no moral service for the Christian world.

Rhymes, eh? I’m sure “the bad popes,” too, felt that “There Is No Alternative.” But when Tuchman says “folly,” what does she mean? The chapter “Folly or Policy Contrary to Self-Interest” as form of misgovernment:

This book is concerned with [folly or perversity] in a specific manifestation; that is, the pursuit of policy contrary to the self-interest of the constituency or state involved. Self-interest is whatever conduces to the welfare or advantage of the body being governed; folly is a policy that in these terms is counter-productive.

To qualify as folly for this inquiry, the policy adopted must meet three criteria: [1] it must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight. This is important, because all policy is determined by the mores of its age. “Nothing is more unfair,” as an English historian has well said, “than to judge men of the past by the ideas of the present. Whatever may be said of morality, political wisdom is certainly ambulatory.” To avoid judging by present-day values, we must take the opinion of the time and investigate only those episodes whose injury to self-interest was recognized by contemporaries. Secondly [2] a feasible alternative course of action must have been available. To remove the problem from personality, a third criterion must be that [3] the policy in question should be that of a group, not an individual ruler, and should persist beyond any one political lifetime. Misgovernment by a single sovereign or tyrant is too frequent and too individual to be worth a generalized inquiry.

It’s fun to throw our ruling class’s Covid p[olicy into Tuchman’s “folly” framework: ☑ Perceived as counter-productive in its own time; ☑ feasible alternative course of action must have been available; ☑ the policy in question should be that of a group. But I have doubts.

First, let’s look at Tuchman’s eccentric definition of “self-interest.” She writes: “[Folly is] the pursuit of policy contrary to the self-interest of the constituency or state involved.” But this is a ginormous category error; constituencies and states don’t have selves[2].

Second, on “interest.” Writing of the follies of the Popes, Tuchman distinguishes between public and private interest. (Interestingly, Tuchman seems to throw away her definition of “self-interest” only to replace it with “public interest.” Does the public have a self?) She writes:

When private interest is placed before public interests, and private ambition, greed and the bewitchment of exercising power determine policy, the public interest necessarily loses, never more conspicuously than under the continuing madness from Sixtus to Clement.

Necessarily and in all times and places? I’m not so sure. Quoting George Washington Plunkitt of Tammany Hall on “honest graft”:

There’s an honest graft, and I’m an example of how it works. I might sum up the whole thing by sayin‘: “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.”

Just let me explain by examples. My party’s in power in the city[3], and it’s goin’ to undertake a lot of public improvements. Well, I’m tipped off, say, that they’re going to lay out a new park at a certain place.

I see my opportunity and I take it. I go to that place and I buy up all the land I can in the neighborhood. Then the board of this or that makes its plan public, and there is a rush to get my land, which nobody cared particular for before.

Ain’t it perfectly honest to charge a good price and make a profit on my investment and foresight? Of course, it is. Well, that’s honest graft. Or supposin‘ it’s a new bridge they’re goin’ to build. I get tipped off and I buy as much property as I can that has to be taken for approaches. I sell at my own price later on and drop some more money in the bank.

Wouldn’t you? It’s just like lookin‘ ahead in Wall Street or in the coffee or cotton market. It’s honest graft, and I’m lookin’ for it every day in the year. I will tell you frankly that I’ve got a good lot of it, too.

Now, I’m all for clean government, and clean Popes, too. Who isn’t? But I’m not a child of six. If Plunkett’s “public improvements” are functional, and there is no alternative than to let him make a profit, is that so very bad? Now, the Progressives of that time (“goo goos“) hated Tammany Hall, and would have argued it met all three of Tuchman’s criteria: (1) counter-productive, (2) not the only alternative, and (3) the outcome of a group process. But the, er, constituencies that Tammany Halll served might not have agreed.[4]

Third, once more on “interest”: I’m not certain Tuchman’s framework is supple enough. Quoting the famous passage from Madison’s Federalist 51[5], which I have probably quoted way too often:

[T]he great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department [whether executive, legislative, or judicial], consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others[5]. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government…. This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.

I realize that it would be a little much to ask that a “bad Pope” adhere to Republican principles. However, I think that Tuchman’s framework might have included consideration of the constradiction between “interest” and “place” (i.e., office). With the right set of constraints, a person motivated, even solely, by private interest might end up serving the public interest as well. The question then becomes not “interest” as such, but the context in which interest can determine the exercise of power (and where it cannot).

Finally, and this is perhaps unfair to a work of history, I think Tuchman’s framework is ahistorical. Tuchman writes:

Folly’s appearance is independent of era or locality; it is timeless and universal, although the habits and beliefs of a particular time and place determine the form it takes. It is unrelated to type of regime: monarchy, oligarchy and democracy produce it equally.

I don’t believe anything is “timeless and universal”; we learn today in Links that “far from being passive vessels at the mercy of their circumstances, organisms can influence evolution directly.” This is a study of salamanders; surely it is true for humans as well? Nor do I believe that all “regimes” produce folly equally; for example, in my post yesterday on Covid struggles in Newton, MA, we see a splendid example of “non-folly” from the government of Newton, and a spectacular example of Federal folly as well. At a larger level, most of NC readers of a certain age have seen government get increasingly crapified in our lifetime, as the regime changed from the last vestiges of the New Deal to neoliberalism. These changes are most definitely related to a change in the type of “regime.”

Tuchman wriies in the final paragraph of her epilogue, “A Lantern on the Stern”:

The problem may be not so much a matter of educating officials for government as educating the electorate to recognize and reward integrity of character and to reject the ersatz. Perhaps better men flourish in better times, and wiser government requires the nourishment of a dynamic rather than a troubled and bewildered society. 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 endeavor and shadow.

To me, this comes dangerously close to a “Great Man” (or person) theory of history. (Third World countries often have an electoral politics of electing “good people.” ) The problem may be not so much “integrity of character” — see Joseph Kennedy, SEC head — but a mismarch between “the interests of the man” and “the rights of the place.” It would be interesting to know how such mismatches take place, but Tuchman’s framework does not allow it. I think it’s also a little hard to argue that government “is ‘little better practiced now than three or four thousand years ago” when we consider that much of Roman jurisprudence was concerned with maintaining slavery, a practice now gladly abandoned. Adams, a child of his time, might not have considered this.

* * *

The trope that “This is the stupidest timeline” is a popularizion of the “many worlds” hypothesis:

Originated by US physicist Hugh Everett in the late 1950s, [the many-worlds theory] envisions our Universe as just one of numerous parallel worlds that branch off from each other, nanosecond by nanosecond, without intersecting or communicating[6]. (The many-worlds theory differs from the concept of the multiverse, which pictures many self-contained universes in different regions of space-time.)

The point is to nudge or shove the world from from one timeline to another. Another world is possible, as we say. Of course, if you believe that folly is “timeless” (and universal) that cannot be done, by definition. But I don’t believe that. Please forgive this foray into political science!


[1] This is unfair to Tuchman’s book, because she has a terrific eye for the telling detail. Pope Sixtus “gave the archiepiscopal see of Lisbon to a child of eight and the see of Milan to a boy of eleven, both sons of princes.” The Six Bad Popes really deserve a TV series, following after the Game of Thrones.

[2] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Human beings are conscious not only of the world around them but also of themselves: their activities, their bodies, and their mental lives. They are, that is, self-conscious (or, equivalently, self-aware). States and constituencies are not.

[3] The role of party discipline in Plunkett’s world is a topic for another time.

[4] “The Case For Tammany Hall Being On The Right Side Of History“: “Historian Terry Golway has written a colorful history of Tammany Hall, which takes a more sympathetic view of the organization than many historians. He says the Tammany machine, while often corrupt, gave impoverished immigrants critically needed social services and a road to assimilation. According to Golway, Tammany was responsible for progressive state legislation that foreshadowed the New Deal. He writes that some of Tammany’s harshest critics, including cartoonist Thomas Nast, openly exhibited a raw anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice. Golway tells Fresh Air’s Dave Davies, “I’m arguing, yes, the benefits that Tammany Hall brought to New York and to the United States [do] outweigh the corruption with which it is associated.

[5] Not a path taken by the Bolsheviks, sad to say.

[6] William Gibson’s Jackpot Trilogy has the violation of this constraint as its premise.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Carolinian

    I don’t believe anything is “timeless and universal”

    Aren’t you really picking nits here? She was a historian, not a scientist, and doesn’t need to be peer reviewed other than getting the facts wrong. We then bring our own facts and experience to what is a discussion. Personally I agree with her that there is such a thing as “human nature” and that recognizing that is step one to ending all the “folly.” We can change the “nurture”–the “nature” not so much.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > She was a historian, not a scientist, and doesn’t need to be peer reviewed other than getting the facts wrong.

      I can’t possibly “peer review” Tuchman’s work, since I am not her peer. But you seem to be arguing that a reasonably well-informed layperson can’t critique a work of history. That seems odd to me. A cat may look at a Queen, after all. Also, I don’t quarrel with the facts Tuchman presents. I quarrel with her framework.

      1. fjallstrom

        The discussing of the framework – what moves history? – is what historians loves to do.

        As my advisor when we wrote second term paper in history explained the task: “Collect the data, read other historians in your chosen field of study, and then write how you see the forces of history shaping what is happening. And push it a bit further than you think the data warrants, so we can get interesting seminar discussions”.

        The main advantage historians have is a larger knowledge of data and previous historians works. Which means they are – or should be – better at spotting the gaps and weaknesses in both others and their own stories. So for non-historians to point at weaknesses is fair game, much like how it is fair game to beat a professional athlete at their sport (if you can).

      2. JohnnyGL

        This reminds me of your post awhile back about covid transmission in NYC restaurants that referenced the idea that some French intellectuals might be more inclined to employ a ‘theory-checker’ instead of a ‘fact-checker’.

        No fact-check of Tuchman’s work can fix a misunderstanding of what happened. Perhaps she needs a ‘theory-checker’?

    2. CanCyn

      Most academic articles are peer reviewed, regardless of discipline. And books like this one are edited which would be considered a form or review. Neither of which should stop any reader from reading critically. We should all be willing to critique what we read, the world would be a better place if more people took Lambert’s questioning approach.

  2. LadyXoc

    “It’s fun to throw our ruling class’s Covid p[olicy into Tuchman’s “folly” framework”
    It’s also fun to throw our ruling class’s Ukraine policy into Tuchman’s “folly” framework

    1. JohnnyGL

      Both of those situations certainly involve plenty of corruption.

      But does the explanation of ‘corruption’ 1) hold up as a primary reason for the debacle? and 2) get us any closer to understanding what could have been done differently?

  3. Karl

    Thanks, Lambert. I, too, have long admired Tuchman’s writings, have thought highly of “March of Folly”, and have often considered its relevance to present circumstances.

    While you may be right that Tuchman’s claim about the universality of Folly (as she defines it) may be too pessimistic, she does make a compelling case that Folly has had numerous exemplars in history.

    I suspect if she had lived much longer (she died 1989) she’d see folly in NATO expansion, threats to China over Taiwan (actually a folly in progress), the 2nd Iraq War, and others. Her chapter on Vietnam, in my view provides a template for potential new chapters in this book on these later near-identical U.S. follies, rooted in hubris. There are abundant examples of all three of Tuchman’s criteria having been met in each case.

    Maybe the repeal of Glass-Steagall, Brexit and the creation of the Eurozone will turn out to have been follies in the economic realm. I believe the three criteria apply to these as well.

  4. Bruno

    ” we learn today in Links that ‘far from being passive vessels at the mercy of their circumstances, organisms can influence evolution directly.’ ”
    Brava Martha Munoz–with four kids, and a few salamanders you have decisively shown the *epigenetic* nature of organic evolution–and without even mentioning the name Lamarck! Bravi all!!!

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > the *epigenetic* nature of organic evolution

      Not only epigenetic, but yes. Same thing for spatial sorting, near freeways, for example.

      I remember reading a study, which I have never been able to find again, that the 18th Century English bourgeoisie found being the traits that enabled them to be “good with money” adaptive, and so evolved in that direction. Adaptation need not take place over geological time scales….

  5. Maxwell Johnston

    I read “A Distant Mirror” as a precocious teen and especially liked the part about The Black Death, probably it appealed to my teenage angst but it was extremely well-researched and written. Then I read Guns of August shortly thereafter and enjoyed it too, though I agree that The Sleepwalkers is far superior (in Tuchman’s defense, a lot of historical material has come into public view since her death). She was a fine historian and a gifted writer and, I think, intellectually honest. Nowadays…. sigh.

  6. Watt4Bob

    The USA had decided that they’d had enough of ‘rulers‘, and so tried to set up a new system built on democratically elected’leaders‘, and thus leadership.

    This worked. sort of, until such time as the very rich and powerful through one way or another bought control of those elected leaders, so now we’re left without ‘leadership‘, and back to enduring the problems associated with ‘rulers‘.

    Sad part is the fact that so many of us believe we can change things by electing different bought-off ‘leaders‘, while ignoring the fact that everyone on the ballot is wholly owned and obliged to serve the interests of a ‘ruler‘ of one sort or another, and so, will never do anything to actually improve the lives of voters unless their ‘owners‘ allow it.

    Do we have the worst rulers ever?

    Maybe that’s why they’re always talking about Hitler, they’re trying to convince us that it could be worse.

    1. LifelongLib

      “Leaders” seems like another name for rulers. Public agents? People who’ve been temporarily delegated limited authority to deal with issues that are too large for citizens to deal with on their own, but who are ultimately subordinate to the people as a whole? “Leader” doesn’t catch that…

    2. Mikel

      “Maybe that’s why they’re always talking about Hitler, they’re trying to convince us that it could be worse.”

      Usually talked about in broad strokes that ignore the fact that Hitler was a creation and product of the elite.
      He was their “useful idiot” gone rogue.
      The minute that regime refused to pay back the loans, it was done for.

  7. KD

    Human beings are conscious not only of the world around them but also of themselves: their activities, their bodies, and their mental lives. They are, that is, self-conscious (or, equivalently, self-aware). States and constituencies are not.

    Human beings can be conscious of not only themselves, but of themselves as a member of something greater than themselves. Certainly, leaders can be self-conscious as their role as the leader of a State or a constituency.

    Your analysis gets pretty close to Thatcher’s “There is no such thing as society”. State’s have interests, institutions have interests, organizations have interests. What would be the point of lobbyists otherwise? If there is no society, why do people put on those fancy clothes before they go out?

    Going back to the Greeks, the great dilemma of the polis was the conflict between the public good and the private, and the temptations of nepotism. This is carried down in the Christian monastic idealism, in the notion that one who is celibate and renounces ties to family has the capability of universal love of all, having severed ties of the flesh. It exposes a fundamental moral ambiguity and contradictions within the ancients. Yes, sometimes nepotism can work out in a good monarchy, sometimes private interest and collective interest coincide, but sometimes they don’t, and that can bite a leadership class where it hurts.

  8. upstater

    Tuchman dedicated an entire chapter about the folly of US involvement in Vietnam. It was scathing. And so relevant to the GWOT and Ukraine.

    The grotesque excesses of the elites in the current day really do harken back to some of the darkest times in history.

    I’ll have to reread The March of Folly, as I dis The Guns of August for the n-th time last year. Thanks Lambert!

  9. Detroit Dan

    Never been a fan of Tuchman — couldn’t get through “The Guns of August”. It seemed like a bunch of flowerly prose but not much substance. Yes, mistakes were made and are made frequently throughout history. But correct decisions are also made everywhere all the time. The point is to get the info we need to make the right decisions!

  10. Starry Gordon

    Collective entities can have or be selves in that they can be the agents and objects of reflexive actions. Group mind is not required by the grammar.

    1. Cat Burglar

      It can be useful to think of a group or institution as a self, but a clear distinction has to be made between the individual self versus collective entities as selves.

      In the case of Tuchman’s six bad popes — were all six physically blind? Or were they metaphorically “politically blind?” I agree that calling them blind makes a better read, and she clearly meant the latter.

      But there is the problem: she is taking a physical attribute of some individuals, and attaching it to group or institutional selves that can have no such attribute. I remember anarchist writer Bob Black’s point that a free market couldn’t meaningfully be understood as free, because markets as social dynamics have no volition, as an individual human subject does. Tuchman was trying to make a point about Papal and Vatican inattention, or maybe lack of monitoring, to the developing opposition to Vatican policy that was worth making — but personalizing and psychologizing what should have been an institutional analysis of Papal policy and action leaves the reader thinking they knew what happened, but not really explaining it.

      Remember the last time (like the Atlantic Council experts in today’s links) you read about the Ukraine war, and some military operation or strategy was attributed to “Putin”? Same problem.

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      > Collective entities can have or be selves in that they can be the agents and objects of reflexive actions.

      If we are going to multiply entities in that way, then we need an account of their agency and how reflection takes place. It sure looks like there’s a agent here:

      But there’s no agent there at all, is there? Just a collection of books.

      We need a mechanism, as would be said of a theory of viral transmission. I think if this were true, changing history would be a lot easier than it in fact is.

      1. KD

        If we start from Aristotle, the soul is the form of the body, or the organizational and unifying principle in the body. Likewise, in an institution, you have decision makers, you have the people that carry those decisions out, the organs, and the institution acts on others outside the organization.

        Now, if you look at the modern reductionist philosophy, there really is no body, its just an aggregation of cells. Agency is an illusion, and there is no free will, everything runs like a railroad on rails.

        On the other hand, you have people who adopt the folk psychology view of people (the manifest image) but reject ascribing agency to institutions. The point is that in ancient philosophy, you had i.) material cause, ii.) efficient cause, iii.) formal cause, iv.) final cause. in modern philosophy, there is a blanket rejection of formal and final causes, no teleology (just an illusion of teleology), and so there can be no account of agency, which is all about intentions and teleology.

        But what is agency–there is a form that actualizes itself in time. An acorn becomes a tree, a girl becomes a woman, a student becomes a master. Likewise, an institution can be deformed. A body can become diseased. The ordering principle becomes itself disordered, institutional autoimmune disease.

      2. Grayce

        This brings to mind the US court ruling (First Amendment rights) that corporations are persons. They act in business, sign contracts, pay taxes etc. But, when they go against the law, the penalties are blatantly uneven compared to “natural persons.” No one goes to jail. When a corporations errs, the SEC can fine them. The IRS can censure them. But there is no “designated felon” so they really cannot be deemed as full persons under the law. They are actually above the law. What if their charter could be suspended for the time of sentencing? Or, would an economist decide they are too big to fail.
        The failure to see that non-individual persons are different, and can be held from some natural rights, is missing in our courts.

  11. HH

    Times have changed. Folly in government today can get most of us killed, including the leadership fools. Hypersonic missiles can reach coastal cities in just a few minutes when launched from offshore. I think this is the only thing preventing a global nuclear war. The fools are no longer safe in their palaces.

  12. laughingsong

    “The point is to nudge or shove the world from from one timeline to another. Another world is possible, as we say. Of course, if you believe that folly is “timeless” (and universal) that cannot be done, by definition.”

    Can’t say I agree, LS . . . at least, when I think of the terms “timeless” and “universal”, I am taking that to mean “always with us and always will be” and I think that’s true of human folly. Maybe a particular manifestation of folly is not forever, sure, but the existence of folly will be with us as long as we humans exist.

  13. Darthbobber

    I think the weakness of her approach is that she stops at “folly” as an explanation. But in none of the cases does throwing that word at it actually do anything to explain the decision making. It’s similar to just shaking your head and saying “Guess they’re just crazy.”

    1. ChrisRUEcon


      Thanks for you comment, and thanks Lambert, for the write-up.

      > I think the weakness of her approach is that she stops at “folly” as an explanation

      With apologies, firstly, for not having read the books referenced, this statement resonates with me a casual reader of what was written by Lambert. To further explain, I concur with your “stops at folly” comment, as Tuchman’s work seems to place “folly” as the cause and not the effect. Folly then, not as pursuit or rejection, but as the consequence of acts borne out of more basic ills – greed, hubris, narcissism – to name a few.

      This sentence:

      The problem may be not so much a matter of educating officials for government as educating the electorate to recognize and reward integrity of character and to reject the ersatz.

      [Emphasis mine]

      Hoo-boy … made me cringe from #Election2016 memories. You could basically cut and paste that sentence into any highbrow article (looking at you, New Yorker) about why voters were foolish to reject Hillary Clinton and it would be like a major chord in key. It comes across as very “adults in the room who know better” … ish.

      We find ourselves in the worst timeline because we are led by the worst, and we’ve allowed them to lead. That’s a cursory TL;DR of sorts … and probably an oversimplification. But at a basic level, the only way to start to arrest the march of folly is to bend our instance of the many worlds towards a saner one by de-fanging, de-clawing and debilitating the monsters at the head of the parade.

  14. Cat Burglar

    Friends knew my grandmother could sing beautifully in Irish, and at a Tammany club night she was asked to sing for the crowd. It was the first time my grandfather saw her.

  15. LifelongLib

    I just want to thank Lambert for the Tammany Hall book recommendation. I’ve long had a sense that they got a bit of a bum rap — Boss Tweed was more worried about his constituents than most current politicians seem to be. Looking forward to the read.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > the Tammany Hall

      History is written by the winners, and the “goo goos” won. (Look into their membership here. The City Club of New York played a prominent role.) Just remember: They’re no angels!

      NOTE I can well imagine that Tammany Hall got out of balance. I haven’t read the history, so I can’t say that the goo goos (soon to become “Progressives”) replaced the functions that Tammany Hall performed successfully (“in the public interest”) with new institutions, but I’m guessing no.

  16. Mikel

    Tuchman is hinting at something universal that can be seen with the focus on Popes.
    How do establishments get away with the folly for so long without protest or before enough have had their fill?
    Usually those that hold power or hold sway over power have hypnotized masses or just significant groups with some kind of promise of immortality (whether it’s dreams of immortality for the physical body, the spirit, belief or economic system) – from Popes to techno babbling transhumanists.

    1. WJ

      Most thinking Catholics from the twelfth century onward had discerned that following the Papacy’s defeat of the Emperor in the Investiture Controversy the office had become increasingly worldly, venal, and avaricious. There are literally hundreds of tracts written against the corruption of the papacy across the whole medieval period and a very good poem devoted to the topic as well (Dante’s Commedia). What changed eventually was not the Papacy but the political power arrangements of Europe, which gradually gave birth to nations and jurisdictions powerful enough to counter the Papacy’s own estimable administrative state.

  17. dingusansich

    Odd to read this because over the past week I dipped into March of Folly. Similar quibble (with apologies in advance for ignorant mischaracterization from skimming). What’s immediately problematic about a concept like self-interest is a muddling of who this “self” is we’re talking about. It’s akin to feeling taken aback at the use of “we” to describe a collective you you never agreed to or joined. It follows that something obviously ruinous from one vantage, that of a conjectural self or we, can be exquisitely profitable from another. Without taking that into account, you’ve got less a theory of paradoxical action than unproductive tut-tutting about presumptively collective projects better understood as conflicting agendas by competing institutions and individuals within some only putatively unified entity like a state. The one damn thing after another of history has often been a forced march of terrible suffering—or folly, if you prefer—for the many. However the few not infrequently simultaneously make out like bandits. So from a bandit POV, is that folly? As an explanatory framework for mortal error (which you do get in The Federalist Papers, in spades), MoF doesn’t have much to offer beyond “they shoulda know’d better.” But it’s still a fascinating historical anthology.

    1. JBird4049

      >>>However the few not infrequently simultaneously make out like bandits.

      Well, yes, but addicts often think so as well with that latest hit of whatever at first. Often this is the only “good” result. When that is the only positive, after a fashion, result, which will destroy everything else including things like whatever is the organization, or life, or income. They could be said to. Then there is the reality that we are members of a human society unless you are totally self sufficient hermit. What I do affect others and what they do affect me. They have consequences for someone, and personally doing well from it, like stealing grandmother’s welfare check is not considered a good thing by most. Then there is that pesky cop who just might haul you to jail.

      We expect the family to take care of the children at least. To not kick the dog and pay your taxes. But we see the ever growing madness in our elites where it is all about money or perception management whatever the costs. If burning the world down to either win Monopoly or to merely look good is okay, just how is that not madness? I have seen questioners get shut down by people like Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell, who essentially say that they know better. I can see Larry Summers and his idiotic tweets. The world is at least smoking in places, perhaps with small fires, and yet for their power, money, and position, they refuse to see. Much like the leadership of the Catholic Church pre Reformation.

      With the Catholic Church, complaints and efforts of reform had been ongoing for several centuries. Most people had some idea of the problems for the same period, but the then elites ignored this. Most people did not want to damage the church, but protests tended to be harshly repressed. Or just ignored as well.

      With the six popes, people around them told them that they were not doing the job of running the church and that this could not continue to on indefinitely. The popes ignored this because they either would not, or could not, accept that the power of the church was insufficient to crush all dissent forever. This despite that the number of people writing, speaking, protesting against the truly massive corruption of the church; this destroyed the very support for, or faith in, the church that kept it going.

      The start of the Reformation, which permanently split the Catholic Church, could be said to be Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses in 1517, which partly due to the efforts of Johann Tetzel to sell indulgences to fund some project in Rome. Commit a horrible sin? Got money? Here is your get of jail indulgence from the Catholic Church! No penance needed. Near the end of the last of the six popes in 1527, Rome was sacked as it had lost the protection that comes from being sacrosanct. Each of the six popes had chances to start reforms that would have stopped the sack at least. Had the popes not decided to sell salvation for some ready cash, that too might have prevented the Reformation. But they were The Pope. Each man wanted it All. More wealth, more great art, fantastic buildings, more sex, more luxury, more, more, more. And it cost, not them personally, just the rest of the church dearly.

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      > What’s immediately problematic about a concept like self-interest is a muddling of who this “self” is we’re talking about.

      Ding ding ding!

      > As an explanatory framework for mortal error (which you do get in The Federalist Papers, in spades), MoF doesn’t have much to offer beyond “they shoulda know’d better.” But it’s still a fascinating historical anthology.

      Yes, and yes. The exposition in the Popes section is astonishing. What a cavalcade of the depravity! Ditto the descriptions of how a gaggle (often drunk and inattentive) of nobly titled rentiers ran the British government during the American Revolution. Terrific stuff! But the framework…. OTOH, the cavalcades, section by section, come to seem pretty much the same. So the book seems too long, to me. I got the “Why am I reading this?” sensation more than a few times, but kept pushing on, because among other things Tuchman is quite a stylist.

  18. Tony Wikrent

    Does the public have a self? Answering is a semantic rabbit hole. Better to ask: does the public have an interest? As in, What is the public interest? Well, “what is the General Welfare?” is much the same question, isn’t it?

    Considering the question explicitly, Alexander Hamilton wrote that the General Welfare is whatever Congress says it is. I think that also answers the question of what is the public interest? It’s whatever Congress — or state legislature, or county commission or city council — says it is.

    That’s why a republic is not a democracy, but is always democratic in form. The public — the voters — get to decide periodically if their Congressperson or state rep or local elected official should be replaced. The criteria to be applied by the voters is whether the elected officials are defining — and executing policy — that promotes the General Welfare and the public interest in a way that the majority of voters agree with.

    If not, the bums are theoretically voted out. Democracy at work!

    But, a republic is designed in such a way that this democratic process is subjected to checks and balances, and the rule of law. For too long a period in this republic, the racial superiority of white men was the majority will. But oppressed minorities were able to organize around the unmet ideals of the republic, and at a couple of points in history, the majority was willing to back even a Civil War to impose the majority’s will to bend the republic back towards its ideals.

    The (anti)Republican Party today is a danger to the republic exactly because it’s members and leaders have decided to reject the whole democratic process of considering, identifying, and legislating the public interest and the General Welfare, and instead appealing to some of the most base and demeaning instincts of its base to bend the political process away from republicanism, and to demagoguery, tribalism, and selfishness.

    What about the Democratic Party? The problem there is thorough ignorance of the need for public virtue (putting self-interest in subjection to the public interest), and an embrace of the British economic doctrines of free trade and laissez faire (aka neoliberalism). That embrace places “natural” processes of the market in a superior position to the political process. In short, it elevates selfishness to the principal mechanism of making economic, and political, decisions. Small r republicanism, by contrast, demands that selfishness be subordinated to a principled inquiry into what the public interest and General Welfare is.

    I do not have any confidence that we can find our way back to small r republicanism. For his efforts to explain the republican form of government, and his frank assessment that the republic MUST be led by an “elite” of the most public spirited citizens, Hamilton is reviled to this day as an elitist. Of course, by people who have yet to take the time to think through the differences between a democracy and a republic, and exactly what philosophies of government and economics — or what principles of political economy — must be inculcated in citizens to enable a republic to succeed.

    On the other hand. I am encouraged that books are beginning to appear such as The Crisis of the Middle Class Constitution, by Ganesh Sitaraman, or The Anti-Oligarcy Constitution, by Fishkin and Forbath.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > Does the public have a self? Answering is a semantic rabbit hole.

      The answer is a clear “No,” not a rabbit hole. In any case, if it is a semantic rabbit hole, then Tuchman should not have introduced it.

      > Small r republicanism, by contrast, demands that selfishness be subordinated to a principled inquiry into what the public interest and General Welfare is. I do not have any confidence that we can find our way back to small r republicanism.

      I agree on both counts, hence “sad to say” in footnote [5].

      > The problem there is thorough ignorance of the need for public virtue (putting self-interest in subjection to the public interest)….

      I think this is a distinction that seems clear when stated — who can be against public virtue? — but in practice is often not clear at all. See the section on George Washington Plunkett. An example from the modern day: Everybody loves public transportation, rightly. In countries that really have such a thing, the location of the stations is the source, and at least partly driven by, massive real estate speculation. You can bet the same happened with China’s high speed rail. So, would we rather have the transport with an admixture of corruption, or would we rather have virtue, and no (or smaller and later) transport? With things as they are, that is the choice….

      To me, the issue is not the elimination of self-interest (self having been properly defined), but arranging incentives (“the rules of the game”) so that self-interest acts in due proportion to public interest. Clearly neoliberalism doesn’t do that at all, with results that we see. Madison and the framers of the Constitution — see Dark Bargain for the sausage-making there) made a game effort, but after a couple centuries we see that their machinery has failed. What to do? I really don’t think it’s, well, appropriate to throw up our hands and say “It’s human nature, good government comes and goes, hey ho.”

      1. Tony Wikrent

        Who can be against public virtue? Ayn Rand, for one. Ludwig von (we should not forget the oligarghic honorific) Mises, for another. Conservatives and libertarians today explicitly attack the concepts of the public interest and the General Welfare. Just look at the kerfuffle last week made by some (anti)Republicans that the large but still modest Democratic infrastructure bill contains money for “pipes”, evincing their tightly constricted view of “proper” spending on infrastructure. I expect that when the time comes to appropriate money for a manned expedition to Mars, some (anti)Republican Congressperson will erupt off their keister to proclaim that such funding is unconstitutional because a Mars mission in not among the Congressional powers enumerated in the Constitution.

        Just like the southern oligarchs in USA explicitly rejected the prevailing understanding of civic republicanism. Forest Nabors writes in that a significant turning point was the 1830 constitutional convention in Virginia. Nabors provides a lot of details on the war of ideas that I was not aware of, but fit perfectly as a warning of what is happening in our own time.

        One thing I was aware of before reading Nabors was the southern theory of mudsills, which quite pre-figures our present day PMC attitudes to labor.

        Has the originally framed structure failed? In my view, the projects of movement conservatism and neoliberslism are in fact aimed at denigrating and tearing down that structure. Again, some conservatives and libertarians have explicitly attacked the ideas of the public interest and the General Welfare. Just like the “starve the beast” tax cutting schemes. Cut funding for government and cripple its ability to administer law and policies, then point to the ill effects of that impaired capacity as proof that government should be cut even more.

        This is exactly why I emphasize that this is a clash of philosophies of political economy. And we have now devolved to what is, IMHO, a pre-war Era.

        1. JBird4049

          >>>we have now devolved to what is, IMHO, a pre-war Era.

          Maybe worse than the pre- World War II as all the fraternal, labor, religious, and charitable organizations are either gone, hollowed out, or turned into grifts (the American Red Cross is a good example); the two major parties lacking any of the deep, permanent, and effective block by block, city by city, and county by county organizing that they had. It is all centralized into the state and national levels.

          This is why people can fool themselves with the supposed lack of importance of the community and the supremacy of the individual and money. It has all been either outright destroyed or made a shell. Of course, the hidden organizations funded by the hidden money of the mostly ignored wealthy having some cause for this is also ignore. Partially because the news media is one of those institutions that has either been destroyed or made a shell.

          The fragility of our society, of our civilization, comes from much more than economic inequality or corruption.

  19. Brunches with Cats

    > a ginormous category error; constituencies and states don’t have selves

    Oh c’mon, Lambert, we all know that corporations are people, too! Seriously, though …

    Businesses, various publics (e.g., towns, cities, oblasts), and many other groups do indeed have interests corresponding to their unique characteristics, just as an individual has interests based on her own unique characteristics. I’m not clear whether your beef with Tuchman is her use of the word “self” or the definition thereof, although I’m presuming the latter, given the link in footnote #2. The link, however, doesn’t go to a definition of “self,” but rather to a discussion of the nature of self-consciousness, which is not the same as “self.” Among the sources quoted in this entry, I could find no agreement on what the self actually is, which I attribute to its being, like “God,” incomprehensible to our human pea brains.

    Nonetheless, for purposes of your analysis, I would argue for the definition of “self” based on bodily awareness. While I agree that the “self” isn’t limited to one’s physical being, Tuchman is writing about temporal affairs: ownership and control of land, accumulation of wealth, using power for personal gain at the expense of the collective welfare, and so on. By this definition, groups most certainly can be aware of their existence as a unique “body,” with varying levels of idealogical cohesion. Leadership invariably comes from among those firmly indoctrinated or otherwise aligned with the group’s values and purpose, who are unquestioningly loyal to the organization. To paraphrase Gore Vidal, those at the top don’t have to conspire; they all think alike.

    (My comment ended up so long that I’m splitting it into three parts.)

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > By this definition, groups most certainly can be aware of their existence as a unique “body,”

      I have been thinking about this overnight. I think “class consciousness” (self required, of the class) is not the same as “consciousness of class” (class membership required only). I think the sentence I quoted above elides this distinction (as I myself have done at times).

      If we agree that a class (or any political entity) has a self, then we must grant that it has (1) agency and (2) self-reflection (the reason for the Stanford encyclopedia link). I don’t think those two latter claims can be evidenced. I don’t think they are true. So far as I can tell, the closest we have come to understanding collective action by classes is metaphors like “hive mind” (or edge cases like “the madness of crowds” whether in stock markets or the streets).

      The challenge is to give an account of collective action, which is real, without positing a “self” for the collective, which is not.

      That is in fact what Vidal — dammit, more books to read — does, at least for the ruling class, with “those at the top don’t have to conspire; they all think alike.” That is why Tuchman’s category error is important. And what about those at the bottom? Where the numbers are, if you want to change anything?

  20. Brunches with Cats

    A couple more points before turning to the Folly of the Popes:
    — According to U.S. law, “words importing the singular include and apply to several persons, parties, or things;” and the words “person” and “whoever” include corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals;” https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/1/1
    — “Corporate self-interest” has been much-debated in the business world, although as best as I can tell, the term has been replaced with the more benevolent-sounding “enlightened self-interest” and “corporate responsibility.” Here’s a link to a Harvard Business Review blog post with tips for “aligning” employees with the company’s self interests. https://hbr.org/2011/10/doing-the-right-thing-and-self

    Moving right along … I don’t know why, but a few days ago I suddenly recalled an observation I made while living in France in the late nineties/early oughts, the gist of which was that people will shrug off a certain amount of graft and corruption among their leaders as long as their basic needs are met. The French seemed to expect it and ridiculed Americans for demanding that their elected officials be honest, particularly with regard to marital fidelity. Developments over the past 10-15 years more or less bear this out. Whether this scenario fit’s Tuchman’s thesis about the popes, I don’t know, not being familiar with her work. However, from the few excerpts you’ve provided, it truly does sound like different day, same old sh!t.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > enlightened self-interest

      I don’t see why, for political entities, I should adopt the same category error as Tuchman’s because a corporate lawyer adopts it. In my mind, that’s a reason to question it.

  21. Brunches with Cats

    The one pope I do know a little about predated Sixtus by more than 250 years, during the Albigensian Crusade. The Albigensians, better known as the Cathars, were a gnostic sect branded as heretics by Pope Innocent III. Among their “heresies” were saying mass in the language of the local peasants rather than Latin, encouraging direct communication with God without a clerical intermediary, and perhaps worst of all, pronouncing the Catholic Church politically and morally corrupt. I lived a short bike ride from a village where 140 Cathars, given a choice between converting to Catholicism or being burned at the stake, all chose the latter. Under the guise of eliminating heresy, King Philippe II of France and Pope Guilty III joined forces to annex what until then had been a separate country, with a wealthy aristocracy and excellent land for growing crops, especially grain — a veritable bread basket.

    “Same as it ever was.” **

    ** One of my all-time favorite music videos. Just want to acknowledge that you included it in links a day or two ago. Adding a big TY for the thought piece. Fresh off a 12-hour binge of Tinker Tailor and Smiley’s People, my bwain is all thunked out.

  22. The Rev Kev

    Reading this is starting to remind me of the Five Laws of Stupidity, namely Law Number Three-

    ‘A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.’


    So whether you are talking about the medieval Popes, the leaders of 1914 or even the present leaders of today, that is a pretty fair description.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > the Five Laws of Stupidity

      At least that puts stupidity into a social context instead of going all essentialist. That said “while himself deriving no gain” means the elites of our timeline are not behaving stupidly. I’m not sure I agree with that.

      Another set of Laws, from a Prussian civil servant, General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord:

      “I divide my officers into four classes as follows: The clever, the industrious, the lazy, and the stupid. Each officer always possesses two of these qualities.

      Those who are clever and industrious I appoint to the General Staff. Use can under certain circumstances be made of those who are stupid and lazy. The man who is clever and lazy qualifies for the highest leadership posts. He has the requisite nerves and the mental clarity for difficult decisions. But whoever is stupid and industrious must be got rid of, for he is too dangerous.”

      Even if we posit an essentialist model of stupidity, at least the effects of stupidity can be ameliorated, presumably by having the clever and lazy set appropriate parameters.

      1. CanCyn

        “ means the elites of our timeline are not behaving stupidly. I’m not sure I agree with that.” When it comes to their lack of care for the environment, I’d argue that the elite are acting quite stupidly. Yeah, sure, climate change is mostly affecting the poor for now, but if not now for them, then it will be their heirs who suffer in the worsening climate crisis. Hurricane Fiona and now Hurricane Ian don’t distinguish rich from poor.

    2. Yves Smith

      I actually object to this one.

      Anyone engaging in altruistic punishment would look stupid, since they incur costs and derive no gain…except satisfaction and promoting better societal conduct.

  23. Procopius

    I always considered The March of Folly to be one of Tuchman’s worst. A much better book, in my opinion, is The First Salute, which is about the period of the Revolutionary War. The way in which the British Fleet was in the wrong place at the wrong time, allowing the French Fleet to enter Chesapeake Bay and cut Cornwallis’s supply lines, is fascinating.

  24. MFB

    I think that The March of Folly is almost completely drawn from the liberal Democratic interpretation of the Vietnam War after Watergate, and that this is why it is ahistorical — it is an attempt to show that the “wrong people” in charge will do foolish things, and therefore we should always vote for good guys like John F Kennedy.

    As such, despite its historical references (which are largely banal to any student of medieval history — there’s really not much there which would have surprised Gibbon) I don’t think the book is worth reading for any political or historical purpose, except to reaffirm the prejudices of liberal Democrats.

  25. Jams O'Donnell

    I can’t see how Plunkitt’s ‘honest graft’ and private interest could “end up serving the public interest” – unless it is in the public interest to pay over the odds for certain comodities in order to enrich particular individuals, on the basis of them being lucky. And there were of course a number of alternatives, including laws against his actions. You seem to be defending a pure capitalist interpretation. There are objections to be made on grounds of morality and efficiency. Plunkett and others like him are acting against the concrete basis of human civilisation (such as it is), which is ‘co-operation’. Plunkett was engaged, not in ‘folly’ but in ‘corruption’.

    The ‘many worlds’ theory is not a scientific theory, as it is unproveable, almost by definition. It is merely a speculation, its popularity driven by contemporary science’s reluctance to accept alternative theories which may involve cosciousness. I have to say though that I enjoyed William Gibsons interpretations.

  26. Bemildred

    I thought that book was “mainly” a timely warning to the US Gov’t and its minions, who after thinking it over, took the opposite path.

    That is, I think of it more as educated political commentary from the 70s than history.

    Ms Tuchmann did have a political agenda, everybody who pays attention does, but one I like.

    In any case, thanks for bringing it up, it is still very timely in what it has to say.

  27. David B Harrison

    Corruption and graft as a means of doing something positive will always end badly. The solution to this is to choose leadership wisely. We know who the best leaders are but usually kill them (Jesus and Reverend King for example). You want to see the cause of all the worlds problems? Look in a mirror. You want to see the solution to all the worlds problems? Look in that mirror again.

  28. Wukchumni

    I just happened to reread MoF @ Burning Man, and folly is what we do and its always the same story or variant of all civilizations, and more fun to read about than experience.

    Our .01% betters are pretty much all about self-interests and will do anything to keep up appearances, and so far-so good as long as the strings dangling from their puppet politicians aren’t evident when the age of unlightenment dawns.

    The Popes were the politicians & .01%’ers all in one with just as much nepotism if not more than the chosen ones presently, nothing changes except silly hats.

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