The Mother of Tragedy
September 6, 2001
As I was saying
the other day, people often make fateful decisions, in political as in private
life, without pausing to think of what might go wrong. Much of the misery in the
world results from taking irreversible steps hastily on the most optimistic
assumptions. As our ancestors used to put it, in their homely way, Look
before you leap.
Mexicos new president, Vicente Fox, is
urging President Bush to grant amnesty to 3.5 million illegal Mexican immigrants,
and he wants the decision made by the end of the year. In the past he was willing
to wait four years; now he wants us to leap without looking.
Whoa! There are plenty of arguments both
ways, but Fox seems to acknowledge only one side of the case. It behooves us to
deliberate. And we ought to be a little suspicious when the advocate of a possibly
risky policy doesnt want to leave time for deliberation. Maybe hes
right, but lets take our time.
Custom and tradition arent infallible
guides, but at least they tell us what to expect. Innovations, on the other hand, are
radically unpredictable. They always bring unintended consequences, and often
Wars are generally launched by governments
that think they can win quick victories. Without the ballast of caution and
pessimism, they adopt battle plans that seem like sure things, with blitzkriegs,
surgical strikes, and minimal losses.
Even when a war keeps stretching
on longer than expected, the hawks think they see the light at the end of the
tunnel. The more they invest in wasteful conflicts, the harder they find it to cut
their losses and come home. As their original plans are frustrated by events, they
switch from fatuous optimism to the fatuous patriotism that says we must
support our boys, no matter how many of our boys
may die. Opposing the war becomes disloyalty and treason; admitting that the war
was a mistake in the first place, and reversing the initial decision, become well-
Experience keeps a dear school,
Benjamin Franklin observed, but a fool will learn in no other.
Unfortunately, most people flunk even in that costly school. After the history of
the twentieth century, youd think they would be extremely wary of
allowing more centralization of power in the state. But the shibboleths of
limitless government democracy, human
needs, compassion, defense, et cetera
usually disarm prudence.
Sometimes cunning rulers understand that
they can rush their people into irreversible decisions. Franklin Roosevelt exploited
popular anxieties during the Great Depression to create an unconstitutional
national welfare state; he privately boasted that no damn politician
would ever be able to repeal my Social Security system. He was
right. It has proved much more difficult to repeal Social Security than to repeal
inconvenient parts of the U.S. Constitution.
Later welfare programs, such as Medicare,
have proved so hard to undo that even the conservatives who originally opposed
them now promise to save them. The same pattern has been repeated
with the U.S. Department of Education. Judged by constitutional standards, the
present U.S. Government is an enormity. Yet restoring constitutional law has
become, at least for the time being, a quixotic hope.
Still, the American experience has been
positively benign, when compared with the record of Communism. On paper,
Communism promised a utopia of equality and social justice; in reality, it
produced new states of limitless power and cruelty until it finally collapsed of its
own weight, not without doing irreversible and incalculable damage during the
seven decades of its sway. Such are the fruits of seeking perfection through
Many people had misgivings about Communism
from the outset, yet nobody could predict Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. When things go
wrong, they usually far surpass the worst apprehensions of the pessimists.
History never follows our blueprints.
Because the future is profoundly unknowable,
our best defense against tyranny is often the courage to obey our vaguest
premonitions or to maintain what even the gentle and cheerful G.K.
Chesterton called a healthy bigotry. Yet we are constantly buffaloed
by glib leaders who are confident that they not only know what is going to happen,
but can control events. There is no more serious delusion than that. Optimism is
the eternal mother of tragedy.
The man who claims he can foresee and direct
the future is a fool. The only greater fools are those who trust him enough to give