Arnold Kling

Tolstoy, Hayek, and David Brooks

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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.


This is David Brooks, as excerpted by Russ Roberts. Brooks contrasts Tolstoy's view with President Bush's view, which is that leaders matter.

I strongly endorse the Tolstoy-Hayek view. That is why when someone asks me if I have a Presidential candidate for 2008 I just shrug my shoulders. That is why I believe that in 2012 our health care system will have most of the same problems that it has now.

When my daughter was given an exercise a few years ago to ask one of her parents to name a historically influential person, I named John Locke. I was trying to think of someone whose ideas permeated society and made a difference. Other obvious choices would have been Jesus or Marx.

Difficult counter-examples for Tolstoy might be leaders of the middle of the twentieth century, including Roosevelt, Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. Does one really want to argue that England without Churchill would have resisted the Nazis as vigorously and effectively? Even more difficult, who is prepared to argue that Hitler or Mao merely reflected and articulated the deeply-held values of their societies?


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COMMENTS (25 to date)
Dan Hill writes:

I generally agree. To the extent that it's possible to pick leaders that matter - such as your examples from the 20th century - they invariably make things worse. That's the nature of government. It has none of the corrective mechanisms of the market and endless peverse incentives so not surprisingly when it does move things it tends to do it for the worse. In fact the rare instances of progress in government consist mostly of undoing past mistakes rather than positive improvements.

The one example of a leader that I think made a positive difference was Lee Kwan Yue in Singapore. Without him it's hard to imagine Singapore having gone from a poor and corrupt country in 1960 to a first world nation by the end of the 20th century. Other countries in Asia with similar or better starting conditions (e.g. Philippines, Indonesia) went the other way.

Matt writes:

When societies are under stress the proper institutions began to self-organize to support a stronger role as needed, and this stronger role includes preparing for a decisive leader.

Social institutions have some intelligence, as they adapt to stress, the leader and leadership position is prepared.

John Pertz writes:

Arnold,

I believe it is fair to say that Tolstoy was arguing that organic spontaneous order was responsible for most of humanity's progressive societal evolution. I believe Tolstoy would view the reign of Mao, Lenin, Roosevelt, Churchill, or Hitler as certainly having an effect on society but not in any significantly progressive manner. Tolstoy was equating spontaneous order with improvement in the human condition not just as effect on human condition.

Ironman writes:

The best example of an individual whose actions and leadership made a defining difference in United States history is U.S. Grant. Put any other general in charge of the Union Army (and Lincoln did), and you don't get anywhere near the same results. Without Grant, you don't get the United States as we know it.

Of course, he made his main accomplishments as a general leading the Union Army and not as President. Very different set of problems to solve - the military ones in the Civil War were sufficiently limited in scope to actually be achievable through a command and control system.

Alex L. writes:

Hello, I'm new to this blogging bit so pardon my youthful excursions into your academic discussions.

I strongly endorse the Tolstoy-Hayek view. That is why when someone asks me if I have a Presidential candidate for 2008 I just shrug my shoulders. That is why I believe that in 2012 our health care system will have most of the same problems that it has now.
Stagnant leadership might reveal a default Tolstoy-Hayek reality: that is, without excellent executives, things run well anyway.

Nevertheless, dynamic leaders can invigorate the whole system and, if nothing else, change people's expectations about their government's potential (if being an economics major has taught me anything, it's that expectations are a key factor in outcomes). There's a reason hardly any American citizen expects anything out of our government until perhaps 2009, and it has nothing to do with us being the only powerhouse in the world. It has everything to do with a deceptive, impotent and uncredible administration.

ed writes:

Do you think Al Gore would have invaded Iraq?

It's pretty hard for presidents to fix health care, but it's not hard for them to take military actions that have big, big consequences.

Troy Camplin writes:

We need to differentiate between leaders and rulers. Leaders come out of the masses and lead them through ideas and examples. They may get punished for it, as many tragic heroes do, but eventually the people come around to emulating them. This is how societies move into greater levels of complexity.

Rulers are those who try to make people do what they want. They believe in a top-down world and that they are the only ones competent enough to provide good governance.

History books tend to concentrate more on rulers than leaders (which may explain the tendency of historians to be Leftists), but the truly important people of history have been the leaders.

Cyrus writes:

Leaders can give a particular expression, and to some extent direction, to the underlying motions of the group. Leadership can be an effective bully pulpit. Revolutionary France was going to do something, and it was probably going to be bloody. The leader got to direct that bloodshed for a while, and many struggled to take that position.

dearieme writes:

Try Thomas Carlyle on Heroes.

Floccina writes:

ed writes:
"Do you think Al Gore would have invaded Iraq?"

I think yes, Al Gore would have invaded Iraq and more republicans would be against the war now than are.

David Gordon writes:

Hayek doesn't claim that great leaders don't matter.

TDL writes:

I think the point of the post is a belief among many that "great men" make history, or rather how specific individuals are often given credit for the positive trends of their time (think Clinton during the most recent economic boom.) On balance, I think that "great leaders" have a negative effect upon society (to the extent that they can aggregate enough power to impose their will.) While there are examples of leaders who have done well, there are more examples of leaders (or rulers) that have done more harm then good.

Regards,
TDL

M. Hodak writes:

Even the supposedly slam dunk examples of Jesus and Marx have decidedly more ambiguous impact on this debate than meets the eye. Jesus (historically speaking) would have been one of hundreds of forgotten, itinerant preachers of the period had it not been for a combination of the proselytizing zeal of Paul and other followers, the stupendously successful organization they created, and the arguably path dependent growth of Christianity in the ascendant, then decaying Roman Empire. (My apologies to the true believers who would claim that Jesus, being God, was destined to the "post-mortem" greatness he achieved).

Marx, similarly, depended on particular leaders in the right place at the right time proselytizing on his behalf, long after he died, for his ideas to become the political force that he was. Even then, many "true Marxists" were forever deriding the totalitarian brutality carried on his name.

William Newman writes:

I think Ludwig Erhard had an even clearer effect than Lee Kwan Yew, and I'm particularly impressed by him since he came earlier. Several Asian tigers converged in their own ways to policies recognizably similar to Singapore's. What contemporary was similar to Erhard?

amine writes:

Bryan,

I definitely think there are many questions here, and it seems like econometrics: do leaders make a difference *conditionally on the society they lived in* ? There were maybe a lot of Churchill-to-be in WWII British society, but only one emerged because there is only one such job. Or was Churchill really unique ?

Marx also may have emerged as an influential thinker because there was a huge demand for a theory of exploitation and class.

Ideally we would need to see the same Marx in 19th century Europe and compare it to the fate of the same Marx in different society.

Half Sigma writes:

If leaders don't matter, then why do you support CEOs getting paid hundreds of millions of dollars?

M. Hodak writes:

Good point, Amine. In fact, most historians view Churchill as uniquely suited to exactly the role he played in WWII. In WWI he was the blustery naval commander responsible for the tragedy at Gallipoli. His jingoistic, collectivist, semi-paranoid hawkishness that served him so well between wars was thoroughly unsuited to lead a rebuilding nation after the war. His leadership in those few years of World War II is where he made the contribution to civilization for which he will be justly remembered. Arguably, the failures that preceded his ministry contributed to his success when it counted. Path dependence.

TGGP writes:

I happen to think the importance of C.E.Os on the operation of a company is exaggerated, and much of their role is simply acting as a "front" for the company, or a reassurance to outsiders that there are competent people in charge. At the same time, I don't think Presidents and other heads of state can be analogized to C.E.Os. The duties of a C.E.O are much better defined. The question of their compensation is usually up to the board (which is why none of us actually need to "support" it, it doesn't have anything to do with our support), and while issues can be made with the prevailing standards, they are bitter fit for a discussion of corporate governance than leadership.

Arnold Kling writes:

I think that the example of the CEO is on point. My view is that the media over-estimate the importance of CEO's. However, it is hard to argue that they are overpaid, because the decisions they make *are* important and relative to overall corporate revenues and profits, their pay is not that high.

The ratio of the CEO's pay to the grunt's pay has gone way up, but one could argue that the ratio of the marginal value of a good CEO decision to the marginal value of a good decision by a grunt has gone up at least as much.

Matt writes:

Hitler could have murdered a lot of people in Afghanistan, but I doubt he could have triggered a world war. Mugabe is a nuisance to foreigners, but if he ran South Africa there'd be a global crisis. I think both Bush and Clinton have made fairly poor Presidents, if one looks at them in terms of goals upon taking office and goals achieved, yet the country has done well. Many historians consider the period from about 1870-1900 to be a time of poor leadership in Washington, yet the economy and culture boomed.

El Presidente writes:

Allow me to take it back to Plato. We see great leadership as that which expresses and pursues an ideal with success (or near to it). Politics has been defined as the art of the possible and the process of deciding who gets what, when, and how. Combine these and you have a picture of great leadership as occurring within a social context that sets bounds and pursues ideals that know none. Great leaders generate momentum within the set boundaries and then stretch the boundaries to new places, to drag us kicking and screaming to a better place. For instance, Gandhi or MLK Jr.

As an aside, they usually get killed for it. Why do you suppose we would need to kill good leaders? They will eventually die anyhow, that is certain. Does this say something about a Nash equilibrium in social discourse? Are the iterations sufficiently predictable as to validate killing the other actor in order to benefit one's self, or is mere reciprocity unpalatable? This is where we might find the distinction between leaders and rulers. An important distinction, indeed. You might also find it in the writings of Machiavelli, but you'd have to read Discourses also, not just The Prince.

El Presidente writes:

Arnold, as I think about it I realize that your defense of CEO pay is tied to the corporate form that is polarizing by nature. The CEO is not valuable of necessity but rather by circumstance. Outside the corporate form aren't they differently valued? Perhaps that helps when we think of leaders. When things are polarized do they calm and flatten society or do they stoke the fire even more and get us in over our heads, then tell us that we can't live without them so we're gonna need to pay them a little more this year? I would say good leaders are the former, and bad leaders are the latter. Both can have great influence. Both can be effective. Both can be seductive.

El Presidente writes:

Arnold, as I think about it I realize that your defense of CEO pay is tied to the corporate form, which is polarizing by nature or at least by habit. The CEO is not valuable by nature but rather by circumstance. Outside the corporate form aren't they differently valued? Perhaps that helps when we think of leaders. When things are polarized do they calm and flatten society or do they stoke the fire even more and get us in over our heads, then tell us that we can't live without them so we're gonna need to pay them a little more this year? I would say good leaders are the former, and bad leaders are the latter. Both can have great influence. Both can be effective. Both can be seductive.

Chris Elhardt writes:

re: "...who is prepared to argue that Hitler or Mao merely reflected and articulated the deeply-held values of their societies?"
I can think of one. Read "Hitler's Willing Executioners" by Daniel Stern.

Richard Schweitzer writes:

In this context, the topic (originally) seemed to be the shaping of social order changes (taken to be evolvement) by "Leaders."

If we examine most commentary about "Leaders," we see that Leaders deal with events, long or short term. "Leaders" are basically individuals (sometimes, families or groups) who are dominant in influencing, but certainly not necessarily controlling, events.
The emergence of such dominance seems to be generated by "natural" forces within any particular social order (part of what Toynbee referred to as the responses to "challenges.") during its evolvement (be it rise, survival, or decline).

Events, their origins, development and outcomes, influence - probably truly shape - what takes the form of a social order in its interactions of humans with one another and with their environments. As a result, "Leaders," influencing events are one, but not the only, often (probably usually) not the main influence of those events on the evolving social order of which they are participants.

Those points can be seen as applicable to "leaders" in Science, Technologies, religions, wars. thinking, and in common place traditions - that form "cultures."

R. Richard Schweitzer
s24rrs@aol.com

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