11 March 2015

Some More Thoughts on Historical Inevitability

A long time ago I posted some writings on historical inevitability (Part 1, 2). Recently I reviewed Bruce Riedel's book, What We Won: America's Secret War in Afghanistan, in which he made the case that (a) the US government successfully brought down the Communist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe by aiding the Afghan rebels, and (b) this effort did not bring about the rise of the Taliban or al-Qaeda. My criticisms of his book made the argument that he had gotten it backwards: Western support for the Afghan rebels did not cause the collapse of the USSR, but it did lead to the rise of deadly sectarianism.

However, Mr. Riedel makes an argument that I think is valid, even if it's wrong in the case where he applies it. In other words, he objects to historical reasoning backwards from an event, to where one assumes planners and actors either knew, or ought to have known, the ultimate consequences of their actions. My criticism was that he was applying this to a case where the Central Intelligence Agency clearly ought to have known the consequences, and making claims about causality that are clearly false. The USSR's fall was almost certainly not hastened by its failed war in Afghanistan; there was little reason to expect funnelling money to the insurgents there would accelerate this. A more likely outcome was the occurance of a major war in Central Europe, or deadly attacks on US government employees. That neither of these occurred is good luck, not skill or prudence on the part of the US deep state.

I've already addressed my views about CIA support for ISI and the mujaheddin in my review. Riedel's claim that the CIA was not to blame for the fact that its material aid went to taqfiri zealots, on account of the Saudi General Intelligence Presidency (GIP) actually managing access to the mujaheddin, is not an excuse--it's not even a bad excuse. But in other cases, it is a fallacy to reason backwards like this.


The obvious example is conspiracy theories of history. "Conspiracy theory" is a somewhat unhelpful term of art, since there are definitely conspiracies, and they have definitely had an impact on history. One example is the rather trivial case of military strategy: modern nation-states fighting "asymmetric wars." Concentrated struggles between law enforcement agencies and organized crime is another example,1 especially when the crime syndicates possess allies in the legislature.  In many cases, disentangling law enforcement and organized crime is extremely difficult. In some cases, law enforcement is loathe to admit errors of judgment, as (for example), allowing an informant to go on committing heinous crimes, or else, allowing the corruption of handlers in the police department itself.  Such conspiracies may potentially be enormous in scope, but are usually very petty in ultimate scope.

The classic conspiracy theory, as popularly understood, is the doctrine of the John Birch Society.2  This organization held that the entire world was locked in an epic struggle between freedom (i.e., capitalism) versus slavery (i.e., Communism), and that every concession made to non-capitalist considerations was conclusive proof that the instigator was a knowing stooge of the evil Communists.  That the world was locked in such a struggle was undeniable, and the moral alignment of the two sides was a bromide of US political discourse (for instance, in Mulloy, p.174, a speech by JBS  arch-nemesis J.F. Kennedy characterizes the USSR in terms that are practically identical to those used by the JBS).  In a way, the JBS was merely doing the same thing that official Washington was doing: confronted with the failure of its ideology, not to mention victims of its meddling, it desperately concocted a conspiracy theory of its own to explain its rejection.

The JBS may have initially resisted being linked to racist ideology, but it was eventually sucked in when it began to insist there was no valid grounds for a Civil Rights movement at all--the entire thing was the result of Communist agitators (this line of reasoning certainly endeared it with Sen. Jim Eastland!).

But the ultimate fallacy the JBS succumbed to, was assuming that all Communist victories were planned in advance by the US national security establishment itself, on the grounds that those victories were the consequence of malfeasance by selected actors.  China was therefore Communist because Truman's Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, wanted it to become so, ergo, Secretary Acheson was a Communist conspirator.

In the JBS version of history, there was never any legitimate objection to the treatment of Black people by Whites (or White power structures), and there was never any legitimate criticism of capitalism. Hence, successful (leftist) revolutions were necessarily the result of treachery by those entrusted to resist them.  Beyond that, the JBS analysis was astonishingly crude: the US government "instigated" Communist conquest by failing to wage total war against the insurgents at a sufficiently early time. 


Click for larger image
One obvious example is found in economics textbooks when I was in high school. Following William Baumol,3 economists were found of pointing out that market economies tended to flourish, and otherwise conform to expectations: national productivity was closely correlated to capital endowments of a country, but higher returns to capital in countries where there was less (e.g., postwar Japan, postwar Italy) ensured rich countries would invest in poor ones, and incomes would converge. This sounds absolutely wonderful, and for much of my life I was totally enthralled with the logic. In fact, it looks as though convergence should occur within regions of a single country (as it did for much of US history.

But look again. Baumol's list of countries includes only the top success stories of 1986. He doesn't include countries which were poor in 1870 and are so today, or which converged until some point in the past, and then became poor.  A lot of these countries mostly adhered to unusually strict market policies, such as Lebanon and Egypt; but they're not high income countries today (and neither was in 1976, when the civil war in Lebanon erupted).  The cherry-picked data creates an illusion that economic development is mostly like a predictable chemical reaction.  The enormous fluctuations in wealth and capital experienced by Japan and Germany, for example, are not shown in this chart.

Here, the inference from economics is that one can indeed predict the success of free market policies in a developing country; common sense says this should occur, and it does... except when it doesn't.   To make matters worse, public policies require a consensus for enactment.  In cases where no such consensus exists, the results can be an utter disaster. In other cases, the state may lack the means to supply basic infrastructure for a modern, converging economy.  "Market reforms" will not bring this about, but there's no guarantee that a state can supply the infrastructure under any ideology: in many cases, good intentions from foreign helpers may be completely  defeated by corruption.4; Apparently, one can have a situation where a highly "benighted" regime (in economic outlook) is the only one capable of having the institutional capability to meet any of the criteria required for economic development.


In the case of tactics, one has only to observe historical events where the outcome obviously was in contrast to the aims of the prime mover.  The most spectacular example of this may well be Mao Zedong, whose Cultural Revolution probably made it nearly impossible to resist subsequent shifts in state policy.  After all the "capitalist roaders" had been terrorized into submission (1950s), people of good party background were terrorized as well (1966 and thereafter) as well as devout Communists favoring rapprochement with the USSR; when Deng Xiaoping returned to the scene with a plan to dismantle socialism, the usual sort of opposition one observes elsewhere simply didn't arise.

Mao was an exceptionally well-read man with a flair for unconventional thinking.  For anyone familiar with Chinese traditions of leadership, his idea of the Cultural Revolution (and management of it) was even more astonishing than someone who isn't. Moreover, it's hard to defend the proposition that Mao didn't care about the fate of Communism in China: a close reading of his efforts makes it clear it was about the only thing he really did care about.  But the outcome of his efforts--including the pharaonic cult of personality, designed to ensure reverence for his ideas as well as fearful obedience to them--was pretty much the antithesis of Maoism.

A common feature of conspiracy theories is the proposition that a particular party favored an event, or applauded it, and therefore brought it about.  This should be self-evidently wrong to anyone, but even more obviously wrong is the whole notion that, when putatively omnipotent actors like the US government suddenly "lose control," and suffer humiliation.  The problem here is that the US government is not a cohesive entity and its components aren't either.  The debacle in Vietnam, for example, permanently altered the ideology of Congress and the obsessions of  the deep state.  Historical explanations featuring a very large organization really aren't explanations.


Charles L. Jones, "Convergence Revisited" (PDF), Journal of Economic Growth, 2: 131–153 (June 1997)

J. Bradford De Long, "Productivity Growth, Convergence, and Welfare" (PDF),  The American Economic Review,  Vol. 78, No. 5, (Dec., 1988), pp. 1138-1154

D.J. Mulloy, The World of the John Birch Society: Conspiracy, Conservatism, and the Cold War, Vanderbilt University Press (2014)

  1. Examples of this are easy to find, and it's not hard to imagine why. In the USA, cases include Whitey Bulger and Gregory Scarpa Sr., both of whom were contract killers with FBI contacts. See, for example, Kira Zalan, "Working With Killers:Reporter Peter Lance explores the secret world of FBI informants," US News and World Report (12 Sep 2013). See also Jeff Donn, "Mob Informant Scandal Involved Highest Levels of FBI, Documents Show," AP Newswire, hosted on ipsn.org (25 July 2002, accessed 30 March 2015)

  2. See D.J. Mulloy, The World of the John Birch Society: Conspiracy, Conservatism, and the Cold War, Vanderbilt University Press (2014).  The quote on p. 174 is:
    The great battleground for the defense and expansion of freedom today is Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, the lands of the rising peoples. The adversaries of freedom did not create the revolution, but they are seeking to ride the crest of its wave, to capture it for themselves, Yet their aggression is more often concealed than open. They have fired no missiles, and there troops are seldom seen. They send arms, agitators, aid, technicians, and propaganda to very troubled area. But where fighting is required, it is usually done by others, by guerrillas striking at night, by assassins striking alone--assassins who have taken the lives of 4,000 civil officers in the last twelves months in Vietnam alone--by subversives and saboteurs and insurrectionists, who in some cases control whole areas inside independent nations.
    Examples of this sort of rhetoric are abundant. Mulloy probably selected this particular example (from a vast number of alternatives) because it reflects so precisely the conspiratorial view of global Communism regarded as "lunatic fringe." In fact, the JBS was merely taking another logical step, to the conclusion that the Communists had infiltrated the leadership of the USA itself.

  3. William Baumol, "Productivity Growth, Convergence, and Welfare: What the Long-Run Data Show" (PDF), The American Economic Review,Vol. 76, No. 5 (Dec., 1986). I am grateful to Prof. Thomas Piketty for hosting this file.;

  4. See, for instance, efforts to rebuilt Managua, Nicaragua after the 1972 earthquake. F.Y. Cheng, Y.Y. Wang, Post-Earthquake Rehabilitation and Reconstruction, Elsevier (1996), p.172; Notice in Nicaragua, it required a revolution against the Somoza regime to bring about any improvement at all.

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