Saturday, April 11, 2015

Can Anyone Change the Course of History?

Political assassinations are outsized, dramatic events. The murder of a political leader, even the murder of an heir to a throne can produce widespread repercussions.

Or so we think?

Some believe that the course of history cannot be modified, even by such large events as the assassination of a leader.

Benjamin Jones and Benjamin Olken define the issue in a New York Times op-ed:

Days after John Wilkes Booth entered the presidential box at Ford’s Theater and shot Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, Benjamin Disraeli, the British prime minister, declared that “assassination has never changed the history of the world.” Was Disraeli right?

One view, the “great man” theory, claims that individual leaders play defining roles, so that assassinating one could lead to very different national or global outcomes. In contrast, historical determinism sees leaders as the proverbial ant riding the elephant’s back. Broader social, economic and political forces drive history, so that assassinations may not have meaningful effects.

One also recalls the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, event that has been credited with sparking the outbreak of World War I.

Had there been no assassination, one asks, would there have been a war? Had there been no assassination, one opines, would the war have been conducted or ended differently?

Was the European continent a powder keg waiting for a spark to ignite it, or did the assassination change the course of history?

It’s an interesting question, but, how can you know? After all, history only deals in what happened, in the facts. Alternative scenarios are counterfactuals. You cannot affirm or deny them by appealing to the authority of facts.

And yet, there is more to human life than assassinations. Human history is made up of a myriad of decisions taken by a myriad of human beings. It’s one thing to suggest that history was changed by an assassination. It’s slightly different to say that history was changed by, say, an automobile accident or your failure to get to a meeting on time.

One recalls what mathematicians and scientists call “chaos” theory. By that theory, a butterfly that changes the direction of its flight can influence the weather.

Wikipedia offers an apt description of this theory:

Chaos theory studies the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions—a response popularly referred to as the butterfly effect. Small differences in initial conditions (such as those due to rounding errors in numerical computation) yield widely diverging outcomes for such dynamical systems, rendering long-term prediction impossible in general.[1] This happens even though these systems are deterministic, meaning that their future behavior is fully determined by their initial conditions, with no random elements involved.[2] In other words, the deterministic nature of these systems does not make them predictable.[3][4] This behavior is known as deterministic chaos, or simply chaos.

I will refrain from pursuing this any further. Whether or not it applies to the unfolding of historical events requires far more evidence than I can muster in a blog post.

At the least, chaos theory tells us that we do not need assassinations, grand historical events, to change history. It does not tell us whether all of these myriad decisions and events are following a script.

For example, would World War I have turned out differently if Theodore Roosevelt had been elected president in 1912? We know from his own contemporaneous commentary about the Great War that Roosevelt would have had a foreign policy that was radically different from the one conducted by Woodrow Wilson and William Jennings Bryan. We know that TR favored mobilization and intervention far sooner than Wilson did.

Would earlier American intervention have tilted the balance of destruction decisively in the direction of the allies? Would it have stopped the war before it turned into mass slaughter? If it had stopped the war earlier, would that have allowed the Russian Czar to defeat the Bolshevik insurgency? If Germany had not suffered a humiliating defeat would there have been Hitler and the Third Reich and World War II?

We can go on. You get the picture.

We may not have definitive proof, but it makes sense to believe that the person who is conducting foreign policy for a great nation can make a significant difference in the outcome of historical events.

But, if we are talking about an election result, those who are determining the course of history would be the electorate, not entirely the individual in charge. And, democratic elections need not give the best result.

Also, consider the role that many other actors play in the unfolding of the great game of history. Or is it the great drama of history?

Those who believe in historical inevitability argue that history is a great drama unfolding before us. We have been cast in different roles and play them well or poorly, but the drama has its own denouement and will arrive there, whether we like it or not.

Hegel presented the argument philosophically. In more recent times, Marxists have acted as though nothing much mattered because they were on the right side of history. To which Francis Fukuyama famously retorted that the outcome of historical development was indeed predetermined, but it would not lead to a Worker’s Paradise. The outcome was the apotheosis of liberal democracy.

Note that this theory relieves us of any responsibility for the historical outcome. We need but get on the right side of history. It is a perfectly amoral system.

On the other side, if you believe that human history advances like a game, the outcome is not predetermined. In fact, the various moves of the game are not predetermined.

If we consider the number of possible moves in a game of chess—apparently more than there are atoms in the universe—the notion that the outcome is inevitable, that one person will necessarily win or lose in this or that way, feels simplistic.

As opposed to the drama-based theory of history, the game-based theory grants to human agents the ability to change the course of events in a significant way. More importantly, it grants to human beings the free will to make decisions and to be responsible for the ensuing results.

As I discussed in my book The Last Psychoanalyst, rather than trying to discover whether history is a drama or a game, imagine how you would function if you believed that it was the one or the other.


katzxy said...

"... imagine how you would function if you believed that it was the one or the other."

Yup. That's a key question.

Dennis said...

Years ago I saw an independent film that was based on the notion that one could change history. It was based on the idea that if one killed Hitler that the world would be a better place.
A number of leftists lived in a large house surrounded by a tall fence with a fairly large lanai area. They decided they may not be able to go back to kill Hitler, but they could kill people who they considered a future danger to their idea of what that future should look like. Much like the Leftists of today.
In order to make themselves feel like they were doing the right thing they would invite people they disagreed with to a large dinner in the lanai area and talk about their disagreements. It was all done in good spirit. All of this time was spent being the judge, jury and the executioner. A truly fair trial.
They would find time after the dinner to get together before serving wine and decide whether to kill this person as a danger to the future. Needless to say almost everyone who disagreed with them got the wine that was poisoned. They disposed of the bodies by burying them in the lanai. This served to remind them of how righteous they were and the need for them to set history on the right path.
Only one person escaped death. She was a 16 year old girl who was admantly agains't abortion on moral grounds. Today they probably would have killed her. After some discussion they allowed her to live, but just barely.
As it would happen a truly bad person was invited to the party only he figured out what was going on and changed the wine bottles. This killed all of the do gooders and allowed a truly bad person to on his way.
One has to watch out for thinking that they are the judge and jury of what history should be for one only makes it possible for true evil to survive.
Who is to say that killing Hitler would not have lead to something even worst? Be careful in what you wish for because you may actually get it, but not in the manner you think. You may actually unlash an evil so bad that all life will be extinguished. None of us are GODS.

Dennis said...

Now this may have been a film or a bad dream I had. I could have fleshed it out that would have given more applicability to the times we live in, but I think the essential points are there.
Suffice it to say when we become so elite that we begin to think we should be able to control the histories of other peoples, nations, et al we are probably more evil than those who would be free to live their own lives.

Sam L. said...

There's no way to experiment and find out which is correct, if indeed, only one IS correct.

Ares Olympus said...

re: As opposed to the drama-based theory of history, the game-based theory grants to human agents the ability to change the course of events in a significant way. More importantly, it grants to human beings the free will to make decisions and to be responsible for the ensuing results.

Open-ended questions, fun but hopeless to answer.

So "drama" is about "fate" or "destiny", the story must progress, and individuals play roles in a predetermined outcome, just like a book where you can read the last pages first if you don't like suspense.

And the alternative of "game theory" (and nonlinearity of chaos theory) claims the outcome is not predetermined, and small changed by either side of a conflict can totally change the outcome.

But I'm not convinced game-theory represents the problem, at least given game have endings, and winners and losers, while life can have two winners, or two losers. Life isn't clearly a zero-sum problem in all respects.

Or like the Prisoner's dilemma is one attempt at a game that isn't zero sum, where competition diminishes positive results, and cooperation expands it. War is a similar problem that destroys wealth in order to try to protect it. And yet neither pure cooperation nor pure competition is helpful, but some hybrid that can punish transgressions, and quickly forgive and go back to cooperation.'s_dilemma

There's another useful term called "Temperal discounting" which recognizes we value the present more than the future, and again, there can be no final answer, but some balance. So short term advantages become long term liabilities, and long term advantages are short term liabilities.

Like I accept the neo-malthusean perspective of absolute limints in some one-time resources. So cheap energy producing cheap food and good protection from harm, means population can explode into overshoot, at least compared to the means of living of past generations.

So that's a "long term" perspective that can counter short term blind greed that discounts costs of consuming one-time resources, like living off your parents inheritence or lottery winnings until its all gone, and assuming something else will come along.

In comparison our debt-based economics encourages short term thinking, encourages people and nations to budget what they can afford by their debt interest payments rather than how that debt must someday be retired. But in the short run, there's more than enough for all, and every new dollar in debt becomes someone else's income, who can spend it to raise a family.

So my "game theory" says debt is a good bet in an expanding economy, and a poor bet in a contracting period. That's why central banks are willing to throw out trillions of dollars to keep everything going.

So our "free will" is at stake here. We can choose to believe what makes sense, or believe what allows us push the consequences under the carpet for another year.

We're all playing a win-win game that eventually becomes a lose-lose game, and yet we still wonder who is going to win in the end.

JK Brown said...

For example : The question being propounded, What is the value of the combined services to man of Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Disraeli, as compared with those of Sir Henry Bessemer? Ninety-nine out of a hundred men of sound judgment would doubtless say, " The value of the services of the two statesmen is quite unimportant, while the value of the services of Mr. Bessemer is enormous, incalculable." But how many of these ninety-nine men of sound judgment could resist the fascination of the applause accorded to the statesmen ? How many of them would have the moral courage to educate their sons for the career of Mr. Bessemer instead of for the career of Mr. Disraeli or of Mr. Gladstone?* Not many in the present state of public sentiment. It will be a great day for man, the day that ushers in the dawn of more sober views of life, the day that inaugurates the era of the mastership of things in the place of the mastership of words.

Now that is the sentiment of a writer in 1886. But few today even know who Bessemer was or what he accomplished. Even fewer know of Edward Coke, whose pursuit of the Case of the Monopolies led to patent law, which may be the most powerful idea in the world, i.e, that a person might profit from the creations of their own mind for a time before gifting it to humanity.