When Rulers Err

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If the Cuban Missile Crisis had gone the wrong way, hydrogen bombs might have blanketed the world.

The higher-ups or rulers who have power produce the big crises and wars. Their subjects, few of whom benefit from them, do not. The masses are not irrelevant, but their impact on major events is secondary. The Iranian people are not making the decisions about nuclear power. They are not issuing threats, and neither are the American and European peoples.

Rulers are men accustomed to gaining and using power. This implies they possess an above average dose of certain characteristics. Benign philosopher-kings don’t become rulers. Those who rule tend to be overly aggressive, rapacious, hard-nosed, opportunistic, pragmatic, cruel, violent, and manipulative. Even if these tendencies are not abundantly present, their power allows freer reign to their worse instincts. Rulers are hawks, not doves. Their number includes more than its share of troublemakers.

Rulers talk to and make deals with other rulers. They aim to maintain and boost their positions by exchanges that give them advantages. These interactions are complex and often for high stakes. Rulers often gamble the lives and fortunes of the peoples they rule.

The interactions of the rulers we call plots or schemes or intrigues. Their key feature is that the rulers are involved in machinations and maneuvering, circumvention and outwitting, scheming and craftiness, cunning and jockeying. They delight in the exercise of these wiles. They enjoy scheming. Their dealings are not like sports contests because a ruler can collaborate with other rulers, make side deals, break rules, lie, double-cross and cheat. They can foment revolutions, stimulate unrest, and assassinate. They have a large bag of tricks. The pacts, treaties and alliances they make are quite a bit less random than kaleidoscopes but quite a bit more changeable than contests with fixed rules.

International relations are the opposite of a sports contest. A boxing match has two well-matched opponents fighting by clear rules in the open until the final bell rings. International relations involve shifting alliances, deceptions, bluffs and counter-bluffs, traps, spying, image, threats and counter-threats, feints and thrusts. It’s far more complex.

Men of power enjoy negotiating these complex and changing currents. They don’t mind gambling with other people’s lives and livelihoods. People in larger business firms and other organizations may experience power struggles that are somewhat similar to those of rulers. In companies, however, there are both incentive differences and control devices present that keep the damages within reasonable bounds. Organizations built solely upon power relationships clearly exhibit far greater scope for destructive results.

Common folk, which include most of us, our families and in-laws, working acquaintances, schoolmates, townspeople, those whom we have done business with, etc., do not ordinarily engage in the tactics rulers are accustomed to. Although movies and soaps feature many conniving people, it’s possible that a good many viewers do not think of their rulers being like that and worse. They still do not have a deep realization that their rulers do not have the same ethics that they do. They think of them as acting like ordinary people. Rulers would like the masses to revere their position and power while simultaneously thinking of them as being just men of the people.

If and when the average person begins to go in for contests that are like those the rulers play, it will signal a deterioration in society’s ethical standards. If and when they accept and admire those who win by underhanded tactics, it means that middle-class values are losing ground and the values exhibited by rulers are gaining ground. This is perhaps happening. It has been said that on Survivor "lying, cheating, backstabbing, double-crossing, and betraying happen all the time. Its an accepted part of the game." The question is how accepted these behaviors become among the viewers, or whether they still condemn the villains.

We ordinarily think of diplomacy as careful negotiation in international relations, and this it has often been. However, it can also become simply another means for rulers to exercise their wiles, to threaten, and to trap other rulers, to browbeat them, to feint and thrust. Diplomacy can become a means to gain an advantage, or trick the opponent into a position, not a good-faith effort to negotiate. Rulers don’t play by fixed rules. Anything, even diplomacy, can be sacrificed.

Sometimes the rulers play by nearly-rational rules or mock-rational rules, in which case wars do not break out. For example, they may make trade pacts. These do not really involve entirely free trade, which would be rational. They involve warfare by disguised means without actually being war. In these lower-level or milder schemes, there are still winners and losers within the various countries. Sometimes there may even be win-win situations.

Occasionally, for reasons that are difficult to pin down by historians and political scientists, the intrigues degenerate into crises and full-scale wars. Some rulers intentionally scheme to create wars, but not all wars happen this way. Sometimes the plots go awry and war results. The degeneration of the typical intrigues into warfare is usually not a sudden or precipitous event, but it can be. It is typically a cumulation of events and errors over years. What sometimes happens is that the plotting and the accompanying miscalculations build up over time into intolerable conflicts that are hard to disentangle.

A big crisis occurs when the schemes of multiple rulers create an impasse. It’s as if a knot of ropes connects them all. They are all swimming in a strong sea trying to save themselves, but the connecting ropes make this very difficult. They are pulling and hauling in all directions. They find themselves in grave danger. They feel under time pressure to act, or else they may drown or lose out. This reduces their rationality. Their personalities and memories, ideas and interests, hate, greed, anger, pride and other affections and emotions influenced how they got into this mess and now they unduly influence how they are trying to get out. Some rulers may still have cards up their sleeves, like a knife to cut themselves loose, and they continue scheming, trying to win. Others may think they can still win and they keep struggling.

The rulers can make quite a few mistakes in international relations because they are uncertain about many important things. For example, no ruler knows exactly (1) what the other rulers want, (2) how much they want it, (3) what the other rulers are scheming behind their backs, (4) what the other rulers are capable of, (5) how rational the other rulers are, and (6) how much to trust the other rulers. All the rulers are acting with only partial knowledge in sizing up aims, intensities of aims, capabilities, schemes, rationality, and trust.

These difficulties exist in all human relations. However, the consequences of mistakes in sizing up these factors become worse for rulers (and their subjects) because of (a) their abnormal psychology and (b) their concentrated powers. The outcomes at times are crises, destructive outbursts, and wars.

In most human endeavors, it is optimal to make some mistakes because there are diminishing returns to reducing error. How much one tolerates error depends on one’s psychology. If the rulers carry into their decisions the normal personal psychology as we would expect they would, their normal errors inflict abnormally great harm. This occurs because the mistake of a ruler who has power affects many, many subjects. To compensate for this fact, a considerate ruler, if there is such a thing, really should be extremely reluctant to engage in an action that may be in error. It is better for him to do nothing and risk not attaining a good end than to do something and incur the risk of being mistaken that the result is good. However, it is a commonplace that rulers neither restrict their scope of action nor routinely set up safeguards to prevent the normal error rate and reduce it to far lower levels. Indeed, they often do the opposite, which is to expand their set of actions and take measures to filter out information that might make them do otherwise. The most beneficent of them expand their actions thinking they are doing good when in reality they can’t and don’t. The more maleficent among them are aiming to feather their nests or the nests of others. But all of them commit errors whose ramifications are of a far larger scope than if they made the mistake of buying tickets for the roller derby when their wives preferred a movie.

It would seem that due consideration of the weighty and negative impacts of wars and the panoply of actions inaugurated by rulers would lead the subjects of rulers to the obvious conclusion that concentrating power and a broad scope of action in the hands of any small set of men leads unavoidably to the large-scale diminishment of the lives of the subjects. That most do not reach this conclusion is for several reasons. Many people do not even recognize that the errors of their rulers are errors. They blame all sorts of other factors for the miseries caused by their rulers, and the rulers do their best to make them think so. Many do not understand that their rulers are only human. They think of them as being superior beings doing their best at a hard job under circumstances beyond their control. Again the rulers reinforce these myths. Finally, as explained above, many do not understand that the normal errors of rulers spread havoc widely.

Rulers are like badly trained and risk-loving airplane pilots. An error by an airline pilot may mean the death of several hundred people. An error by a dictator, sultan, rajah, president, minister, warlord, emperor, or king may mean the death of hundreds of thousands or even millions.

Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is the Louis M. Jacobs Professor of Finance at University at Buffalo.

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