By Robert Higgs
In 1958, the New Left sociologist C. Wright Mills made a seminal contribution to political science in his book The Causes of World War Three, by introducing the concept of “crackpot realism.” He applied the notion specifically to the intellectual outlook of top government officials, especially the ones known as the “serious people,” who have proven their capacity for dealing with important practical affairs by, say, managing a giant corporation, such as Halliburton or G. D. Searle, or a huge educational institution, such as Texas A&M University or the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business.
Mills’s key insight was that although such people have indeed been movers and shakers, they have moved and shaken within such a constricted milieu of experience and training that in most respects they are fools. Despite having developed supreme confidence in their own judgment and a corresponding contempt for other people’s views, they are astonishingly ignorant of many workaday aspects of the world and bewildered in the face of unexpected difficulties. As government leaders responsible for matters of war and peace, they have a tendency to paint themselves into corners of their own making and, then, seeing no way out, to conclude that their only escape lies in dropping bombs on somebody. As Mills observed, “instead of the unknown fear, the anxiety without end, some men of the higher circles prefer the simplification of known catastrophe.”
Crackpot realists never learn anything, even when the lessons are cuffing them roughly about the head and shoulders. They continue to pile on more of the same actions that got them into trouble in the first place, expecting to be seen as Churchillian heroes for staying the idiotic course they have set. They keep spinning the bad news, year after year after year, wearing out entire battalions of press officers, until they finally escape from the morass by leaving office. Afterward, they heap blame on their successors for “losing China” or “cutting and running.”
Although the crackpot realists are neither wise nor honest, they are politically shrewd and personally vicious. When their malfeasances are exposed, they toss subordinates to the wolves and prepare the ground for their own pardons, understanding that the political winds may shift sharply against them later on. They are not squeamish: they digest mass murder as easily as they consume their eggs and toast, and they do not lose sleep by agonizing over the cannon fodder they sacrifice in the service of their own aggrandizement. Other people’s children go to war; theirs go to Harvard and Yale. Being busy people, they cannot waste time on pity, except when a photo op requires its feigned expression.
Imperialism appeals to them: if controlling the economic heights at home is good, controlling them throughout the entire world is better. Once ExxonMobil, Shell, Citigroup, J. P. Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Halliburton, and Bechtel have made their multinational arrangements, everything else will fall into place nicely. If it doesn’t, because some uppity mullah or tin-pot dictator has created a snag, the U.S. Marines are always available, in the immortal words of the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Ledeen, “to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.”
Lest you suspect that I am hyperventilating, I suggest that you proceed immediately to Max Boot’s November 14 article in the New York Times, “Send the State Department to War.” I cannot make up such stuff; you simply have to read it for yourself to believe it. Amid a plethora of harebrained proposals, Boot recommends a huge personnel increase at the U.S. Agency for International Development. And how does he pitch this wacky idea? “If we expand its ranks, it could become our lead nation-building agency, sort of a global FEMA, marshaling the kind of resources that have been lacking in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Just imagine: “sort of a global FEMA.” If nothing else, we now know why Boot has not landed a job on Madison Avenue.
Ordinarily, it is juvenile simply to dismiss someone whose views we abhor as a nincompoop, but in this case, what alternative does Boot provide us? Not only does he want to pump up the USAID’s ranks for global nation-building—a task at which the agency obviously has already failed, despite its decades of trying and the hundreds of billions of dollars it has dropped down nearly every rat hole in the Third World—but he advises that USAID take on a legion of experts who will stand ready to be summoned at a moment’s notice, “like military reservists,” to “bring expertise in municipal administration, sewage treatment, banking, electricity generation, and countless other disciplines needed to rebuild a war-torn country.” It seems never to occur to these towering geniuses that a better idea might be not bombing the country’s infrastructure to smithereens in the first place.
Next in line come the “experienced police officers who can train local counterparts.” Boot evidently imagines that Sergeant O’Malley can teach Hamid how to keep the peace in the festering slums of Sadar City. Does that idea have any basis in fact or logic? He also senses a crying need for a “federal constabulary force—a uniformed counterpart to the F.B.I. that, like the Italian carabinieri, could be deployed abroad”—along with “a deployable corps of lawyers, judges and prison guards who could set up functioning legal and penal systems abroad.” There’s more, but I haven’t the heart to describe these ravings any further.
Has anyone ever combined a more preposterously unrealistic set of proposals with such boundless moral arrogance, not to mention the monumental ignorance of how the world works? Does Boot have any idea how people develop effective means of community policing, a viable criminal-justice system, or a physical infrastructure for providing reliable water supply, sewerage, and electrical power generation and distribution? Does he imagine that one simply hauls in experts from Dubuque and Dallas, sets them down in Basra, and—shazam!—everything clicks into place and works like a diamond-jeweled watch thereafter. Has he ever considered, for example, that keeping the electrical supply system in working order may be impossible when various factions insist on blowing up the power lines and other equipment that serve the neighbors they despise on religious grounds? Might Kirkuk’s optimal type of municipal administration differ in some important ways from Denver’s, and do American “experts” have any concrete idea what the critical differences are? Is it plausible that a society can be substantially “reconstructed” in any useful way by outsiders who know nothing about its history and customs, and who cannot speak or understand its language?
If Boot were an anonymous nutcase posting his screeds on a neocon Web site, we might well ignore his huffing and puffing. He is, however, someone who moves in the highest circles. Formerly an editor at the Wall Street Journal, he is currently a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a prominent fortress of the Establishment. His books touting war and imperialism have received wide notice, and perhaps someone has even read them. He is, in fact, a perfect example of the crackpot realists who constitute our ruling class.
Formerly known as “the best and the brightest,” before that particular appellation lost its luster in the Vietnam debacle, these people are now hard at work dishing out death and destruction wherever they turn their attention in the wider world. Ordinary people hang on their pronunciamentos as if they spoke with the wisdom of Solomon, but the people need to get over their awe. Maybe these Übermenschen can run a big corporation, a major newspaper, or a federal government department, but they cannot run the world, except in the limited sense that they can mistreat a great number of people in various countries in order to line their pockets, gratify their vanities, and fulfill their savage fantasies. For all the rest of us, however, they produce nothing but wreckage and grief.
Most of all, the crackpot realists are frauds. We ordinary people, the great multitude on the bottom rungs of the power ladder, need to understand more clearly that when we look up at the self-anointed “deciders” who have the cosmic effrontery to presume themselves fit to rule us, we are looking up at fools.
-Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy for The Independent Institute and Editor of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He is the author of many books, including Depression, War, and Cold War.