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Friday, December 9, 2011

Asimov, Gingrich and Krugman vs the Stupidity Theory of History

by John MacBeath Watkins

According to Ray Smock, the congressional historian fired by Newt Gingrich the instant the latter became Speaker of the House, the biggest literary influence on Gingrich is Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy. I find this interesting, because Paul Krugman also says he was influenced by Foundation.

Whereas Krugman seems to have concluded after reading the trilogy that you could understand society so well you would know what it should do, Gingrich seems to have learned from it that one man can change history by being clever about organizing people to manipulate the ignorant masses. Both men became academics, but while Krugman has, after a brief spell in government service, sworn off the stuff and returned to academia, Gingrich is running for president.

Now, I subscribe to a stupidity theory of history. I believe that all kinds of coups, cabals and conspiracies are trying to make history, but they largely cancel each other out, and when one of these outfits does manage to pull off something it thinks will achieve its goals, unintended consequences nearly always overwhelm the desired outcome.

Watkins Corollary to the stupidity theory of history is that the more secret the organization, the more incompetent it becomes. Eventually, with no one auditing the numbers, secret operatives will find a way to feather their own nests, and those who display gross incompetence will never be replaced because those footing the bills never become aware of their incompetence.

It would be lovely to think that there is a secret order to the world, that someone is running this madhouse, but it strains my credulity to believe such a thing.

As a result, I strongly suspect that the most capable and effective actors shaping history are those who do it in the open. This is not a problem for someone with Krugman's outlook. His frustrations stem mainly from the fact that technical understandings of how society works that should be shaping public discourse get ignored, while ideas not supported by logic or evidence prevail.

Now, some would say that if Newt is influenced by Foundation, he missed the point. In fact, some seem quite incensed that science fiction could get the blame for Newt Gingrich. But the guy has given credit to the series, and as Smock points out, seems to apply the language of Asimov's masterpiece. And the question, after all, is not whether Newt got it right, and is really conducting himself like the Asimov character Hari Selden, who labored in obscurity to provide wise guides for humanity, steering us in the direction of the great and good. The question is whether he read the book and decided it was a way to justify his own megalomania.

After all, can we expect a man of Newt's nature to labor in obscurity? Obscurity is the thing he labors to avoid. But the notion that one man could, throught his genius, change all future history, does have an appeal to him, and after all, Krugman hasn't exactly courted obscurity, has he? Both men are doing their work in public. Krugman has spent his life trying to achieve the kind of understanding of how society works, Gingrich has been all over the map on how society works but consistently and diligently working on how to manipulate society. He has succeeded in making the Republican Party a powerful instrument, with the help of other disgraced politicians like Tom DeLay, and even some who were not caught up in scandals.

I have to confess, though I read the Foundation trilogy happily and enjoyed every word, my natural cynicism and stupidity theory of history led me to think there would be an agency problem with the psychohistorians. If they could manipulate humanity, and were so secret that no one could audit their finances or examine their use of power, the temptations to corruption would inevitably overwhelm Hari Selden's good intentions.

And besides, isn't there something a little Leninist about thinking that a small coterie of intellectuals should be manipulating an ignorant mass of humanity in the desired direction? Gingrich seem to regard himself as the part of the intellectual vanguard, which may say anything and do anything to manipulate the masses.

Krugman, on the other hand, seems to think that the power of his ideas should persuade people to do what they should. That may seem naive, but it's a much less dangerous idea...unless, of course, he is quietly training a secret society of Keynesian psychohistorians, primed to take humanity into a future they have designed for us...


  1. Asimov's writing came at a time when we believe that technology could solve our problems, including the problems created by that technology. (That includes the technology of society, hence the Leninist link you mention.) Many saw science as inherently good, so there wasn't a need to be concerned that the psychohistorians would use their powers for evil.

    I think Asimov eventually turned his attention to this problem by tying in to the robot histories, specifically by applying the 3 laws of robotics to the psychohistorians.

    However, with looking at the world from 2011, I am no longer convinced that Asimov's premises hold; I'm sure I would enjoy the plots he wrote, but would roll my eyes at his predictions about human behavior and endless growth.

  2. Psychohistory was an idea for social engineering that actually worked, and reflected considerable optimism about our capacity to understand society and guide it. As you say, Asimov was a man of his times, and that kind of optimism about what was essentially a technical fix for the imperfections of society feels like kind of an early postwar optimism about such things. I suppose such optimism is in science fiction's DNA. I wonder if this has some bearing on the fact that science fiction has declined compared to fantasy -- we have far less optimism about technology.