Thinking About the Big Picture

by Will on September 4, 2010

The big picture is that the things we think affect history — the choices of individuals, the actions of “great men,” our prayers and follies and moments of despair — are usually pretty incidental to history’s grand arc. It’s easy to view the Civil War as a war of wits between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses Grant, and maybe there are some circumstances where the South might have won. But the truth is that objective conditions favored the North no matter who was in charge — it had more potential soldiers, it had a more advanced and productive economy, and when the chips were down slavery turned out to be a huge liability to the South. To win, the South would have needed really inept leadership in the North, or else foreign intervention on their side, by somebody with more military power than the North. Lincoln and Grant deserve credit, but another president or general could well have achieved the same outcome. Similarly, I’ve been celebrating the skill with which Frances Perkins achieved some of the institutions of a modern welfare state. And indeed she deserves credit. But all of the other developed democracies like ours also introduced such institutions, so it’s likely that absent Perkins, some other tenacious reformer would have done it here at some point. The actions of individuals matter, but they matter much less than the material realities in which they act.

That’s the big picture. At the macro level, outcomes reflect material realities.

But when you zoom in there are lots of ¬†individual variations from trend. Overall, workers in the US are pretty productive, but we’ve all met lazy people working here. Overall, people follow the incentives facing them and try to maximize their own happiness, but some people choose to go be bums and live on the streets. And some people make enormous sacrifices for which they receive no appreciation, even spending the bulk of their wealth on things that help other people but not themselves. There is no strict material determination of behavior, and no social science will ever achieve anything approaching positive certainty in its predictive power.

Additionally, our only-somewhat-reasonable minds are slow to catch up to new material realities. For instance, in the brutish pre-modern world, there were really good reasons to strictly enforce the rules that people must be chaste until marriage, must stay married for life, and must pretend to be heterosexual even if they had contrary desires. If individuals didn’t go along, someone would likely suffer unwanted poverty. So these stigmas made sense at the time, as a matter of social outcomes. Now we have a reality where being chaste is not the only way to prevent pregnancy, where women can support themselves if they separate from their husbands, where having children to look after you in old age isn’t necessary because you’ll get SS or a pension, where inheritance of property is much less important, and where childhood mortality is very rare. Those old rules are no longer vital to social stability! But they are so etched into the stories we tell each other about the world that they still have their vigorous proponents, and they still impact people’s behavior and how they think of themselves. People are weird.

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