Thomas Sowell on tragedy and blame

From economist Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society:

Without some sense of the tragedy of the human condition, it is all too easy to consider anything that goes wrong as being somebody’s fault.
— Thomas Sowell

This week I happened to teach the Bolshevik Revolution, the Red Scare, and Weimar Germany, so this line resonated powerfully with me when I ran across it again. Whether it be the kulaks, the anarchists, the Jews, or someone else, it is easy to search for and find someone to blame when complex things go wrong. The truth is hard: bad things happen. Sometimes the causes do not admit of definitive explanation. Who is responsible may never become clear, and may even be a meaningless question if the situation is complex and its origins murky enough. To cave into the desire to scapegoat—and to indulge in the conspiratorial thinking that usually goes along with justifying the blame you have assigned—is to escape into fantasy and, not coincidentally, attempt to play god.

Sowell again:

The risks of making decisions with incomplete knowledge (there being no other kind) are part of the tragedy of the human condition. However, that has not stopped intellectuals [the subject of Sowell’s book] from criticizing the inherent risks that turn out badly in everything from pharmaceutical drugs to military operations—nor does it stop them from helping create a general atmosphere of unfulfillable expectations in which “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” become a thousand bases for lawsuits.

Compare this line from Isaiah Berlin, which I discovered via Alan Jacobs’s blog: “The sense of infallibility provided by fantasies is more exciting, but generates madness in societies as well as individuals.”

We’ve all seen control freaks lose it when something apparently minor and random upsets their applecart. (Or, if you haven’t seen it, perhaps we’ve been that control freak. I have.) It’s not hard to imagine the effects of that kind of tantrum on a society-sized scale.

Think of technocratic modernity’s general assumption that with enough knowledge and power you can control virtually anything, if not everything. Now consider the ferocity with which the Nazis persecuted the Jews or the Communists royalists, kulaks, or other “traitors.” The threat to their expected order proved so great that persecution was not enough—they sought to destroy them. And it’s worth noting that while both systems—both of which presumed an impossible degree of control over naturally chaotic things, race and the economy—had carefully calculated plans for destroying their enemies, some of the worst outbursts of violence came in the wake of disappointments. Look at the Holodomor, or the final months of the Third Reich.

To conclude with Sowell again, “a general atmosphere of unfulfillable expectations” would be a pretty good title for a history of the present age.