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Wish fulfillment based on false premises
on 14 July 2015
The one good thing about this book is that it is mentally stimulating. I have made more marginal annotations on it than any book I’ve ever read. However, the vast majority of my comments are highly critical.
Rather than demolish the book brick by brick I will briefly examine the general principles on which Friedman operates.
Firstly he takes a deterministic and impersonal view of history in which individuals don’t matter. Marx said the same but he was wrong too. Consider for example if we’d had the appeaser Lord Halifax as PM in 1940 instead of Churchill.
He likens history and politics to a game of chess in which all possible moves are narrowly constrained. This is a false analogy because chess pieces just go where the players put them- unlike people.
He assumes (like mainstream economists) that leaders are rational actors, motivated only by (mainly short term) self interest, and that leaders and their countries can be treated as interchangeable, as in “Iran does this and Israel does that.” And like mainstream economics this is all nonsense. People’s motivation is mostly irrational, and is based on very imperfect knowledge. On the other hand people- even national leaders- are not always entirely selfish. The selfish option for Britain in 1940 would have been appeasing Hitler and remaining neutral. The upper classes and the royals largely favoured this but the country as a whole did not. Also, not all national leaders act even for the short term apparent benefit of their nation- many work only for the interests of one class, region, religion, tribe or even simply for their own family.
He totally neglects the role of religious belief and national identity in collective motivation- except, oddly, in the case of Mexicans!
Finally, like Oswald Spengler he asserts that nations are “barbaric” in youth, civilised in their prime, and decadent in old age. He classes America as a young barbaric nation and Europe as old and decadent. So here we have more determinism but of a different type. It’s an attractive idea but how does he explain reversion to barbarism as in the Third Reich?
Aside from these flawed general principles there is a good deal of wishful thinking, which probably accounts for it selling so well in America. In particular Friedman has convinced himself that both China and Russia are doomed to fairly imminent collapse. In China’s case this will result from imbalance between the more developed coastal regions and the poorer interior. But this imbalance applies even more so to the USA, where regional economic differences are exacerbated by religious and ethnic divisions! As a centrally directed authoritarian state, China is much better able to make the necessary adjustments than the USA where President and Congress are frequently at odds.
Due to his neglect to consider religious and racial identity, he assumes for instance that China’s coastal areas will happily accept Japanese domination, forgetting their hatred of Japan dating back to World War Two. Yet elsewhere he asserts that Yugoslavia could never have worked due to Croat/Serb animosity dating from the same period!
He also asserts that (as of 2009) political Islamism is on its way out already. Well I hope no one paid him for that prediction because two years later we had the so-called Arab Spring which soon became the Islamist Spring, and shows no sign of abating as of July 2015.
His subsequent forecasts are predicated on his fantasy of Chinese and Russian collapse, with Poland, Japan, and Turkey coming to rival the USA, culminating in a Third World War in the early 2050s. His account of World War Three is strangely unimaginative- the future as seen from the 1960s, with hypersonic bombers and battle satellites, but no cyber-warfare, genetic weapons, psychotronic weapons, or induction of earthquakes and extreme weather. For that matter he scarcely mentions global warming- “something will come up” seems to be his answer to that problem. There is also no mention of terrorism AKA asymmetrical warfare.
Despite Friedman being Jewish, he scarcely mentions Israel- an odd omission, which I suspect is mainly about painting that very troublesome country as merely reacting to events rather than manipulating them through it’s extremely disproportionate influence in American politics.
The most interesting thing about this book is that the author actually makes his living from this type of forecasting, working for major American companies. In view of this I can well see why he calls America a “barbaric” society, since “barbarians” are generally seen as very credulous.