Tolstoy and the Great Man Theory
By Bryan Caplan
Most historians tell stories in which the decisions of a few Great Men drastically change the fates of millions. Prinzip started World War I by assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Stalin collectivized agriculture, and Hitler ordered the Holocaust. Tolstoy wrote his greatest novel, War and Peace, before any of these events happened. But it’s clear that he would have violently objected to the standard historical accounts.
In part, Tolstoy’s case is philosophical: “[T]he course of human events is predetermined from on high.”
In part, it is tautologous: “At the battle of Borodino Napoleon shot at no one and killed no one. That was all done by the soldiers. Therefore it was not he who killed people.”
But the interesting part of his argument is microeconomic. According to Tolstoy, it only looks like X happens because The Great Man ordered X to happen. Why?
The French soldiers went to kill and be killed at the battle of Borodino not because of Napoleon’s orders but by their own volition. The whole army- French, Italian, German, Polish, and Dutch- hungry, ragged, and weary of the campaign, felt at the sight of an army blocking their road to Moscow that the wine was drawn and must be drunk. Had Napoleon then forbidden them to fight the Russians, they would have killed him and have proceeded to fight the Russians because it was inevitable.
In other words, causation goes not from The Great Man to the masses, but the other way around. A leader who tries to make the masses do something they don’t want to do loses his head, and the masses continue on their merry way:
Strange as at first glance it may seem to suppose that the Massacre of St. Bartholomew was not due to Charles IX’s will, though he gave the order for it and thought it was done as a result of that order; and strange as it may seem to suppose that the slaughter of eighty thousand men at Borodino was not due to Napoleon’s will, though he ordered the commencement and conduct of the battle and thought it was done because he ordered it; strange as these suppositions appear… historic investigation abundantly confirms it.
I worship Tolstoy’s writing, and he’s got a coherent model, but it’s obviously wrong. Sure, there are times when events force a leader’s hand. Once the Russians were shooting at Napoleon’s troops, they were going to shoot back. But if Napoleon hadn’t given the original order to invade Russia, his troops were not going to kill him in Paris and march to Moscow.
How is this possible? Modern game theory has a simple answer: Great Men serve as focal points in coordination games. In many circumstances, people want to do what other people are doing. If no one else is invading Russia, you don’t want to either. If all your fellow soldiers are invading Russia, however, you probably don’t want to be left behind. Given this indeterminancy, you often get the result that most people see as “obvious.”
But doesn’t that confirm Tolstoy’s point? Not if the obvious outcome is “Follow the Leader.”
It often is. Indeed, once people accept you as a Great Man, it’s easy to get them to do all sorts of things. Men will kill for you, bleed for you, and sit around doing nothing for you. There are limits, but there is tons of slack. The really interesting question, which game theory has only begun to address, is how society turns a short Corsican into a Great Man. Personal ability and a charismatic personality are clearly part of the story. But as the whole history of hereditary monarchy shows, being at the right place at the right time matters a lot too.