Tolstoy had a very different theory of history. Tolstoy believed great leaders are puffed-up popinjays. They think their public decisions shape history, but really it is the everyday experiences of millions of people which organically and chaotically shape the destiny of nations — from the bottom up.

According to this view, societies are infinitely complex. They can’t be understood or directed by a group of politicians in the White House or the Green Zone. Societies move and breathe on their own, through the jostling of mentalities and habits. Politics is a thin crust on the surface of culture.

This is David Brooks, as excerpted by Russ Roberts. Brooks contrasts Tolstoy’s view with President Bush’s view, which is that leaders matter.

I strongly endorse the Tolstoy-Hayek view. That is why when someone asks me if I have a Presidential candidate for 2008 I just shrug my shoulders. That is why I believe that in 2012 our health care system will have most of the same problems that it has now.

When my daughter was given an exercise a few years ago to ask one of her parents to name a historically influential person, I named John Locke. I was trying to think of someone whose ideas permeated society and made a difference. Other obvious choices would have been Jesus or Marx.

Difficult counter-examples for Tolstoy might be leaders of the middle of the twentieth century, including Roosevelt, Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. Does one really want to argue that England without Churchill would have resisted the Nazis as vigorously and effectively? Even more difficult, who is prepared to argue that Hitler or Mao merely reflected and articulated the deeply-held values of their societies?