When Wrong Wins
By Bryan Caplan
In the real world, the wrong side often wins. The Bolsheviks won the Russian Civil War. The Nazis won Germany’s 1933 election. North Vietnam won the Vietnam War. The Ayatollah beat the Shah. The more history you know, the more examples you see of the Triumph of Evil (or to be more precise, the Triumph of the Greater Evil). Question: When you witness these lamentable outcomes, what should you conclude?
Some people will reconsider their original evaluation. When “wrong” wins, perhaps we should conclude that “wrong” was actually in the right. But it’s hard to see why mere victory would exonerate anyone. Even if good ideas are generally more popular, this is counter-balanced by the fact that the unscrupulous – people who will “do anything to win” – are more likely to win. In markets, of course, mistreating others gives you a bad reputation, so customers avoid you. But in politics, mistreating others gives you a frightening reputation, so subjects obey you.
Another strange reaction: When wrong wins, some infer that its victory was somehow “inevitable” – and hence (?) futile to resist. But determinist philosophy aside, why would bad outcomes be any more inevitable than the opposite?
The most understandable reaction: When wrong wins, its tempting to say that the good guys (or at least the less-bad guys) made a major strategic error. This makes some Bayesian sense: On average, good strategy leads to better results; therefore, when results are bad, we should probabilistically infer that strategy was bad. But why think this is a strong effect? Captain Kirk may not believe in “no-win scenarios,” but he’s a fictional character. When I read history, I see plenty of hopeless situations. In any case, hindsight is 20/20; the fact that a strategy seems bad after the fact does not mean that a judicious observer would have acted differently at the time.
The same applies to more debatable disasters. Take Brexit and Trump. Many elite observers seem more upset about these events than they ever were about the victory of the Ayatollah. Perhaps they’re wrong.* But does the mere that these events happened provide a good reason to think that Brexit or Trump were actually good or inevitable? Hardly.
It is far more reasonable to infer that the opponents of Brexit and Trump made major strategic errors. For Brexit, there’s an obvious candidates: Cameron never should have supported a referendum. For Trump, this is far less clear. It’s tempting to say that Democrats shouldn’t have nominated Clinton, but what are the odds that the alternative candidate would have won?
The more general lesson: The world is not a morality play. When bad things happen, it’s not because the universe is punishing us for our misdeeds or misperceptions. The sad truth is that bad people can punish you for being good. Indeed, they routinely do. If you hastily blame yourself, you’re needlessly adding self-insult to injury.
* Personally, I think such elite observers are both provincial and hyperbolic. Brexit and Trump seem bad to me, too – but not remotely as bad as hundreds of thousands of people dying in the Iran-Iraq War.