But some indications that there is more to the blunders than Douthat describes can be seen in one of his examples: the Iraq War. Ideology was a big part of what drove the war. You don’t need a one-party state for ideology to play such a role—just control for a time by one party of some of the functions of the state. And although the war makers certainly had excessive confidence that they knew what they were doing, the launching of the war involved the rejection of much relevant expertise. The excessive and misguided risk taking that was involved was due less to meritocracy than to some people getting in a position—through whatever means, not necessarily merit—in which they could place big bets with other people’s money, and in this case with other people’s lives.
This is related to what I was saying about expertise last week. Experts and technocrats can get things badly wrong, but the Iraq war is a good example of what happens when people embark on a large project while ignoring all the many experts who said that it was folly. Something similar could be said about the European project that Ross mentions in the same breath with Iraq. There were many people before and since the adoption of the euro who saw that a monetary union without comparable fiscal and political union would not function very well for long. The creation of the euro was an important part of the ideological project of forging European unity in defiance of historical experience and despite the resistance of many Europeans. In both cases, the people involved in crafting these projects were there because they endorsed the project’s ideological goals, and critics of both projects were ignored or dismissed largely because they did not have the correct ideological commitments. To the extent that any system makes ideological conformity a high priority, merit will tend to lose out, and the system will soon be run by less competent yes-men.
There was something else Ross wrote that caught my attention:
In hereditary aristocracies, debacles tend to flow from stupidity and pigheadedness: think of the Charge of the Light Brigade or the Battle of the Somme.
It’s true that Lord Raglan represented many of the worst traits of British aristocratic military leadership, but the debacles of the Crimean War had their ultimate origin in the meddlesome spirit represented by Palmerston and the liberal interventionists of his age. Had it not been for ideological factors and the delusional belief that Russia threatened British interests, those soldiers would never have been there. It was the decision to send them that was the greatest blunder, and that decision owed a great deal to the increasingly democratic politics of Britain at the time. Offensives in WWI were all to one degree or another disastrous debacles, but this was as much a function of modern mass warfare as it was of a particular kind of leadership.