Why Smart People Do Stupid Things
If youre so smart, we ask without thinking, why aint you
With thinking, we know the answer: many of the very
smartest people, perhaps even most, find better things to do
than making money.
The more interesting question is why so
many of the very smartest people do such stupid things. Take
Henry Kissinger.* Please.
Mr. Kissinger has spent most of his
life in the field of foreign affairs, rising from a poor
immigrant boy to become Secretary of State and a co-winner of
the Nobel Peace Prize. He must be one smart fellow.
And so he
appears to be, until we look back to see just how well his
policies have worked out over time. Not so well, actually.
Most of them, in fact, turn out to have been moronic.
a few picked casually from his eight disastrous years spent running the
nations foreign policy; the list could easily be doubled or
Mr. Kissingers campaign to overthrow the elected
government of Chile allowed General Pinochet to destroy
democracy in Chile. The damage to Chilean freedom was great,
and only now beginning to be repaired; the gain to the United
States was negligible.
Mr. Kissingers support of the Greek
colonels caused similar damage to that countrys democracy,
with, once more, no appreciable gain for us.
backed the Shah against the Ayatollah Khomeini even when he no
longer had an official voice in the matter: after leaving
office he successfully lobbied President Carter to arrange a
safe haven for the deposed emperor. This led directly to the
assault on our embassy in Teheran and to twenty years of
enmity, often exploding into terrorism, between Iran and the
Mr. Kissingers peace with honor in Vietnam
brought neither. We wound up betraying our clients and
weaseling out of our promise of postwar aid to Hanoi.
Nixons and Mr. Kissingers war, as it had become by then, was
originally justified as necessary to keep noncommunist
dominoes in the region from falling. When we surrendered,
though, the dominoes did not fall. Instead they prospered
while the communist states of China, Vietnam, and Cambodia
made war on each other.
One of these wars led to the invasion
of Cambodia by the Vietnamese, who drove the murderous Khmer
Rouge into exile. Mr. Kissinger hurried to embrace the deposed
Pol Pot, the most revolting butcher since Stalin.
This was on
the theory that the friend of my enemys enemy is my friend,
China being Russias enemy and Pol Pots patron. This
exercise in realpolitik was so successful that
established freedom of the press, open elections, private
ownership of industry, and a nationwide chain of McDonalds. Or
was that Russia?
Mr. Kissingers policies often
appeared so unrelated to the observable facts of the world
that it seemed to many people, even at the time, that he must
inhabit some alternative universe. What could lead so smart a
man to act so stupidly?
IMAGINE YOUNG HENRY finding himself at the
age of fourteen not
in New York City, but in a cannibal village. Frightened, he
seeks protection from the village elders by making himself
useful to them. Energetic and intelligent, he succeeds.
pass and the small, weak, pale boy has made himself into the
most important witch doctor in the tribe, applying with great intelligence the
traditional tools of flattery, lies, betrayal, indifferent cruelty,
bullying of those below him, and fulsome flattery of those above.
Now his wisdom is sought in the highest
cannibal councils. He is mentioned regularly by the talking
drums, and his exploits are already part of the
tribes oral history. If intelligence consists in looking out
for Number One, this is surely one smart cannibal.
problems the eminent witch doctor has so successfully solved
presented no particular intellectual challenge. The skills of
the courtier are eternal and widely understood.
young Henrys triumphs among the cannibals have required him
to deploy more than a fraction of his intelligence, and that
fraction only in the unimaginative service of his king. Creative
and original thinking outside the royal box would likely have
cost him his head.
Thus it would never have occurred to him,
for instance, to ponder the ethics or morality of cannibalism.
He would not have considered whether the practice promoted the
general peace or happiness of his or the neighboring tribes.
Indeed he would not be likely to believe that peace and
happiness were practical or desirable goals, except for
And yet any
outsider of even modest intelligence would see instantly that
cannibalism had certain drawbacks, visible even to the most
permissive moral relativist. The newcomer might argue that the practice
could infect the tribe with kuru, an invariably fatal variant
of Mad Cow disease. He might point to the lack of solid
evidence that an enemys strength and courage will be absorbed
by the tribe that eats him. The stranger might suggest that an
alliance with the tribe next door would be a better way to
make both of them stronger.
But if the visitor made these
perfectly sensible points, he would not wind up as secretary
of state. More than likely Mr. Kissinger would see to it that he
wound up as lunch.
Then wed see which one was the moron. Certainly not the white witch
doctor who so instinctively understood the age-old secret of
bureaucratic advancement: to be wrong with brilliance about the same
things that everybody else in your tribe is wrong about.