Lawrence Freedman – Strategy: A History

Lawrence Freedman – Strategy: A History

There are a few subjects I’ve always found uninteresting, despite my best efforts. Most of them involve conflict, rather than cooperation; this may be why I am so drawn to economics, which is the study of human cooperation. Uninteresting (to me) conflicts include theological disputes, most military history, and strategy of the zero-sum variety.

This book didn’t change my mind about military history, but the rest of it is surprisingly engaging. It is also very long—I recommend the audio version. Organized mostly chronologically, the book starts with ancient Greek, Roman, and biblical figures, quickly dispenses with the cliched Machiavelli and Sun Tzu, and gives John Milton’s Paradise Lost a surprising turn.

The part titled “Strategy from Below” is mostly about different theories of socialist revolution, which has a wealth of different approaches and strategic philosophies that apply well outside that ideology. One complication is that socialism is a top-down strategy to social organization; “Strategy from Above” would have been a more accurate title. He also could have done more to highlight the differences between Marx’s belief that revolution could only happen in an already-industrialized country; Lenin’s focus on small professional cadres; Mao’s blend of pastoralism and centralized decentralization; and various decentralized anarchist movements. But I still learned a lot from Freedman’s treatment.

Freedman’s discussion of the civil rights movement is excellent, and far more rewarding than the usual black-and-white contrast between Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s non-violence versus more radical strategies. As is often the case, there is much more to the story, with many in-between strategies working towards the common goals of equal rights and ending segregation.

The mostly white and middle-class 1960s campus radicals often come off as privileged twits by comparison. Counterculture has great value in moving social norms over in favor of individualism and dynamism, against war. The movement also produced some excellent art, literature, and music. But it fell short in more serious areas such as political philosophy and strategy, and badly failed in staying clear of self-evidently dumb new age philosophy.

The next part, “Strategy from Above,” focuses mainly on business and management, which is more a blend of blending top-down management strategies in firms that are constantly reacting to new developments in bottom-up emergent orders. The section title is poorly chosen, but the content is good.

As the baby boomer generation entered middle age and middle management, some of its members became part of a new management guru movement. It came complete with ghostwritten self-help books, outrageous speaker fees, and power suits with built-in shoulder pads. Freedman calls them these management gurus the snake oil salesmen they are, and shares some amusing behind-the-scenes stories from this movement’s heyday.

But life did not begin with the baby boomers. Freedman begins this movement’s roots to about a century before, while offering an unfortunately conventional and easily disproven account of Standard Oil and the early antitrust movement. At the same time, he is critical of Frederick Taylor and his top-down Taylorite management philosophy, which was espoused by early-20th century thinkers from Rockefeller’s nemesis Ida Tarbell to President Woodrow Wilson.

Freedman doesn’t go into detail about this, but Taylorist thinking grew out of the German Historicist school. Its regimented, top-down ethos inspired much fascist and corporatist public policy, most openly by Mussolini. More bottom-up inclined thinkers such as Mises and Hayek both grew up in Austria when German Historicism was at its peak, and developed their emergent-order liberalism in part as a direct reaction against the Historical School.

Later sections introduce underappreciated figures such as Henry Simon, William Riker (the political scientist, not the Star Trek: The Next Generation character), and Mancur Olson. Freedman also discusses the role of game theory in corporate, military, and government strategies in the post-war era.

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