Rawls, Antigone and the tragic irony of norms

Is civil disobedience justified when it invokes a moral objection to target a law that has been enacted through a legitimate process? The reason societies seek to establish a legitimate process in law making is because they want to set up common rules and norms which people who disagree with them will still have to abide by. However, history shows us many instances in which, even in a democratic system, civil disobedience both triggered and animated a debate on legitimately enacted rules and, often, led to their revision as well as the reform of the procedural rules that allowed their enactment in the first place.

Rawls’ position on civil disobedience struggles with this question. His position is that, once society has set up principles of justice in an institutional setting, acts of civil disobedience are just insofar as they appeal to the sense of justice of the majority and should be willing to bear the consequences of their actions. We may read the Rawlsian perspective as follows: these acts are still of value because they re-launch a process of public reasoning regarding the law itself.

However, the implications from this statement are broader and baffling. First, we don’t know how far this revision can go. Will it be allowed to cast doubt on the basic principles of justice which society previously agreed to observe? Can it challenge the procedural source of legitimacy for the contested norms?

Second, civic disobedience cannot be reduced to appeals to a sense of justice demanding the revision of law through the same process. Instead, the rationale behind civil disobedience reminds us that there will always be competing conceptions of justice that go as far as challenging the source of legitimacy – what some have come to accept as the just process may no longer seen as just by others. A society’s prior decision at a single historical moment that this is a just process for law making does not end the debate over different perceptions of justice concerning both norms and processes.

Moreover, acts of civil disobedience appear in moments in which different moral norms clash and judgment should be passed regarding which one takes precedence over the other. Episodes in the US history, particularly regarding the civil rights of African Americans, epitomize the important role of acts of disobedience in invoking a higher moral ground against norms approved by the majority through the institutions of a democratic system. We have learnt from history that these moments spawned animosities and brought about new episodes of conflict. They were emotionally disturbing episodes.

This implies that social contract theories tend to adopt an a-historical approach to norm-building and a, strangely- a-social view of public reasoning. Norm-building is seen as cleansed of emotions and often dismissive of the idea that there will be unintended and unforeseen consequences. A reduced historical and social conception of justice is what acts of civil disobedience reminds us of. The process of defining justice as norms and as process remains an open turf for never-ending, reflective social interactions that no constitutional moment can capture, crystallise and entrench indefinitely.

These three elements – the historicity and sociability of norms, normative contradiction, and the emotional dimension in the conflict over norms – is manifested in Sophocles’ masterpiece, Antigone. Sophocles’ theatrical play on civil disobedience was written around 441 BC, about 2,400 years before Rawls’s work. It conveys a nuanced message on norms, normative debates, public deliberation and reasoning, and sees the social nature of all as a human tragedy.

The play is set in the aftermath of a civil war in Thebes and the final battle which Thebes survives the attack of seven exiled Theban generals. One of the generals, Polynices, son of King Oedipus, fights his own brother, Eteocles, a defender of the city. In that fight, the two brothers kill each other.

Creon, the legitimate King of Thebes and uncle of the two brothers, issues a public order for Eteocles to be buried with honours and for Polynices to be left outside the walls to rot unburied as punishment for his betrayal. Creon also orders that whoever tries to bury Polynices’s body shall be arrested and executed.

Polynices’s sister, Antigone, defies Creon’s order and secretly buries her brother in accordance with the religious tradition that demands that the dead must be buried. Soon after, Antigone gets arrested and is brought by guards before Creon and the city. She chooses not to apologize for her actions or claim ignorance of law. Instead, she confronts Creon by invoking that the law of the gods is superior to the law of men.

Creon sentences her to death, publicly stating that everyone should be treated equally before the law. He would make no exception for her niece. Creon presents himself as a just leader who firmly adheres to ‘equality before the law’ even if that means he would sentence to death one of closest family members. The law, he stresses, is above everyone.

Antigone’s public act with an emotional appeal to the law of gods initially fails to trigger sympathy from the people of Thebes and Creon insists on his sentence. Antigone is taken off stage to be buried alive in a cave.

Creon’s own son and Antigone’s fiancé, Haemon, rushes to defend Antigone but he too fails to convince his father to change his decision. Even against his son, Creon reiterates his conviction that the law takes precedence over personal relations. But gradually the people of Thebes, the chorus of the play, changes its stance and starts showing more sympathy to Antigone’s drama.

In the next scene, a respected prophet named Tiresias makes a public interference. He tells Creon and the city that their neglect of the moral law will displease the gods and will bring more sorrow and pain to Creon’s family and the city of Thebes. The leader of the chorus changes his mind and asks Creon to reconsider his decision and set Antigone free. We are witnessing here that public is changing its views following a morally charged debate triggered by an act of civil disobedience. Antigone disobeyed the law guided by her love for her brother, but she was also honouring the law of the gods. Creon decides to spare Antigone. Emotions and fears have a drastic effect on public perceptions political decision making.

But Creon’s decision came too late. Antigone committed suicide. So did Haemon and, following the news of his death, her mother and Creon’s wife, Eurydice. The play ends with Creon devastated, isolated, discredited and vulnerable, and the city of Thebes descending back into chaos.

Rather than a clear clash between a hero and a villain, the two protagonists are tragic figures and so is the city itself. Creon wants to demonstrate that he is a prudent ruler who obeys the law that he rightfully sets. But he has to listen to the people he commands. His confrontation with Antigone is his own public act in which he defends his decision. The chorus, representing the people, initially sides with Creon but turns against him after observing a human drama unfolding and after hearing the menacing words of a prophet about the incoming doom. Perceptions of justice are drastically reshaped through an interplay of feelings, reasons and fears. Deliberation is emotionally charged.

Unlike Rawls, Sophocles’ theatrical play presents us with a richer blend of public reasoning, emotions, emotive responses, and unforeseen and unintended consequences in a debate over clashing norms and perceptions of justice. Creon – the personification of equal rules for everyone including his own relatives – is the legitimate political authority but his decision creates a personal and civic catastrophe. Thebes descends into a spiral of death and civil unrest. A just act of disobedience triggers a spiral of turmoil and tragedy. Emotions and personal affections guide decisions that produce unforeseen dramatic developments for the protagonists and the city as a whole.

The Greek drama is purposefully presented as a morally inconclusive story. Antigone had no initial intentions to make her actions a public statement and did not wish to bring down the entire political system. But after her arrest she did make a dramatic public defence of her stance invoking the moral law. Creon was surprised and angered, torn between his adherence to the rule of law and his duty towards his family. The Theban public watches all this astounded, emotional and anxious. This is far from a society that can be equilibrated into an orderly state. It cannot even rest secure about its own convictions.

Sophocles grasped much of what political theory tends to shy away from: the complexity and ambiguity surrounding normative thinking in human societies that tends to bring about tragic or fatal results for every system of norms shaken by its own contradictions. In short, Sophocles lyrically presents us the tragic irony of norms creation. Rather than taking a nomothetic stance, his play helps us reflect on the tragedy of human interactions from a nearly anthropological viewpoint.  

Sophocles allows the audience to pass their own judgment through both logical and emotional engagement. The audience is baffled by the merits of each of the opposing viewpoints – Creon’s defence of formal equality before the law and Antigone’s defence of a higher moral ground. But it is also touched and distraught by how tragic the protagonists are, trapped in the consequences of their own moral standing and reasoning. In Sophocles’ play, society is watching and reflecting on behaviors and norms through pathos, ethos and logos. After each performance, the verdict is a flow of tears rather than a canonical judgment.

You’re Not Worth My Time

In our polarized and politically intolerant times, intellectuals worry about the divisions in our societies. You might call it inequality or absence of social mobility, racism or rigid social structures but all pundits seem to agree that despite our apparent cosmopolitanism, many people’s opinions on lifestyles, politics, or economics are diverging. More so, their opinions about others’ opinions is less accepting. We disapprove of people that believe the wrong things, and we shun them in favor of like-minded people.

Economists like Paul Collier (The Future of Capitalism), Raghuram Rajan (The Third Pillar), and Branko Milanovic (Capitalism, Alone) are producing well-publicized books about how the social world of our current societies are collapsing – “coming apart at the seams”, as Collier phrases it. A recent book on technology and the environment by MIT researcher Andrew McAfee, states the following:

more and more people are choosing to have fewer ties to people with dissimilar values and beliefs, opting instead to spend more time among the like-minded. The journalist Bill Bishop calls this phenomenon ‘the big sort’. (2019:227)

The observation could have come straight out Jonathan Haidt, a scholar I greatly admire. Why do we do this Bishop-style sorting? A common assessment is that having people challenging my beliefs hurts my identity and I don’t like it. We rather go for echo chambers.

Let me be contrarian and obnoxious for a minute and defend this Big Sort: is it really that bad to distance oneself from those with different views and opt for like-minded people?

The Irrelevance of Political Opinion

It’s long been recognized by social scientists that politics drive people apart (together with ‘Economics’, ‘Religion’ and ‘Abortion’, forming the acronym R.A.P.E, the avoidance of which is key to successful social conversations). From being friendly customers in a decentralized marketplace, politics urges us to become enemies and opponents, demands that we confiscate one another’s stuff rather than cooperate in creating value for each other. Bringing up your position on some labor market reform or the taxation of the rich (of which your familiarity is probably quite limited) is likely to deteriorate a relation rather than improve it.

Here’s the thing: Life is much more important than politics. Life is the experiences we’ve had, the sunrises we’ve seen, the friends and relationships we’ve had and lost and the stories that came with them. Not to mention the food we ate and the things we did. What your stance is on the environment or what you think the long-term consequences of QE is going to be are all very secondary issues. They might be much more interesting to those of us who care about such things, but for the majority of people, they remain pretty immaterial.

What happens when you trumpet these R.A.P.E. topics in your indecent search for like-minded people – or even an experience-widening tolerant search for opponents? Consider the typical, loud liberty-minded American; within five minutes in his (yes, his) presence, you know what his views are and he throws them in people’s faces whether they like it or not. Your group of acquaintances, likely consisting of people who couldn’t care less, get annoyed. While some people may engage in serious conversations about politics or economics (or religion or abortion) once in a while, their lives are generally concerned with more worthwhile topics. Having some loud-mouthed libertarian invade their everyday life with provocative statements and logical argument is not just annoying, it is bad manners.

I can lecture anyone and everyone I meet on the brilliancy or markets or how Scottish banks operated in the 18th century, with the sole outcome that I will have no friends or even acquaintances. Sharing your political and economic views rarely endear you to other people; it merely makes you a nuisance.

In short: Don’t be an arse. Stop ruining our great time with mindless, hurtful, harmful politics.

What about the perspectives and knowledge of others?

If you must invade others’ lives with your pesky politics, speaking to people with diverging opinions and different background might be interesting and fruitful. Key words “might be”. More accurate words: “is rarely”.

It is true that you might learn some exciting things from random strangers, but it’s unlikely. Most people are less informed about the world than I am (if you doubt that, ask your conversation partners to take Rosling’s Gapminder test) – what are they going to “teach” me but inaccuracies and misinformation…?

Sure, my car-loving friends can teach me something *fascinating* about some new car, a topic a could care less about. My baseball-crazy friends could recount the latest Sox game or why Tom Brady is the greatest – oh, ye, that’s a different sport. Soz. But is an environmentalist really going to teach me anything worth knowing about the impacts of climate change? (No, how could they – they don’t understand markets or even capitalism). Is an Occupy Wall Streeter going to lecture me about how financial markets work and what banks really do? How is my mother contributing to my perspectives on monetary policy when the sheer extent of her monetary wisdom comes from a novel where the ostensibly private Federal Reserve was purchased and controlled by some millionaire?

Don’t get me wrong: these are all amazing people that I highly cherish. I enjoy spending time with them and sharing stories about life. Point is: I’m under no illusion that they offer intellectually valuable perspectives that I could benefit from.

If I wanted to get such perspectives, I’d much rather spend time around two kinds of people: smart or curious. The majority of people you meet are neither:

Smart People are those who actually know things about the world, and I don’t meant boring things like why Israel celebrates this or that holiday, why the sky is blue (OK, that could be cool) or how one assembles a roof out of palm leaves. I mean a fair and favorable view of markets and a data-driven optimism. I mean a basic grasp of statistics. I mean a big picture understanding of what matters and the intellectual capabilities to explore them.

Curious people are those of whatever political persuasion that have thick enough skin to have their positions questioned and willing to reason to reach mutual understanding. One does not have to be smart or well-informed to be interesting – it’s enough to be sceptical and hungry for knowledge.

They rarely make ’em like that no more. So I take my probability-informed chances and avoid politically-minded people.

Elitist and Snobby?

Probably. But consider this: I have 24 hours a day, of which I sleep maybe 8. For maybe another 8 a day, I need to produce value, and so can’t be interrupted by loud and obnoxious libertarians (or environmentalists, or anthropologists or…). The last third of my days contain a lot of tasks: washing, workout, food, reading, wonders of the world. At best, it leaves a couple of hours a day for curious intellectual disputes. Statistically, I have another 56 years to live, for little over 60,000 hours worth of intellectual endeavors. There is an almost an endless supply of materials from interesting people out there – actually smart people: authors of books and journal articles, podcast interviews, lectures etc, all on topics that interest me. And more is produced every day. For every hour you take away from me with your “enriching perspectives” and uninformed opinion, I lose an hour of engaging with the treasure trove of actually smart people. Besides, the depth of their knowledge, the clarity of their formulation, the well-researched (and sourced!) material and examples they bring are almost certainly better than whatever you’re about to bring me. Consider the opportunity cost for me of having to listen to you “bumble-f**k your way through it“, as my beloved Samantha (Lily Collins) says in Stuck in Love. Even if you only take 10 minutes of my time, is whatever you’re about to say better than 1/360,000 of the sum of humanity’s current (and future) literary, statistic and economic treasure?

I don’t think so either. It’s simply not worth it.

This is a good reason to stick to people of similar mindset – people who are curious and open to having every argument re-examined, every proposition questioned. People with thick enough skin and sharp enough intellect not to mistake your objection for insult.

It’s not really the content of someone’s ideas that we’re shunning; it’s the intolerance and ignorance that we’re avoiding, carefully taking the opportunity cost into account. Talking to people who don’t share those views – the meta-views of intellectual discourse if you wish – is mostly a waste of time. The book on my desk is almost certainly more valuable.

With all due respect, you’re simply not worth my time.

Madness Entitlement

Most American undergraduates in four-year colleges want to study abroad for a while. (I think this is probably true. I would bet 75/25 for.) In 2019 (or 2018, not clear) 20% of American students were diagnosed with or treated for depression. I can’t vouch for this number. That’s from an article by Andrea Petersen in the frou-frou pages of the Wall Street Journal of 11/12/19. (Yes, the WSJ has had frou-frou pages for years.) Petersen cites a study of 68,000 students by the American College Health Association in support.

The sunny, gay article (in the original meaning of the word “gay”) examines some of the ways in which American colleges and universities assist mentally and emotionally afflicted students realize every student’s dream of studying abroad. The measures taken range from allowing students going to Europe to bring their emotional support dog with them (would I make this up?) to training host families in how to alleviate their American guests mental suffering.

I don’t make light of depression but hey, here is a sound idea: Take a depressed young person probably still struggling to establish his/her identity and, for half or more, also struggling with grade issues, separate him/her from his/her recently acquired college support system, drop him/her suddenly in a country whose language they don’t understand (including most of the UK and some of Ireland), insert the student someplace where he/she is a nobody, with zero recognizable accomplishments. Wish him/her well. Wish for the best.

The mindlessness gets worse. Ms. Petersen comments on the big problems that arise when students gone abroad suddenly cease to take their medication. She cites by name a psychiatry professor who recommends avoiding any interruption in treatment by taking along enough medicine to last for the whole duration of the stay abroad. Excuse me, but isn’t it true that much anti-depression medicine is feel-good drugs easily subject to abuse? Isn’t it also true that a quantity large enough to last a year, even six months, is a quantity large enough to qualify you as a dealer in some, in many countries? Do you really want your inexperienced twenty-year old to spend even a little time in a slammer among people whose language he/she has not mastered? Isn’t this picture pretty much a definition of batshit crazy? (1)

Yes, they say, but it’s worth taking this kind of risk, or some risks, for the great enrichment studying abroad provides. What enrichment, I ask? If you polled twenty experienced college professors in a variety of disciplines, I am sure you would find only lukewarm endorsement for the practice. Study abroad disrupts learning in the same way vacations disrupt learning, or a little worse. In return, what good does it do? The easiest thing first: No, almost no students will “learn” a foreign language while studying abroad for a quarter, for a semester, even for a school year. That takes several years; immersion is both problematic and much oversold as an initial language learning method. (Actually, I think it does not work at all. If it did, we wouldn’t have so many immigrants stuck in low pay jobs after twenty years.) Immersion lasting a few months will benefit the handful of students who have already spend several years studying the language of the country where they stay. It will make the pieces fall into place faster, so to speak. For the rest of them, they well come back completely unable to line up a sentence beyond, “Lets’ go.” They will often, however, be equipped with rare words such as “antifreeze,” and “suntan lotion-30 strength.”

But living abroad may open young minds in some esoteric, seldom described ways. I tend to agree with this, more or less on trust. But so does an equivalent amount of time spent in a lumber camp. So does a stay in an area occupied by a moderately different social class. So does serving the homeless. So does – come to think of it – working at Burger King if you haven’t already had the experience. Everything different from one’s own experience opens the mind. Why one has to do it at great expense and specifically in a foreign country is not obvious to me. There are always the vestiges of history strewn all over Europe, of course, but I don’t believe many undergraduates begin to do the homework necessary to understand what they are looking at. In fact, I believe only a handful do in a thousand.

Finally, someone a little more honest will say: But they have so much fun! I agree there, although guardedly (I have observed American students abroad being actively miserable). Yes, studying abroad can be a lot of fun for a twenty-year old. But so can a vacation. And, it’s a lot cheaper. And, it’s more honest; it involves no pretense of learning, of significant culture acquisition.

So, one may ask, why do so many American universities maintain the pretense of the essential educational nature of study abroad? Two reasons: First, “Study Abroad” is often a profit center. They are able to charge more for tuition there than is eaten by such programs in faculty and bureaucratic salaries and benefits. Often, low-paid local instructors teach most of what courses are taught anyway. Besides, being abroad at someone else’s expense is often in itself a fringe benefit for American faculty sent abroad (presumably to teach the same courses they would teach at home, but not really). I took advantages of such an opportunity myself once. I spent three radiant months in Italy with my young family, most expenses paid. I did very little real teaching. I counseled students only because I felt like it. There were no boring faculty meetings to attend. It was pretty much a vacation.

The second reason American universities contribute to the fiction of study abroad is that it’s well aligned with their general mission. I explain: Do you wonder why so many undergraduates plunge into deep debt to earn a degree of little practical value (French, history, political science, biology, and best of all, psychology)? Aside from the traditional answer of personal cultivation (to which I happily subscribe for a large minority of the students I have known), there is the highly important symbolic matter of chartering. A college degree is and has been for many years a certificate of belonging to the middle class. No college degree? You may be rich, you may be respected, you may be talented; you are not middle class except if you are all of the above to a very high degree. Having studied abroad, being able to illustrate the fact with superficial comments about a foreign country, or more than one, is part of the chartering deal: “When I was in Italy….” There are costs but little by way of risks involved in the venture. It’s unlikely anyone in this country will be rude enough to address you in Italian; no one will ask you to demonstrate more than a spotty familiarity with Italy’s architecture; it’s unlikely anyone will try to make small talk with you about Italian history. You did it? Good enough! It’s just another youth entitlement. What’s wrong with this?

So, what if your kid is a little cuckoo? What if she can barely get up in the morning because she is so overwhelmed? What if he cries all the time? Well, it’s worth the risk just to make sure he or she enters adult life as a clearly middle class person. The alternative is too horrible to contemplate. Is this mad or not?


(1) I am grateful to Brandon Christensen, the capable founder and Editor of Notes on Liberty, for introducing this irreplaceable expression into my vocabulary.

PS: I am a retired university professor. My long-form vita can be found here.

Sunday Poetry: Arthur Schnitzler’s “Dream Story”

Schnitzler’s Masterpiece “Dream Story” for sure is a contender for the best-written dialogues and endings in the history of literature. Nobody manages it to merge dream and reality in such a sophisticated yet subtle way as Schnitzler.

And if you are a cinematic enthusiast, Stanley Kubrick’s filming of the novel called “Eyes Wide Shut” is well worth a glimpse.

The grey dawn was creeping in through the curtains when Fridolin finished. Albertina hadn’t once interrupted him with a curious or impatient question. She probably felt that he could not, and would not, keep anything from her. She lay there quietly, with her arms folded under her head and remained silent long after Fridolin had finished. He was lying by her side and finally bent over her, and looking into her immobile face with the large, bright eyes in which morning seemed to have dawned, he asked, in a voice of both doubt and hope: “What shall we do now, Albertina?”

She smiled, and after a minute, replied: “I think we ought to be grateful that we have come unharmed out of all our adventures, whether they were real or only a dream.” (My emphasis.)

“Are you quite sure of that?” he asked.

“Just as sure as I am that the reality of one night, let alone that of a whole lifetime, is not the whole truth.”

“And no dream,” he said with a slight sigh, “is entirely a dream.”

She took his head and pillowed it on her breast.

“Now I suppose we are awake,” she said, —” for a long time to come.” He was on the point of saying, “Forever,” but before he could speak, she laid her finger on his lips and whispered, as if to herself: “Never inquire into the future.” So they lay silently, dozing a little, dreamlessly, close to one another—until, as on every morning at seven, there was a knock on the door; and, with the usual noises from the street, a victorious ray of light. Through the opening of the curtain, and the clear laughter of a child through the door, the new day began.

As always, I wish you all a pleasant Sunday.

Some more borderline fraud from the higher education industry.

From the Wall Street Journal: For Sale: SAT-Takers’ Names. Colleges Buy Student Data and Boost Exclusivity

The title pretty much says it all: the College Board is selling data about test-takers (i.e. high school students) to colleges who use that to market to a wider pool of applicants. That wider pool often includes students who don’t stand a chance of getting in to the schools that are now marketing to them, but the marketing gives the false impression that the school wants them.

Joe Six-pack Jr. takes the SAT, fills out a survey, and that survey goes into a database. Some school that normally ranks near the middle of the pack buys a piece of that database, including Joe’s data. They send him a brochure and a letter that looks like it was written specifically for him (and he doesn’t know any better) so Joe, figures he’s being recruited. Instead of just applying to his local state schools, now he shells out an extra $50 to apply to Middling University. They summarily reject his application because his SAT scores were 1100 and they’re only accepting students who scored above 1300. MU now looks a little bit more prestigious in the rankings (which means their current administration can take credit before jumping ship to take a higher paying job at a school looking to also increase in the rankings). The College Board gets paid. The administrators get paid. The U.S. News rankings get a little less useful for incoming students, but they don’t know that. On the other hand the rankings get a little more important for decision makers at schools. And Joe Jr. is funding this whole mess despite being a) the least informed, and b) the least well funded player in this whole mess.

The Myth of the Nazi War Machine

Nazism and fascism, in the popular imagination, are associated with evil, immoral, inhumane treatment across conquered groups and their own subjects alike. These evil actions loom even larger because the thought of an entire society dedicated to military industry, extending its reach across and beyond Europe, inspires ghastly fears not only of evil intent but also astonishing military might that could overwhelm the Allies with the technological wonder of the V2 rocket, the deadly and ever-present U-boat threat, and the German “Royal Tiger” tank that was so well armored that Sherman-fired shells literally bounced off of it. This vision of the Nazis as conquering through technological and industrial superiority is not just a mistake of modern historians, but is actually based on the overestimation of their foes by the Allies and on the disastrously misplaced overconfident messaging of the Germans, Italians, and Japanese that their technology, industrial power, and elan gave them even a chance of victory. The miscalculation of the Hitler in extrapolating his successes in Poland and France to assuming his alliance could overwhelm the combined defenses of over 1.5 billion people represents the most astonishing delusion in military history.

The inspiration for this comes from Victor Davis Hanson’s fascinating economic and industrial history, The Second World Wars. One of his major arguments is that the Axis leaders lost because their commitment to their ideology became a fantasy that they had abilities that directly contradicted the reality of their actual abilities and those of their opponents. I heartily recommend the book and this shorter interview where he lays out the book’s central concepts. My major takeaway was that this fantasy has gone beyond the minds of Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini, and the vision of a vast industrial empire looming over the world is now imprinted on our memory of World War II. I think it is past time that we recognize Nazism as not only immoral but also incompetent. Below, I hope to share some astonishing statistics that show beyond a shadow of a doubt that the modern concept of Nazi military might is a myth.

  1. The Allies rode in cars, the Germans rode horses. In 1939, the only transportation available to 85% of German infantry other than walking was horses. By 1945…it was still 85%. In total, the US and UK produced almost 4 million general-use vehicles, compared to 160,000 German vehicles. That is a 25-fold advantage. The Allies also had 1 million infantry-supporting artillery compared to less than 100,000 for all of the Axis.
  2. Where were the supplies? The Allies had 46 million tonnes of merchant shipping vessels to the Axis’ 5 million, five times as much aluminum (key for engines and planes), and by 1943 had cut off all German access to rare metals such as tungsten, one of the key metals used in munitions, manufacturing, and electronics. The US supplied Britain and the USSR through the Lend-Lease Act with almost $700 billion (inflation-adjusted 2019 dollars) in supplies throughout the war, which is roughly double the entire German annual GDP in 1939.
  3. The Allies swam to victory on a sea of oil. Though Rommel came within a battle of accessing the British Middle-Eastern oil fields, the Axis still had astonishingly little fuel (which they needed to power their King Tiger, which drank a gallon of gas every 700 yards, the vast Luftwaffe that put over 130,000 planes into action, and their gigantic battleship Bismark). The Axis as a whole used 66 million metric tonnes of oil, while the Allies used a billion. A 15X advantage.
  4. The panzers were neither numerous nor superior technologically. The Mark 1 and 2 panzers that conquered France were actually less numerous and less technologically advanced than France’s. While blitzkrieg and elan overwhelmed the French, even the Mark 4–the most commonly used panzer in the late war–underperformed Shermans in infantry support and reliability and were even considered inferior to the Soviet T34 by Hitler himself. Even including the outmoded Czech tanks repurposed by the Germans, they fielded only 67,000 tanks on all fronts to face 270,000 Allied tanks (with no help from Italy, with a pitiful 3,300 tanks, and Japan largely ignored mobile land armor and created only 4,500 tanks). The environment of idealogical zeal in Germany prevented a military researcher from telling Hitler about the true tank numbers of the Soviets, as Hitler himself recognized later in the war by repeating that if he had known the true number of T34’s he faced, he would never have invaded. The US and USSR deployed massive numbers of upgraded Shermans and the workhorse T34s, while Germany sank huge investments into specialized and scary duds the Royal Tiger–300,000 man-hours and ten times as much as a Sherman. Only 1,300 Royal Tigers were ever produced, and their 70 tonnes of weight, constant mechanical issues, and cost undercut their supremacy in tank-on-tank duels. The US and Britain used precision bombing to inflict major tank losses on Germany, and while German tanks outfought Soviet tanks roughly 4:1, by 1945 the Soviets still had 25,000 tanks against the Germans’ 6,000.
  5. Collaboration helps both tech and strategy. The Allies worked together–the Sherman’s underpowered 75mm (corrected) could be upgraded with a British gun because of interoperability of parts, and the US and Brits delivered over 12,000 tanks and 18,000 planes to the Soviets under Lend-Lease; the Germans did not even have replaceable parts for their own tanks, and the Germans never helped their Italian allies (who had lost a land invasion even to the collapsing French) develop industrial capabilities. Bletchley Park gave advance warning to US merchant convoys, but the Italians and Japanese found out that Hitler had invaded the USSR only after troops had crossed into Ukraine.
  6. Fascism is not industrially sound. Even though the Nazis put an astonishing 75% of their GDP toward the military by 1944 and despite taking on unsustainable debt to sustain their production, their GDP in 1939 was $384 billion, roughly equal to the Soviets and $100 billion less than the UK and France combined. By the end of the war, this fell to $310 billion, compared to a whopping $1.4 trillion US GDP. However, even these numbers do not fully represent how non-mechanized, non-scalable, and non-industrial Germany was even under military dictatorship. While German science and engineering had been pre-eminent pre-WW I, the central control and obsession with infeasible, custom projects before and during the war meant that the Germans had a lower percentage of their population that could be mobilized for wartime production than their opponents, not to mention that their GDP per capita was half of that of the US, and yet the Axis still took on opponents that had productive populations five times their size.
  7. The V2 was a terrible investment. After losing the Battle of Britain (largely because of inferior training, radar, and plane production), the Nazis tried to use ballistic missiles to bomb the Brits into submission. The less technologically sophisticated V1 delivered a respectable 1,000 kg of explosives, but despite launching over 10,000, by mid-1944 the British countermeasures stopped 80% of these, and many misfired, failed to explode, or had guidance system malfunctions. The V2 was more sophisticated, but was never mass produced: only 3,000 were launched, and more Nazis were killed as part of the development of the rocket than Brits by their launch. The V1 and V2 programs combined cost 50% more than the Manhattan project, and even compared to the US’s most expensive bombing program (developing the B29), the cost-per-explosives-delivered was thirty times higher for the V2.
  8. The Luftwaffe was completely overmatched even by the RAF alone. Before the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe (2,500 planes) outnumbered the RAF (about 1,500), and the RAF was using more outdated Hurricanes than they were the newer Spitfire; however, the Brits scaled up training and production and even put novel innovations into their manufacturing within the 3 months of battle.
  9. The Germans underestimated the scalability of their opponent’s production. By the end of the war, the Brits manufactured 177,000 planes, 44,000 more than Germany. Crucially, though they started the war with far fewer experienced pilots, the Brits used this production advantage to train their pilots far better (in fact, the Brits had over 40,000 training aircraft). The US was similarly underprepared in terms of both aircraft production and training, but within a year had increased production from one B-24 every two weeks in 1940 to one every two hours in 1942. The US manufactured almost 300,000 planes by the end of the war, with far superior bombers (the figher-resistant B-17 and the giant, sophisticated Super Fortress B-29). However, the German air force personnel still needed to be more numerous than either the US or Britain because of the lack of mechanization.
  10. The Germans could not replace their pilots. By early 1945, the Germans were losing 30% of their pilots every month, even after giving up on bombing campaigns because of high pilot and plane attrition. They never scaled training and were sending completely green pilots against well-trained Allied opponents who had numerical, technological, and experience superiority by 1943 and air supremacy by 1944.
  11. The Germans did not deploy new air technologies to their advantage. While the jet engine and V2 rockets would revolutionize air power after the war, they did not impact the outcome of the war except to drain German R&D. Germany also failed to develop a functional heavy bomber, did not update their fighters’ technology during the war, never fully or effectively deployed radar, and never matched the Allies’ anti-aircraft defenses.
  12. The Allies could win through strategic bombing, but the reverse was not true. Both sides targeted industry and killed civilians en masse in strategic campaigns, but Germany never had the ability to strategically reduce their enemies’ production. Though Germany dropped 760,000 tonnes of ordnance on the Soviets and systematically destroyed production west of the Urals, the Soviets moved their industry to the East and continued outproducing their opponents with respect to tanks, vehicles, artillery, machine guns, and munitions. The Germans never produced a functional 4-engine bomber, so they could not use strategic bombing to undercut industry beyond this; the Blitz killed 40,000 civilians and destroyed over a million homes, but never developed into a threat against British military production. This also cost the Luftwaffe over 2,200 planes and 3,500 of their best pilots. However, nearly every major German and Japanese city was reduced by an unbelievable 3.5 million tonnes of ordnance dropped by the Allies, which killed over 700,000 German and Japanese civilians and destroyed the majority of both empires’ military production.
  13. The U-boat campaign became a colossal failure by 1943. Though the unrestricted submarine warfare of 1940-41 was sinking enough merchant vessels to truly threaten British supplies, Allied countermeasures–code-cracking, sonar, depth charges, Hedgehogs, Squids, and the use of surface aircraft to screen fleets–systematically destroyed the U-boats, which had losses of over 80% by the end of the war. In fact, the Germans barely managed to exceed the total merchant losses inflicted in World War I, and in May-June 1943 only sank two ships for every U-boat lost, ending the Battle of the Atlantic in just two disastrous months. The US was producing ships and supplies so quickly and in such vast quantities that the U-boats needed to sink 700,000 tonnes of shipping every month just to keep up with this production, which they did in only one month (November 1942); this number sank to less than a tenth of that by early 1943.
  14. The US actually waged a successful submarine campaign. Unlike the Germans, the US completely neutered the Japanese merchant fleet using submarines, which also inflicted over 55% of total Japanese fleet losses during the war, with minimal losses of submarine crews. Using just 235 submarines, the US sank 1,000 ships, compared to roughly 2,000 sunk by Germany (which cost almost 800 U-boat losses).
  15. Naval war had changed, and only the US responded. After the sinking of the HMS Prince of Wales near Singapore, all nations should have recognized that naval air forces were the new way to rule the waves. And yet, the Germans only ever built a single aircraft carrier despite their need to support operations in North Africa, and built the Tirpitz, a gigantic Bismarck-class battleship (that cost as much as 20 submarines), which barely participated in any offensive action before being destroyed by successive air raids. Germany never assembled a fleet capable of actually invading Britain, so even if they had won the Battle of Britain, there were no serious plans to actually conquer the island. Japan recognized the importance of aircraft carriers, and built 18, but the US vastly overmatched them with at least 100 (many of them more efficient light carriers), and Japan failed to predict how naval air supremacy would effectively cut them off from their empire and enable systematic destruction of their homeland without a single US landing on Japanese home soil.
  16. The Nazis forgot blitzkrieg. The rapid advances of Germany in 1939 is largely attributable to the decentralized command structure that enabled leaders on the front to respond flexibly based on mission-driven instructions rather than bureaucracy. However, as early as Dunkirk (when Hitler himself held back his tank forces out of fear), the command structure had already shifted toward top-down bureaucracy that drummed out gifted commanders and made disastrous blunders through plodding focuses on besieging Sevastopol and Stalingrad rather than chasing the reeling Soviets. Later, the inflexibility of defenses and “no-retreat” commands that allowed encirclement of key German forces replayed in reverse the inflexibility of the Maginot line and Stalin’s early mistakes, showing that the fascist system prevented learning from one’s enemy and even robbed the Germans of their own institutional advantages over the course of the war.
  17. Even the elan was illusory. Both Germany and Japan knew they were numerically inferior and depended on military tradition and zeal to overcome this. While German armies generally went 1:1 or better (especially in 1941 against the Soviets, when they killed or captured 4 million badly-led, outdated Soviet infantry), even the US–fighting across an ocean, with green infantry and on the offensive against the dug-in Germans–matched the Germans in commitment to war and inflicted casualties at 1:1. At the darkest hour, alone against the entire continent and while losing their important Pacific bases one by one, the Brits threw themselves into saving themselves and the world from fascists; only secret police and brute force kept the Nazis afloat once the tide had turned. The German high command was neutered by the need for secrecy and the systematic replacement of talented generals with loyal idiots, and the many mutinies, surrenders, and assassination attempts by Nazi leaders show that the illusory unity of fascism was in fact weaker under pressure than the commitment and cooperation of democratic systems.
  18. The Nazis never actually had plans that could win an existential war. Blitzkrieg scored some successes against the underprepared Poles and demoralized French, but these major regional victories were fundamentally of a different character than the conflicts the Nazis proceeded to start. While the Germans did take over a million square miles from the Soviets while destroying a 4-million-strong army, the industry was eventually transferred beyond the Urals and the Soviets replenished their army with, over 4 years, a further 30 million men. But most of all, even if Hitler somehow achieved what Napoleon himself could not, neither he nor Tojo had any ability to attack Detroit, so an implacable, distant foe was able to rain down destruction without ever facing a threat on home soil. The Nazis simply did not have the technology, money, or even the plans to conquer their most industrially powerful opponent, and perhaps the greatest tragedy of the entire war is that 60 million people died to prove something that was obvious from the start.

Overall, the Nazis failed to recognize how air and naval air superiority would impact the war effort, still believed that infantry zeal could overcome technological superiority, could not keep pace with the scale of the Allies’ industry or speed of their technological advances, spent inefficiently on R&D duds, never solved crucial resource issues, and sacrificed millions of their own subjects in no-retreat disasters. Fooled by their early success, delusions of grandeur, and belief in their own propaganda, Hitler and his collaborators not only instituted a morally repugnant regime but destroyed themselves. Fascism a scary ideology that promises great power for great personal sacrifice, but while the sacrifice was real, the power was illusory: as a system, it actually underperformed democracy technologically, strategically, industrially, and militarily in nearly every important category. Hopefully, this diametrical failure is evidence enough for even those who are morally open to fascism to discard it as simply unworkable. And maybe, if we dispel the myth of Nazi industry, we can head off any future experiments in fascism and give due recognition to the awe-inspiring productivity of systems that recognize the value of liberty.

This is in no way exhaustive, and in the interest of space I have not included the analogous Italian and Japanese military delusions and industrial shortcomings in World War II. I hope that this shortlist of facts inspires you to learn more and tell posterity that fascism is not only evil but delusional and incompetent.

All facts taken from The Second World Wars, Wikipedia, or general internet trawling.

Sunday Poetry: Stefan Zweig’s “Royal Game”

A Sunday is perfect for me to cure hangovers, slurp coffee in bed, and most vital, for a couple rounds of chess. The miraculous yet material nature of chess could not have been better described than by Stefan Zweig in his “Royal Game“:

“I was well aware from my own experience of the mysterious attraction of the royal game, which among all games contrived by man rises superior to the tyranny of chance and bestows its palm only on mental attainment, or rather on a definite form of mental endowment. But is it not an offensively narrow construction to call chess a game? Is it not a science, a technique, an art, that sways among these categories as Mahomet’s coffin does between heaven and earth, at once a union of all contradictory concepts: primeval yet ever new; mechanical in operation yet effective only through the imagination; bounded in geometric space though boundless in its combinations; ever-developing yet sterile; thought that leads to nothing; mathematics that produce no result; art without works; architecture without substance, and nevertheless, as proved by evidence, more lasting in its being and presence than all books and achievements; the only game that belongs to all peoples and all ages; of which none knows the divinity that bestowed it on the world, to slay boredom, to sharpen the senses, to exhilarate the spirit?”

I wish you all a pleasant Sunday.