Historian Barbara Tuchman famously laid out three criteria for a decision to qualify as folly:
- The policy taken was contrary to self-interest;
- It was not that of an individual (attributable to the individual’s character), but that of a group;
- It was not the only policy available; and it was pursued despite forebodings that it was mistaken.
I was thinking of her criteria tonight when I read that Vietnam and Taiwan both began screening for the current pandemic virus by late December of last year, and both kept cases to remarkably low levels. This is so early as to be remarkable, revelatory. It can only be explained by their immunological scar tissue, having recent collective memory of SARS made it more likely they would respond to any threat early and aggressively.
Turning that around, however, is it folly, in Tuchman’s terms, to not have responded as early as those two countries did, knowing the early characteristics of the virus? Much of the argument today implies that it is, but I struggle to accept this, as much as I would like to. It’s not clear to me that Tuchman’s three criteria are met, at least not without perfect foreknowledge.
Does that mean there is no folly at all to be found in the tragic prevarications and stumbles of countries around the world? No, there is low-grade folly aplenty to be found, but mostly the garden variety.