January 18, 2007

Foxhogs and Hedgebirds

Hatched by Dafydd

Since I'm reading Thomas P.M. Barnett's fascinating book the Pentagon's New Map, I decided to peruse his website -- which ironically enough is titled thomaspmbarnett.com. Surfing his site (when my wife thought I was beavering away at rewriting the new novel), I stumbled across Barnett's columns for the Knoxville News Sentinel. And -- hot dog! -- I found a piece I can really light into.

See, I've been itching to find something to complain about ever since he dissed naval air on Hugh Hewitt's show, implying that we ought to do away with carriers (if they weren't so "cool"). So this is it: his column of January 6th, Enough of the Hedgehog. (Is that the most long-winded introduction you've ever seen in a blogpost?)

In the piece, Barnett divides all presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to George W. Bush into either "foxes" or "hedgehogs." He takes the terms from an aphorism attributed to "the ancient Greek poet Archilochus," who allegedly said (I wasn't there, and neither was Barnett) "the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." (Actually, he said it in ancient Greek, if he said it at all. So we're all wrong.)

What does this mean in practice? Barnett uses the terms thus: a "hedgehog" president has one big idea; he puts his head down and charges after that one idea, come hell or spilled milk. But a "fox" president has wide-ranging interests and engages on many fronts at once:

Our democracy regularly requires painful compromises to balance the extremes against the large, mushy middle that encompasses most American voters. After all, this republic is ruled by the majority, which sometimes craves the hedgehog's unwavering consistency and at other times welcomes the fox's intellectual agility.

At the end, Barnett bemoans our sorry state, having a (by definition) monomaniacal hedgehog as president right now... and yearns for a brilliant, young fox to come along and rescue us from Bush's tunnel-vision.

The first problem should be readily apparent: since no president has exactly one idea, and none has an infinite number of ideas, where exactly does one draw the line between a hedgehog and a fox? Barnett might argue this is a trivial objection, but I demur: his main thrust is that Bush is a hedgehog, when what we need now is a fox... but taking his taxonomy seriously, he's saying that Bush is more like Ronald Reagan ("a quintessential hedgehog"), when what we really need is the foxy Richard Nixon!

Barnett evidenly believes that Bush thinks only and always about Iraq; but in fact, he also thinks about tax cuts, restructuring the military, comprehensive immigration reform, stem-cell research, a return to the Moon followed by a manned mission to Mars, integrating China into the global economy (which an earlier Barnett would have applauded as shifting China more firmly into the "Functioning Core" of nations integrated into the world economic and social system), privatizing Social Security as much as possible -- how many more "big things" does it take to move Bush from hedgehog to fox status? Is there a pamphlet somewhere that explains the exact division?

The second problem is that Barnett appears more or less to equate clever and intellectually curious "foxes" with presidents willing to flirt with Socialism. Here are Barnett's foxes over the last 75 years of presidents:

  • Franklin Roosevelt: His flirtation with statism and Socialism -- at times even Communism, as his ambassador to the Soviet Union, Joseph Davies, so ably testified in Mission to Moscow -- did absolutely nothing to alleviate the Great Depression... until he got us into World War II. At that point, Americans were just as deprived as before; but it wasn't poverty -- it was patriotic rationing!
  • John F. Kennedy: Definitely not a Socialist, the only exception to the rule. He was a social liberal, however, breaking with his party to champion racial equality -- the pre-eminent social issue of the day.
  • Lyndon B. Johnson: The "Great Society." 'Nuff said.
  • Richard Milhouse Nixon: Wage and price controls, revenue sharing, affirmative action, "we're all Keynesians on this bus."
  • George H.W. Bush (Bush-41): Massive tax increases.
  • Bill Clinton: His first two years, when he had a Democratic Congress... need I say more?

By contrast, the hedgehogs in Barnett's taxonomy are mostly a bunch of capitalists: Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan (!), and George W. Bush (Bush-43). (One exception here too: Jimmy Carter.)

I suppose it may only be coincidence that Barnett generally equates intellectual "nimbleness" with Socialism and single-minded predestinarianism with Capitalism, but it still makes me mutter "hm" out loud (thereby making my wife think I've fumbling for exactly the right way to rephrase a paragraph in the novel... hey, this is cool!)

In fact, some of Barnett's "hedgehogs" seem more like hummingbirds, sipping first from one flower then another without any rhyme or reason: Bill Clinton springs to mind, as he hovered from gays in the military to dot-com mania to Paula to Somalia to Haiti to Monica to collapsing our military to impeachment to Kathleen to Camp David to Hugh to Marc. Intellectually (and physically) curious he may be; but his curiosity was of the fleeting, infantile-oral kind.

Near as I can figure, Barnett believes hedgehogs see everything in black and white, while foxes see nothing in black and white -- everything is vibrant, 32-bit color. This may be a useful characteristic for a Grand Vizier... but not necessarily for the Sultan, who must make real-world decisions -- collapsing Schrödinger's wave equation of all possible choices down to a single state. This becomes a binary operation: the choice the president chose becomes a 1, while all possible contrary choices become 0s: once you have chosen to invade Afghanistan, you cannot also choose not to invade Afghanistan.

Thus, any effective president must see not only the rainbow but also pure blacks and whites... and be able to shift between them at will. I actually use a different taxonomy (never having studied my "ancient Greek poet Archilochus"). Rather than hedgehogs and foxes, I sort people along a scale that runs from Spockian to Bonesian: all the way Spockian is pure logic; all the way Bonesian is pure sentiment.

Of course, nobody is all the way one or the other. In fact, the ideal state is the Kirkian Mean, whence the person can move either in the Spockian or Bonesian direction at will, depending on circumstances: when planning a military invasion, he should be much closer to Mr. Spock; but after a terrible disaster (natural or anthropogenic), he should veer much more towards Dr. McCoy, to try to heal the nation.

Barnett more or less has Spockians and Bonesians -- but where is the Kirkian Mean in his taxonomy?

The trouble with a two-category taxonomy is that everybody must be divided into one of two categories. In the real world, there are two types of people: those who can be neatly divided into one of two categories -- and those who cannot.

(Hm. I may have to rethink this...)

In any event, it is clearly tempting for an analyst -- the quintessential foxian job, to borrow an adjective from Barnett's column -- to envision a fox as the best person to lead us to the promised land of a Functioning Core that encompasses the entire world, and a Non-Integrating Gap that has shrunk down to encompass only the Secretary of Jungle's swimming pool in Dar es Salaam. But the more likely reality is that we need a person who can be either fox or hedgehog as the circumstances demand... which is actually a much better description of Ronald Reagan than simply calling him a hedgehog because he liked Capitalism (which, by the way, is a much more "foxish" economic theory than the "hedgehoggish" Socialism).

Alas, I think I heard somewhere that Reagan is no longer with us, so we'll have to find somebody else. In the meantime, we'll interview bushels of Spockians and Bonesians alike, thankyouverymuch, looking for the elusive Captain Kirk hiding among them.

But I still highly recommend Thomas P.M. Barnett's book -- even if you're a fretful porpentine.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, January 18, 2007, at the time of 4:05 AM

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Tracked on January 21, 2007 2:21 PM


The following hissed in response by: Watchman

Wouldn't Jimmy Carter need one more idea to reach the hedgehog level of having one idea? Oh wait, I forgot...he hates Israel. Guess that should count.

The above hissed in response by: Watchman [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 18, 2007 7:36 AM

The following hissed in response by: Rod

Greatr! Long winded but great.
I will need new glasses after reading this but it was worth it. It should be an Op/Ed in the NYT; assuming they were open minded ,of course they are not.

The above hissed in response by: Rod [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 18, 2007 8:25 AM

The following hissed in response by: Big D


Only a hedgehog would come up with the fox and hedgehog analogy, or would use it seriously. Barnett is clearly a hedgehog, since his whole goal is to make simple conclusions to complex situations. I wonder if he knows?

There is the human essence of reductionism, to see patterns, to simplify complex interconnected issues. Sometimes it helps, other times, not so much. Very few people really understand the true complexity of quantum mechanics, but that doesn't stop us from using it in beneficial ways. reductionism makes a complex situation functional, but don't kid yourself - you really may not understand what the hell is going on.

Another thing - doing nothing is often a decision, and frequently the correct one. Barnett would assume that doing nothing automatically equates with hedgehog disinterest, hence lumping of free marketeers as hedgehogs, and socialist as foxes. I'm sure Reagan was very interested in numerous issues, but did not feel it was the government's role to do anything about them.

The above hissed in response by: Big D [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 18, 2007 9:52 AM

The following hissed in response by: LarryD

I may be over-sensitized, but this smacks of the "progressives" self conceit that they are the smart ones, and the rest of us are the stupid ones who should shut up and let them run things their way.

I don't doubt that Barnett sees himself as a "fox".

The above hissed in response by: LarryD [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 18, 2007 10:10 AM

The following hissed in response by: Robert Schwartz

Barnett's meme is taken from The Hedgehog and the Fox by Isaiah Berlin. HF is an analysis of the Tolstoy and and his view of history as expressed in his novel War and Peace (Voyna i mir).

Sir Isaiah Berlin, OM (1909-1997), a political philosopher and historian of ideas, is regarded as one of the leading liberal* anti-communist thinkers of the 20th century. He was Jewish and born at Riga, Latvia (then part of the Russian Empire). His family emigrated to England in 1921, after the Russian Revolution, and he was educated at educated at St Paul's School, London, then at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He remained at Oxford for the rest of his life (except for wartime service in the British Foreign Office), where he was a Professor of Social and Political Theory. He was knighted in 1957, and was awarded the Order of Merit in 1971.

*As in Locke and Kant, not Dick Durbin and Chuck Schumer.

Berlin's work on liberal theory has had a lasting influence. His 1958 lecture, "Two Concepts of Liberty", in which he famously distinguished between positive and negative liberty, has informed much of the debate since then on the relationship between liberty and equality.

"The Hedgehog and the Fox" is the title of an essay by Isaiah Berlin, regarding the Russian author Leo Tolstoy's theory of history.

The title is a reference to a fragment attributed to the ancient Greek poet Archilochus: πόλλ οἶδ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα ("the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing").

Berlin expands upon this idea to divide writers and thinkers into two categories: hedgehogs, who view the world through the lens of a single defining idea (examples given include Dante, Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, and Proust) and foxes who draw on a wide variety of experiences and for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea (examples given include Shakespeare, Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, and Joyce).

Berlin uses this scheme to analyze the theory of history that Tolstoy used War and Peace. Berlin thought that Tolstoy was an instinctive fox, who wanted to be a hedgehog.

The above hissed in response by: Robert Schwartz [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 18, 2007 10:45 AM

The following hissed in response by: FredTownWard

It is this kind of really questionable "thinking" that has so far prevented me from spending the money and taking the time to read Mr. Barnett's oft-praised book. I have a similar problem with the historian, Niall Ferguson. When I catch someone whose analysis I am being urged to consider spouting this sort of pompous, quite probably politically biased idiocy, I begin to wonder how truly brilliant their analysis could be...

and more importantly whether I can trust it.

The above hissed in response by: FredTownWard [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 18, 2007 10:51 AM

The following hissed in response by: Robert Schwartz

Barnett is an interesting character. I think his ideas about force structure and geo-politics have some merit. However, I think that his analysis of Iran is fatally compromised by his ignorance of the profound cultural/religious issues involved. He seems to be unable to comprehend the world view of religious fanatics like Ahmadi'nejad.

The above hissed in response by: Robert Schwartz [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 18, 2007 11:01 AM

The following hissed in response by: Big D

Rather than fox and hedgehog, I would divide the world in fatalists and free willers. The fatalists (hedgehogs) assume that history has an inevitable direction (Tolstoy, Marx, progressives, etc.), a purpose, that you and I and everyone are just cogs in the machine of history. Free willers assume that each of us chooses our fate, that we individuals and collective decide what direction the world is going, what our destiny will be.

This is the fundamental link between radical Islam and liberal progressives. Both see the world though the fatalist eye, both believe they have divined the direction of history. Individuals are unimportant. Only fools would stand in the way. They have the secret knowledge of the WAY THINGS REALLY WORK, the way things really are. It is ever so smug and conceited.

There is no good or evil in this world view, only those who oppose the inevitable, and the self anointed who embrace it.

The above hissed in response by: Big D [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 18, 2007 1:34 PM

The following hissed in response by: J. Mark English

I love the blog that you have. I was wondering if you would link my blog to yours and in return I would do the same for your blog. If you want to, my site name is American Legends and the URL is:


If you want to do this just go to my blog and in one of the comments just write your blog name and the URL and I will add it to my site.


The Mgt. speaking. This is a good opening to discuss our blogrolling philosophy. We favor very small and limited blogrolls; in large blogrolls, individual blogs get lost in the noise of Everybody Else.

Thus, we're very conservative about which blogs we choose to blogroll. It has nothing to do with the size of the blog but rather how familiar we are with its content and analysis. We do now and again add a blog to the roll -- the last was United States Central Command's blog -- but we're very persnickity.

We'll certainly look in now and again at your (very nice looking but primarily sports) blog, American Legends; but at the moment, it seems to have somewhat different an orientation than Big Lizards!

The above hissed in response by: J. Mark English [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 18, 2007 2:31 PM

The following hissed in response by: Jon

And yet, Mr. Barnett has completely and utterly missed the entire point of the metaphor.

In Berlin's essay, the fox uses his "intellectual agility" to attack the hedgehog and turn him into lunch. In response, the slow and dowdy hedgehog responds with his "one big thing": turn into an impenetrable ball of spikes. The fox uses his knowledge of "many things" to attack from different strategies, but no matter the angle, the result is the same: a spike sandwich.

Jim Collins illustrates this idea succinctly in his book Good to Great, writing

Princeton professor Marvin Bressler pointed out the power of the hedgehog during one of our long conversations: "You want to know what separates those who make the biggest impact from all the others who are just as smart? They’re hedgehogs." Freud and the unconscious, Darwin and natural selection, Marx and class struggle, Einstein and relativity, Adam Smith and division of labor—they were all hedgehogs. They took a complex world and simplified it. "Those who leave the biggest footprints," said Bressler, “have thousands calling after them, ‘Good idea, but you went too far!’ "

To be clear, hedgehogs are not stupid. Quite the contrary. They understand that the essence of profound insight is simplicity. What could be more simple than e = mc^2? What could be simpler than the idea of the unconscious, organized into an id, ego, and superego? What could be more elegant than Adam Smith’s pin factory and "invisible hand"? No, the hedgehogs aren’t simpletons; they have a piercing insight that allows them to see through complexity and discern underlying patterns. Hedgehogs see what is essential, and ignore the rest.

Expanding further on the concept, Collins coins the term "hedgehog concept": the goal to do one thing well, do it passionately, and milk it for all it's worth. So really, being a hedgehog is a good thing.

Something to think about on the hedgehog we have right now in the White House.

The above hissed in response by: Jon [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 18, 2007 7:39 PM

The following hissed in response by: hunter

When one thinks about it, there must be three types.
People like kerry and carter would compose a third type for the political taxonomy:
Always certain of defeat, surprised only when it defeat is delayed, and never stops looking for the worst possible outcome.
The idea that people can be dividied into two categories on anything other than 'living' and 'dead' accurately is infantile. People are far more complex than could ever be described in two dimensions.
This kind of pointless categorization fits hand in glove with the vaccuous 'study' done by those psychos - er psychoanalysts- who discovered how glorious liberals are and how deficient conservatives are psychologically.
What a bunch of hooey.

The above hissed in response by: hunter [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 19, 2007 9:05 PM

The following hissed in response by: hunter

The idea that people can be divided into anything other than 'living' and 'dead' with any accuracy is specious. People are far more complex than 2 dimensions. Anyone who relies on such a cartesian coordinate system for assessing a person is childish to the point of useleness.
If one is going to use animals as a sort of glyph to sum up a person, you would need to add another animal for sure:
Eeyore. carter and kerry would have to fit into the eeyore glyph. Eeyore of course always expects the worst for himself and those around him, is always surprised when the worst does not happen, and seeks to spread gloom to those around him.

The above hissed in response by: hunter [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 19, 2007 9:11 PM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh


I like version A better.


The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 19, 2007 10:31 PM

The following hissed in response by: Dick E


Going back to your example: Then there are Bonesians in Spockian roles.

"Warp 6, Mr. Sulu."


"Captain, the dilythium crystals are at critical mass! I dinna how it'll stand the pressure!"

"Do your best, Mr. Scott."

(Apologies to any Trekkies out there for my shallow knowledge of your passion.)

Dafyyd, you are truly a treasure. Keep up the good work.

The above hissed in response by: Dick E [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 20, 2007 2:19 PM

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