Paul Jacob

You’ve heard the phrase “Fighting the last war.” You have chuckled at apt quotations of “Too many chiefs, not enough braves.” You know the origin of the term FUBAR.

Welcome to modern America, the greatest country on the planet. Which has taken a very wrong turn.

Or so says science fiction writer David Brin, who argues that we are living in a period of “historical anomaly.”

For most of our history, Brin elaborates, America’s “chief approach to dealing with danger . . . was to rely upon a robust citizenry to quickly supplement, augment and reinforce the thin veneer of professionals in a relatively small peacetime warrior-protector caste.” But recently — since World War II and especially since Vietnam — we have developed a massive professional corps to cope with crises. To prevent crises, even.

According to Brin, we used to rely “primarily upon concepts of robustness and resilience”; now we too often aim “to anticipate and forestall every conceivable danger.”

Well, why shouldn’t we?

Simple answer: We can’t.

Most recent crises went unpredicted by the professionals . . . or, if predicted, the predictions went unheeded by other professionals.

Further, major crises were most successfully responded to (and even managed) by amateurs, not professionals. Remember Rudy Giuliani walking through a devastated Manhattan? Remember the heroic firemen? Well, they did their jobs, but on the morning of crisis, and even during the clean-up, it was volunteers who did the most good. In one amazing and amazingly under-reported mobilization, a fleet of boats across the water trekked to Manhattan shores and docks to help evacuate citizens.

If we’d have listened to certain lovers of bureaucracy and planning, those volunteer boatmen would have been prohibited from helping, and the city of New York (or the state, or the federal government) would have kept a fleet ready just for the occasion.

But such technocratic notions only have the gleam of wisdom. As Brin explains, our current reliance upon professionals is unrealistic and . . . unresilient. We didn’t have a fleet of boats. Instead, private citizens’ privately-owned boats served well. It is this ability, in times of crisis, to call up reserves from the private sphere that makes for a resilient social order.

Brin calls himself a futurist, but his ideas sound like common sense to me.

Yes, folks, ordinary people can do extraordinary things. And when we work in tandem with a few professionals, the outcomes tend to be a lot better than if we had handed over the whole job to the pros.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.