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The Chessboard Fallacy

“In the great chess-board of human society,
every single piece has a principle of motion of its own.”
— Adam Smith


One of our favorite dictums, much referenced here, is an idea by Joseph Tussman, about getting the world to do the work for you:

“What the pupil must learn, if he learns anything at all, is that the world will do most of the work for you, provided you cooperate with it by identifying how it really works and aligning with those realities. If we do not let the world teach us, it teaches us a lesson.”

By aligning with the world, as it really is and not as we wish it to be, we get it to do the work for us.

Tussman’s idea has at least one predecessor: Adam Smith.

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith excoriates the “Men of System” who have decided on an inflexible ideology of how the world should work, and try to fit the societies they lead into a Procrustean Bed of their choosing — the Mao Zedong-type leaders who would allow millions to die rather than sacrifice an inch of ideology (although Smith’s book predates Maoism by almost 200 years).

In his great wisdom, Smith perfectly explains the futility of swimming “against the tide” of how the world really works and the benefit of going “with the tide” whenever possible. He recognizes that people are not chess pieces, to be moved around as desired.

Instead, he encourages us to remember that everyone we deal with has their own goals, feelings, aspirations, and motivations, many of them not always immediately obvious. We must construct human systems with human nature in full view, fully harnessed, fully acknowledged.

Any system of human relations that doesn’t accept this truth will always be fighting the world, rather than getting it to work for them.

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamored with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it.

He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it.

If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

Think of how many policies, procedures and systems of organization which forget this basic truth; systems of political control, price control, social control and behavioral control — from bad workplaces to bad governments – which have failed so miserably because they refused to account for the underlying motivations of the people in the system, and failed to do a second-step analysis of the consequences of their policies.

It’s just as true in personal relations: How often do we fail to treat others correctly because we haven’t taken their point of view, motivations, aspirations, and desires properly into account? How often is our own “system of relations” built on faulty assumptions that don’t actually work for us? (The old marriage advice “You can either be right, or be happy” is pure gold wisdom in this sense.)

Smith’s counsel offers us a nice out, though. If our own system for dealing with people and their own “principles of motion” are the same, then we are likely to get a harmonious result! If not? We get misery.

The choice is ours.