Sunday, August 30, 2009

Strategy in Real Life

Earlier today, Instapundit linked to an interesting blog post regarding the nature of boycotts. I often remark on these pages that I study Sun Tzu's treatise on strategy and the Bing Fa; the question(s) raised in the linked-to piece offer an excellent example of the objective I seek from doing so, in particular our blogging colleague's closing statement:

"I just wish someone could give me a simple answer on just how, when and in what way these things are actually supposed to be used."

The basic concept of strategy is that of position, the relative measure of one's own strengths and weaknesses as well as in comparison to other's position. From this evaluation, we can each judge our own capabilities and make informed estimates regarding others. Only following such a determination are we able to make detailed tactical selections (in this example a boycott action). Once a list of potential tactical actions has been compiled, it becomes necessary to consider the ethical/moral qualities each potential tactic entails (which consideration seems to loom large for friend blogger). Finally, once all of the foregoing has been taken into account, one must make the determination as to which possible alliance acceptable to one's individual position will best permit a given tactic's having the desired effect (and it is only at this point in the process that a particular tactic such as a boycott might actually be confirmed as a viable option).

Simple enough, if not at all simplistic. :)

If symbolic appearance is acceptable then, by all means, go for what makes you feel good. If measurable effect is your objective however, as you can see, a good deal more will be required from you. Most tactics only work well when employed as part of a coordinated action leading to a specified objective (which itself is but a way-point along a more extensive journey). That said, it should be considered that a purely symbolic gesture from a sufficient number of positions (ie: people) can serve as justification for subsequent alliance to more substantial purpose. In the end, I think, what it all comes down to is a question of how much of your position (your personal assets, your personal time-line of existence) you are willing to invest to achieve a particular advancement* of your position? There are other important questions, of course, but they tend to all be more or less dependant upon your answer to this particular question (which will itself vary as circumstance does; the bing fa presents it's own ethical standards, but they are not all inclusive nor intended to be).

*Any choice of action always comes at the cost of not doing something else. Much of the time our best strategic choice is to do nothing, or at least nothing overt, so as not to draw active opposition onto our present position (maintenance of which routinely requires effort from us in any case). Implicit to this decision will be the relative importance of this particular tactic compared to the rest of your positional considerations (family, job, religious precepts, friendships and other alliances, etc).


Brigid said...

Good points.

I'm still trying to see how when I go to Costco and buy 10 bundles of toilet paper I'm being "thrifty" but when I buy 10 boxes of primers I'm "hoarding".

Will Brown said...

Hi Brigid,

The contrast you note falls initially into the catagory of ethical/moral consideration within the tactical selection process. As is frequently the case, whether and to what degree some action is defined in particular has much to do with the definer's position. It is a common (and unreliable) mechanism to measure another's position by, but it can be a useful data point by which to influence other's position.

That acknowledged, most often the best option is to utilize the established definitions to characterise the type and nature of alliances you wish to engage in, thereby subverting another's attack on your position into an advancing move instead. Doing so leads to a natural transition into the next catagory by precluding many of the possible alliances from consideration as well as attracting those of potential interest. Keep in mind, the definition of a "good alliance" is one that serves the interests (generally defined as advancement of position) of all members to the alliance equally benefically (which rarely has much to do with a measurable amount of anything). Also, remember that an alliance is by it's very nature a conditional (and therefore very often a short-term) arrangement. It is this fundamental reality that gives actual meaning to the phrase, "one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter". Even the most stable appearing alliances are actually quite conditional in nature; consider the actual experience of such human alliances* as marriage, religious faith or political/nationality arrangements. It is indeed true that "China" has existed for thousands of years, the PRC for only a handful of decades though.

I don't doubt that someone in the throes of diaherrea will take at least temporary umbrage with your classification of toilet paper possession as "thrift". Like alliance, definition can be conditional as well. :)

* I don't consider family to be an alliance as such (though true alliance may well include family members); an alliance is a deliberate agreement between individual parties. In strategic terms, familial relationship fundamentally falls into the catagory of Environment along with terrain features and the physical properties of matter - something which effects strategy but over which no individual exerts positive control. There is a British euphamism; "pick your friends carefully, your family is something you're stuck with", or words to that effect. Very much in the spirit of the bing fa that.