A philosophical principle explains why powerful people seem like they can predict the future

World leaders have the power to control the future—or at least seem like they do.
World leaders have the power to control the future—or at least seem like they do.
Image: AP Photo/Luca Bruno
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In her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, in the section on propaganda, philosopher Hannah Arendt discusses a concept she calls “infallible prediction”:

“The chief qualification of a mass leader has become unending infallibility; he can never admit an error…Mass leaders in power have one concern which overrules all utilitarian considerations: to make their predictions come true.”

Arendt’s work is in a phase of popularity. Her words are truly haunting, and many peoplemyself included—have employed her insight in an attempt to make sense of recent disconcerting political trends. But little attention has been paid to infallible prediction and what it has to teach us about both the current political climate and ourselves.

“Infallible prediction” is, one would think, an outright contradiction; a prediction must be fallible if it is to be a prediction at all. But here is the key: Fallibility assumes we do not have the power to manipulate and mold the world into whatever we want. Powerful political leaders do have that ability.

Consider an example. If I predict that I will eat dinner, because I have the power to make it true, I am not in any meaningful sense making a prediction. Predictions are about an outside world that I don’t control. Likewise, if someone were to predict, say, a war with China in five to 10 years, given enough political power, they have the ability to confirm their own prediction. And when the war comes, the leader looks wise in the eyes of the people. In this way, as Arendt says, mass leaders have the power to make their predictions come true.

Infallible prediction is effective because we as voters value prescience in our leaders. We clamor for it. Those who predict events in politics—like Brexit or a rigged election—are attempting to signal political expertise. And we want leaders who have political expertise (though we might disagree about what constitutes it). Hence, predictions serve as a means of acquiring and consolidating power.

However, to make a prediction is to open yourself up to error. It puts your worldview and expertise on the line. Just as a confirmed prediction can be politically useful, a failed prediction can be politically embarrassing. When facing a mistake, politicians normally get away with amending, qualifying, and hedging their predictions into something vacuous or trivially true instead of pausing for a moment of self-reflection. To admit error is to surrender political authority, so we see an urge to never admit error.

All of this combines to yield Arendt’s concept of infallible prediction. Because leaders have the power to create certain realities, she argues that their predictions are in fact statements of intent. By phrasing intentions as predictions, they can hide from blame. The actions of the leader become inevitable forces of nature. When the war comes, as Arendt says, “the ‘prophecy’ becomes a retrospective alibi: nothing happened but what had already been predicted.” In hindsight, it was fated all along. Any critique of the leader therefore seems misplaced.

What does all this mean for us? At the core of the concept of infallible prediction is the urge to confirm one’s worldview and be unresponsive to evidence; it comes from a desire to pick out the convenient pieces of reality or, with the addition of power, to create reality in the image of a worldview.

And this extends far beyond world leaders: The fault is found in all of us. We all hope for validation of our worldviews. We search the news for it. We find the desire in ourselves when we read old philosophy books, searching to confirm our opinions, or when we find quotes to serve as convenient condemnations of our enemies. We want our predictions to be true, so we pick out the pieces of reality that enable us to portray prescience.

But when our predictions are dire—that there will be no 2020 election, for example—we face a dilemma. Do we want to be right about something dreadful? Validating our worldview sometimes involves the existence of great deal of harm and damage.

We also hold to the ideal that political power is ultimately grounded in the people. If that is true, perhaps we have the ability to mold reality into the confirmation of our predictions. Regardless, we face the same dilemma: Do we want to pick out or create pieces of reality in order to sit proudly with our confirmed predictions? Or are we willing to work hard to ensure that our predictions turn out wrong?