All Commentary
Thursday, August 28, 2014

All My Plans Are Ideal

The Princess Bride reminds us that human action is unpredictable

William Goldman. The Princess Bride. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1973. 493 pages.

(All quotations in this week’s column are taken from Goldman’s text rather than the movie.)

You all know the scene. Fezzik the giant, Inigo Montoya the Spanish swordsman, and Vizzini the Sicilian supergenius are sailing across the shark-infested waters of Florin Channel toward the Cliffs of Insanity, in the dark of night, with the kidnapped Princess Buttercup in their boat. Inigo, working the tiller, informs Vizzini that they are being followed. Fezzik notes that they are being gained on. Each time, Vizzini responds, “Inconceivable.”

And then, in the response that has spawned an M.O.U.T. (meme of unusual tenacity), Inigo replies, “You keep using that word! … I don't think it means what you think it does.”

When my friend Sam Wilson, a frequent blogger at both Euvoluntary Exchange and Sweet Talk, posted a brief Facebook comment on that famous line, a glorious debate erupted. Sam recorded a bit of that over at Sweet Talk, but since that same discussion got me thinking about The Princess Bride in light of questions of political economy, I thought it was worth bringing over here.

Throughout the novel, Vizzini stands as an example of the expert, the intellectual, and the man of system. Thoroughly persuaded that he is capable of controlling the innumerable variables that are involved in every step of his extraordinarily complicated plans, he is constantly failing. While his initial snatch-and-grab of Buttercup goes well enough, everything after that begins to collapse—and always because he has failed to anticipate some kind of human action.

For example, as soon as Buttercup wakes up aboard the boat, she throws herself overboard and begins to swim away. Vizzini reminds her of the sharks and tells her to cry out so they can pull her back into the boat, or he will spill blood in the water and leave her to the sharks. Buttercup stays silent. When the clouds part and the moon comes out, they are able find her anyway. Vizzini gloats about his perfect plan and Buttercup objects.

“And I don't think you're so smart either, with all your throwing blood in the water. That's not what I would call grade-A thinking.”

“It worked, didn't it? You're back, aren't you?” The Sicilian crossed toward her. “Once women are sufficiently frightened, they scream.”

“But I didn't scream; the moon came out,” answered Buttercup somewhat triumphantly.

The Sicilian struck her.

Vizzini failed to anticipate Buttercup’s attempt to escape, and then he failed to understand that a woman brave enough to fling herself into shark-infested waters is not likely to scream out of fear. And when confronted with incontrovertible evidence of his failure to understand Buttercup’s decisions, Vizzini is still so persuaded of the powers of his own mind that he is unable to accept it. “She would have screamed,” he said. “She was about to cry out. My plan was ideal as all my plans are ideal. It was the moon's ill timing that robbed me of perfection.”

These “ideal plans” continue to go wrong for Vizzini. Though it is inconceivable that anyone could be following the kidnappers, gaining on them, and catching up to them, the Man in Black does. Though it is inconceivable that someone other than Fezzik could climb the Cliffs of Insanity by hand, the Man in Black does. Though it is inconceivable that anyone could beat Fezzik in hand-to-hand combat, or beat Inigo in a swordfight, the Man in Black does.

And then Vizzini’s brilliant planning brings him to a battle of wits with the Man in Black. The Man in Black will pour two cups of wine and poison one, and then Vizzini will attempt to determine where the poison is. Vizzini is, of course, confident, as such fellows always are:

There are no words to contain all my wisdom. I am so cunning, crafty and clever, so filled with deceit, guile and chicanery, such a knave, so shrewd, cagey as well as calculating, as diabolical as I am vulpine, as tricky as I am untrustworthy … well, I told you there were not words invented yet to explain how great my brain is, but let me put it this way: the world is several million years old and several billion people have at one time or another trod upon it, but I, Vizzini the Sicilian, am, speaking with pure candor and modesty, the slickest, sleekest, sliest and wiliest fellow who has yet come down the pike.

After a few rounds of intellectual pyrotechnics designed to determine the location of the poison, Vizzini fails. And he dies. And the reason Vizzini fails is that, once more, he has not anticipated a human action. The Man in Black has poisoned both cups. The Man in Black has conditioned himself to be immune to this poison, on the off chance that an occasion like this should arise. Once again, Vizzini’s ideal plan has been beaten by unpredictable humans.

I can hear Sam objecting that our hero, the Man in Black, is also something of a planner. I point out, in response, that his plans—particularly the plan to storm the wedding and rescue Buttercup—are always flexible, updated on the fly, and tagged with a warning label reading, “Hear me now; there may be problems once we're inside.” He is a planner, yes, but certainly not one who believes his plans are ideal and immune to failure. It seems likely that the Man in Black has read Hayek’s “Use of Knowledge in Society,” which emphasizes the importance and viability of this kind of “knowledge of people, of local conditions, and of special circumstances” that allow an individual to plan his own actions and respond speedily when circumstances change.

By contrast, Vizzini might have done well to read Hayek’s “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” which could have cautioned him about the dangers of viewing the world only through one theoretical lens and ignoring the advice of practical types like Inigo. He certainly would have profited from Adam Smith’s famous warnings about the man of system, who treats other human beings as if they are merely chess pieces, with no motivations of their own. It is those motivations that thwart Vizzini at every turn. His human design is beaten, every time, by the unpredicted and unpredictable human actions of others.

As Hayek and Smith and a host of other thinkers remind us, any other outcome is simply inconceivable.