The Chessboard Fallacy

The Farnam Street blog recently ran a post called the “Chessboard Fallacy.” Its main thesis is that the world is not our chessboard. We cannot act as if people are simply pieces to place where we want and to manipulate as we see fit.

The reason is rather obvious: People have their own ambitions and desires, and often there is little we can do to change that. The takeaway lesson is less obvious: “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.”

Certainly, many would agree with the author’s conclusion, perhaps none more so than the “realists” who constitute the elites of American foreign policy. Trying to mold the world into a place that is friendly to Western ideals – democracy, individualism, freedom, and entrepreneurialism – doesn’t always work. Realists correctly point out that not all cultures share these ambitions, and therefore it is futile to foist these aspirations upon them.

We take a slightly more nuanced view. Though we agree that we must operate within the world the way it is rather than the way we want it to be, we still ought to strive to shape the world if and where we are able. Otherwise, how could we ever improve it?

Governments, charities, philanthropists, businesses, and – yes – VC firms all strive to make the world a better place. They will be unsuccessful in their mission if they (1) blindly follow their own idealism or (2) resign from their obligation to effect positive change. The key is to find a happy medium.