Why do otherwise intelligent individuals form seething masses of idiocy when they engage in collective action? Why do financially sensible people jump lemming-like into hare-brained speculative frenzies--only to jump broker-like out of windows when their fantasies dissolve? We may think that the Great Crash of 1929, junk bonds of the '80s, and over-valued high-tech stocks of the '90s are peculiarly 20th century aberrations, but Mackay's classic--first published in 1841--shows that the madness and confusion of crowds knows no limits, and has no temporal bounds. These are extraordinarily illuminating,and, unfortunately, entertaining tales of chicanery, greed and naivete. Essential reading for any student of human nature or the transmission of ideas.
In fact, cases such as Tulipomania in 1624--when Tulip bulbs traded at a higher price than gold--suggest the existence of what I would dub "Mackay's Law of Mass Action:" when it comes to the effect of social behavior on the intelligence of individuals, 1+1 is often less than 2, and sometimes considerably less than 0. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"THE OBJECT OF THE AUTHOR in the following pages has been to collect the most remarkable instances of those moral epidemics which have been excited, sometimes by one cause and sometimes by another, and to show how easily the masses have been led astray, and how imitative and gregarious men are, even in their infatuations and crimes.
Popular delusions began so early, spread so widely, and have lasted so long, that instead of two or three volumes, fifty would scarcely suffice to detail their history. The present may be considered more of a miscellany of delusions than a history,—a chapter only in the great and awful book of human folly which yet remains to be written, and which Porson once jestingly said he would write in five hundred volumes! Interspersed are sketches of some lighter matters,—amusing instances of the imitativeness and wrongheadedness of the people, rather than examples of folly and delusion.
Religious manias have been purposely excluded as incompatible with the limits prescribed to the present work;—a mere list of them would alone be sufficient to occupy a volume.
In another volume should these be favourably received, the Author will attempt a complete view of the progress of Alchemy and the philosophical delusions that sprang from it, including the Rosicrucians of a bygone, and the Magnetisers of the present, era.
London, April 23rd, 1841."
Charles Mackay (1814-1889) was a famous song-writer and poet, journal editor and colleague of Charles Dickens, and a reporter whose joy was to take the wind out of the sails of cheats and frauds of all kinds. His lively writing style and ability to document the facts of extraordinary financial bubbles and political upheavals from the South Sea Bubble to tulipomania to the Crusades influenced reporters and economists from his time to this day.