May/June 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 3
“If anything can go wrong, it will” was well known in the fifties and sixties, when it passed for just another bit of clever bulletin-hoard wisdom. All that changed in 1977, when an enterprising fellow named Arthur Bloch came out with a small book of sayings that he grouped under the rubric Murphy’s Law . Bloch’s blockbuster touched off a commercial frenzy (sequels, calendars, T-shirts) over little more than a misunderstood idea that everyone would have been better off without. Even Murphy himself—Capt. Edward A. Murphy, Jr., an Air Force development engineer—claimed we got it all wrong. His field experience led him to conclude, ruefully but logically, that “if there are two or more ways to do something, and one of those ways can result in catastrophe, then someone will do it.” That is, if it is physically possible to break your foot with an ,iir bag or drown in two inches of water, some idiot will find a way to do it. Unfortunately, the American public seized upon Bloch’s adage as the ultimate “get-out-of-jail-free” card. No more responsibility, no more guilt. The fallout has been nothing less than catastrophic. Aside from inspiring other guilt-free mantras such as “Don’t worry, be happy” and “Shit happens,” what began as merely a funny saying turned the work ethic on its ear and made accountability a dead letter. You mean you left the children in the car with the windows rolled up? Yeah, I hate it when that happens.
If Murphy’s Law represents the greatest perversion of truth and consequences, then one might naturally look to any of hundreds of gung-ho, nose-to-the-grindstone bromides for a nuich-needed corrective. The problem is that most of them are just so much bilious Babbittry. And while “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” may strike the right note of responsibility, it smacks of vigilantism, if not McCarthyism. (Turns out it’s not even by Jefferson.) As for Poor Richard, his adages are neither underrated nor entirely original. No, the answer lies with the anti-Franklin —our best aphorist, who provides an antidote not only to Poor Richard but to the entire Murphy phenomenon. For the most underrated adage, check out Pudd’nkead Wilson, where Twain dishes up a compendium of useful truths about getting on in the world, one of which could, if given its proper place on the refrigerator door, set us all back on the right track. To wit: “Put all your eggs in one basket and—WATCH THAT BASKET.”