The Leadership Myth

Commentary, Frontier Centre, Worth A Look

“People like Reid, Hastert, Pelosi are complete mediocrities who should be at much lower levels in our society. Something is fundamentally wrong on both sides of the aisle if they are the upper leadership of our Congress.”

– Roger L. Simon

I disagree with Roger Simon. Not because I think highly of the leaders he disparages. But one way in which libertarians differ from conventional liberals and conservatives is that we place less faith in having good political leaders.

The conventional wisdom is that we would be better off if politically powerful leaders were less mediocre. Instead, my view is that we would be better off if mediocre political leaders were less powerful.

The Real Value of Democracy

Democracy does not lead to particularly good choices. Most successful institutions in society are not democratic.

An example of an institution that I believe works well is a sports tournament. A good chess tournament or tennis tournament produces a winner who is far better than mediocre.

Another example of an institution that works well is the scientific method. I trust the results of well-designed experiments much more than I trust popular opinion.

Many institutions give concentrated decision-making power to experts. Examples include business decisions made by corporations or tenure decisions made by academic departments. Many government agencies are built to work on this model, but in the absence of the competitive discipline that exists in the private sector, the results are mixed. My personal impression is that some agencies, such as the Federal Reserve, have an abundance of expertise, while other agencies, such as the CIA, appear somewhat deficient.

For me, the value of democracy is that it provides a check on government officials. The fact that leaders can be tossed out by popular vote helps to limit their abuse of power. Democracy gives the people the power to toss out the bums.

This view of democracy is what makes the 2006 election so difficult. The incumbent Republicans in Congress have done everything possible to merit being tossed out as bums. They have abused power, focused on entrenchment, and acted aloof and arrogant when called to account. Although many conservative Republican supporters complain about my intention to stay home this November, I feel that, if anything, I am bending over backwards for Republicans by abstaining, rather than voting Democratic. Of course, no one has to remind me that the Democrats are at least as guilty of arrogance, entrenchment, and tendency to abuse power. Incumbents of both parties deserve to be tossed out as bums.

Expect Mediocrity

We have to expect mediocrity from political leaders. They are selected by a very unreliable process. In general, I try to avoid contact with narcissists who spend their time pleading for money. Those are hardly the intellectual and emotional characteristics that make someone admirable, yet they are the traits of people who go into politics.

Could election reforms help? None of the election reforms currently under discussion would make much difference, in my view. I once pointed out that in order to reproduce the degree of accountability that existed at the time of the nation’s founding, we would need 250 states, but (a) I am not sure that would work and (b) it is not going to be tried.

The libertarian view is that private institutions, both for-profit and non-profit, are better at problem-solving than government institutions. Regardless of whether political leadership is wise or mediocre, our goal should be to limit the damage that public officials can do. Do not demand that they “solve” health care, “fix” education, or launch a “Manhattan project” for energy independence. Even for experts, those are impossible tasks. The harder we press our existing leaders to address these issues, the more trouble they are going to cause.

The belief that the problem with government is the particular individuals in power is dangerous. The myth is that somewhere out there we could find great leaders who could use government to solve all of our problems. Instead, we need to be vigilant against the enlargement of government, by either mediocre or expert leaders.

Do not look upon the electoral process as a search for great leaders. At best, it gives us an opportunity for damage control.

Arnold Kling is author of Learning Economics.