The Leadership Myth

Thursday, October 26th, 2006

In The Leadership Myth, Arnold Kling notes that “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.

He describes “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.

We should expect mediocrity from politicians:

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.

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