Thursday, September 04, 2008

Leadership is a Pseudo Issue

Tibor R. Machan

Both pairs of current major candidates, Democrat and Republican, make much noise about leadership. As if the point of national politics in a free society were about who should lead the citizenry. Lead them where? For what purpose? No mention is made of that. Somehow leadership is supposed to be its own justification, a self-evidently desirable attribute in a candidate. But that is a drastic misconception, an misunderstanding of the job description of politicians in a genuine free society.

Yet this is easily seen to be a very bad mistake--never even mind that the term "leader" is just what "Fuhrer" means in German, what Hitler was supposed to be called by everyone! Yes, in the old regimes political executives were supposed to leaders of sorts because countries were assumed to be on the march to some goal, as if they were a corporation or team or club. Yes, the Boy Scouts need leaders, as does General Motors and the U. S. Olympic fencing team. There are all organizations with a purpose, with a goal their members strive to attain and for which it is useful to have leaders, guides, captains or such. And when a government is conceived of along such lines, it makes sense to think a lot about getting a good leader for it, someone who knows where the people--the subjects of leadership--are supposed to be headed.

Free societies are different. Government, as John Locke and the American Founders understood it, don't exist so as to lead the citizenry anywhere. Citizens have their own purposes, goals, directions in life. What they need from government is protection from criminals and invaders, people who would interfere with their pursuit of their own ends. As the Declaration of Independence states so precisely, governments are instituted so as to secure our rights. That doesn't amount to leading citizens anywhere--not even economic prosperity, nor cultural or scientific or artistic progress, is something governments are supposed to pursue; it's the task of citizens to choose if they want to be solvent or serene or contemplative or something else in their lives, with the government, the cop on the beat, making sure no one gets in their way. Even when there are pressing issues, such as medical emergencies, bad weather, whatever--these are problems the citizenry is supposed to face on its own, by way of the innumerable voluntary agencies they are free to establish.

Politics is something that comes from the ancient Greek understanding of the value of organized human community life. But the point of organization is not spelled out--it is a subject of much debate in political philosophy or theory. What was so innovative, radically so, in the American idea of politics is that government had been demoted from the role of leaders of society to protectors, a professional group that's supposed to take care that their is peace in the country which then makes it possible for all the citizens to pursue their own goals, to be their own leaders or to find some specially skilled fellow citizens to lead them where they wanted to go (so long as it was a peaceful pursuit).

In short, free men and women need no political leaders! John Locke realized that what makes politics necessary is that there are violent people among us who would intrude upon us, try to conscript us to their purposes and prevent us from pursuing ours. To reduce this as much as possible, governments may be established but only for this limited purpose, not to be our saviors, not to lead us on various ventures the candidates and their misguided supporters think up.

It is sad that among the major candidates, within the major political parties, no one now understands politics in this properly limited way. Instead they are all vying to be leaders, our Fuhrer! Sad indeed.

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