All Commentary
Thursday, October 1, 1992


There is no market for simple, unadorned competence in public life.

Mr. Smith, a frequent contributor to The Freeman, lives in Santa Maria, California.

I would like to be known as a former President who minded his own business.

—Calvin Coolidge

My favorite President is Rutherford B. Hayes. Almost unknown by the American public, Hayes served one term (1877–1881) in which there were no wars, no scandals, no depressions or recessions, and no international crises. After that, he had the good grace to retire and go home. Hayes offered his country only one thing: competence. He was an unspectacular man who knew what he was doing and ran the country accordingly.

One need not dwell upon the fact that Hayes could not be elected today. It is such an obvious reality that there is no need to elaborate. Keeping Hayes in mind, however, we can deal with the popular notion that an officeholder has to do something; and to be elected he has to promise to do something. This is how we interpret leadership.

The “leader” we seek is a vigorous crusader who has a program, who wants to get the country, state, city, or precinct “moving” and exhorts us all to march with him/her into some nebulous brighter day where the sun always shines and we all feast on milk and honey.

Unfortunately this leaves us with a most perplexing paradox, which is the constant uncompromising battle between politics and economics. We live with an economic system that works best when left alone. It is a self-generating, energy-producing system that resists tampering and brings instant rewards when it is allowed to run free. In a socialistic system politics and economics are part of the same package and it is expected that every economic decision will be political as well. In the capitalistic system, the two are distant relatives, and the more distant they are, the better the economy works.

Yet a politician is expected to do something and this invariably means injecting himself into the system. Whether it be a federal program to force employers to provide medical insurance or a local ordinance forbidding smoking in restaurants, the politician has to meddle in order to create and/or maintain the image of vigor and farsightedness that is so essential to election. In order to be elected, a politician has to offer a program, which is a course of action that will in some way impede the system and make it harder for both employers and employees to do their jobs. This is why we have hiring quotas, rent controls, seat belt laws, environmental impact reports, and restrictions on the sale of private property. It is why we have “Warning” labels on everything from cigarettes to suntan lotion and why, in some states, alcoholic beverages can only be served to people who are seated.

We live constantly with a conflict between politics and economics. The office seeker who might have the good sense to leave the system alone cannot say this to the electorate because be won’t be perceived as a man with a program. There is no glamor, no pizzazz, in a campaign that is based upon administering the laws of the city, state, or federal government as efficiently as possible and letting the economic system run itself. This is obviously someone without a vision, someone who doesn’t care, someone who might just run things with maximum efficiency and then quietly bow out. Who wants to put up with that kind of nonsense?

So we will continue, forever it seems, with the paradox involving electability and reality; what we are going to get and what we need. We will once more go to the polls and elect a small army of meddlers who want to “get things moving,” when it is they, and others like them, who are the very reason that “things” aren’t moving now. It is like pouring gasoline on a fire. With the capitalistic system, one does not “get it moving”; rather, one backs off and lets it move because this is what it wants to do anyway. It doesn’t need a program and it doesn’t need an egomaniac with a manicure and a $20 haircut to set it in motion. All that it asks is someone with the good sense to leave it alone and let it do what it does best.

Unfortunately there is no market for simple, unadorned competence in public life. This is why a latter day Rutherford B. Hayes could not be elected today, and why the original is all but forgotten. In today’s political scene, ability is a hard sell at best, which leaves us with a paradox. The people whom we put in office to protect the economic system are those who will inflict the most damage on it. I just don’t understand it. I don’t think that President Hayes would have either.

  • Mr. Smith, a frequent contributor to The Freeman, lives in Santa Maria, California.