Leaders Need Better Followers? It Just Ain’t So!

Gary Chartier

Do you want someone to look up to, someone to follow, someone who’ll make the big decisions for you?

New York Times columnist David Brooks thinks you should (“The Follower Problem,” June 11, 2012). For Brooks, there aren’t nearly enough people willing to be followers. He looks back nostalgically on an imagined past in which Americans trusted politicians.

It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry. Politicians—Brooks prefers to talk, sanctimoniously, about “leaders”—in decades past were no more virtuous, no more trustworthy, no more deserving of power than their successors today.

The rough-and-tumble quality of past political debate in the United States or England (or elsewhere) makes it hard to take seriously Brooks’s version of the past. Voters, journalists, and fellow politicians regularly savaged those in power. Ordinary people, frequently excluded from political participation, readily identified politicians as self-serving con artists beholden to corrupt elites.

As long as most people had little direct involvement in the political process—as long as women, along with men who didn’t meet property or racial qualifications, couldn’t vote or hold office—it was particularly obvious that politicians served relatively narrow interests. Increasing democratic participation didn’t really empower ordinary people, but it did help to foster the illusion that politicians served their interests, and so to make Brooks’s style of myth-making easier to swallow. Still, over time most people haven’t, I suspect, exhibited the fawning adulation of those at the top of the political pyramid Brooks seems to favor; and when they have, it’s been because the media colluded with members of the political class to encourage the dubious belief that politicians could be trusted.

Brooks’s faith in politicians is entirely misplaced. There’s no reason for the rest of us to emulate it.

Even with the best intentions, politicians don’t have the knowledge needed to improve the world. That knowledge is widely spread out among innumerable individuals. Networks of peaceful, voluntary social cooperation can mobilize and deploy that knowledge far more effectively than can politicians seeking to manage society from the top down.

Moreover, politicians, including the few who genuinely want to do good, depend on the information they obtain and respond to the pressures to which they’re subjected. That means, in practical terms, that they’re likely to take on board the perspectives of those who lobby them actively and persistently. And lobbyists are much more likely to represent the interests of those who want special privileges than those of ordinary people. After all, interest groups with opportunities to reap concentrated benefits from the political process are much more likely to invest the time, energy, and money needed to influence politicians than are members of the general public, any one of whom may stand to lose only a small amount from any particular decision to award some special privilege.

But politicians don’t, in any case, have the best intentions much of the time. People who become successful politicians aren’t especially likely to be benevolent, and once in office even the well-intentioned can be expected to ignore the needs of the public.

People who succeed in obtaining elective or appointive political offices aren’t randomly selected members of the population: They’re characteristically driven and ambitious to a much greater degree than most of us. They probably like power and glory, or they wouldn’t exert the effort needed to be elected or appointed.

Most people don’t have the personality type required to play political games and do the other things to expect good things required to keep positions of power. Lots of observers have pointed out that if you want to survive as a politician, it helps if you’re glib, charming, superficial, and unprincipled. If you’re not, you’re a lot less likely to survive in office.

Many people seek positions of power out of raw ambition or greed. But ideological zealotry can also drive people to seek office. Those who believe they’re entitled to do whatever it takes to achieve particular goals are much more likely to succeed in politics than those who know it’s vitally important to respect others’ rights and dignity even when doing so means failing to reach particular political goals. Those who make it in politics can be expected to be much more willing than the average person to ride roughshod over others, even—or perhaps especially—in the service of what they view as noble objectives.

Having the right social skills and social connections also makes a big difference. That means that people who already belong to socially and politically privileged groups are more likely to seek office, to attract the support needed to be elected or appointed, and to present themselves in ways likely to elicit positive responses from voters or fellow politicians. And members of privileged groups can be expected to share the viewpoints common among members of those groups and to favor continuing the privileges government secures for them.

In addition, because people in positions of power are able to dispense favors to their supporters, they naturally attract the attention of interest groups that expect to be able to reap tangible benefits, often in the form of special privileges, if candidates they back are appointed or elected. These groups can be expected to back candidates they believe they can influence and to seek to defeat those they believe they can’t. Those who obtain support are thus going to be those most likely to award special privileges, and those elected or appointed are probably going to be those who obtain support (all other things equal), with the result that those likely to favor special interests are particularly likely to be elected or appointed.

Some people may be genuinely principled and benevolent when they begin occupying elected or appointed offices, despite all the factors that tend to make this unlikely. But once in office they will obviously be subjected to persistent, corrupting pressure. Because they will be equipped to do favors for the wealthy and well connected, members of privileged groups, including those who didn’t support them before they assumed office, will focus on encouraging them to abandon their principles and participate in a variety of insider games. Their fellow officeholders will also encourage them, both directly and by example, to go along in order to get along.

There’s little reason, therefore, to expect good things from politicians, and every reason to expect them to be oppressive, overreaching, venal, cruel, ignorant, and beholden to those who seek government-secured privileges.

The good news is that we don’t need leaders in Brooks’s sense. People in a free society are perfectly capable of managing their own lives.