The False God of the Strong Leader

mussolini-balcony-palazzo-venezia“It is time we stopped worshipping the false god of the strong individual leader”, writes political scientist Archie Brown in Aeon Magazine.

Overweening leaders within a well-established democratic system can, of course, do less harm than a Stalin or a Mao. Yet why should we heed calls to strengthen the hand of the prime minister and of 10 Downing Street rather than to strengthen collective leadership within the Cabinet and the political party? The mass media are constantly urging prime ministers and party leaders to do this, that and the other, bolstering the odd assumption that the leader is entitled to have the last word on everything.

It is puzzling why the idea persists that the more power is placed in a prime minister’s or president’s hands in a democracy, the better. It is high time to rebut the idea that the leader we should most look up to is one of unshakeable convictions, able utterly to dominate the political party, the Cabinet and the policy process. One-person domination is undesirable in principle in a democracy and it is fortunate that it is only rarely achieved in practice, whatever the leader’s pretensions.

Brown’s point is really good. Another thing he touches on which I wish he had also written more about not just the practical but also the principled side of why and why not.

It’s a fundamental democratic value that power should be distributed. But it is a foundational problem with democracy that there are organisational costs to distributing power. Autocratic leaders are more effective but have unhealthy incentives and don’t fully represent the aggregate will of the people, indeed: they frequently have greater loyalty to themselves  than the people. This leads  over time to political inefficacy.

Both ways of doing things present insoluble dilemmas. Democracy is fair and efficient, but will often lead to basic disagreements in society remaining in tension, not being resolved. Autocracy leads to unfairness and inefficiency, but since the state is more or less governed by a single will (autocracies are never as simple as they seem,  power  is always distributed), it is easier to get things done.

A modern example is climate change. It may very well be the case that China will do more to solve the climate problem than the Western world  precisely because they have a more autocratic form of government. The Chinese state can enact sweeping reforms without too much consultation with civil society.

I loathe autocracy. Democracy and socialism are the twin helixes of my political DNA. This is why climate change concerns me so much. If democracy can’t pass the test of mastering a fundamental, existential challenge efficiently, then it will be so much harder in the coming decades to resist the authoritarian governments of Russia, China or other countries.

Yes, democracy – liberty and the individual is all well and good, they will say. But what have you done for us lately?

PS: I think Aeon is starting to build a really interesting profile. I rarely see anything there I find fundamentally uninteresting. Worth paying attention to them.

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6 comments
  1. “The Managerial Mystique” by Abraham Zaleznik touches on some of this phenomenon in the context of businesses and organizations – how a manager is assumed to have superior knowledge and abilities simply because they are a manager, not because they actually possess those qualities. Zaleznik has a very insightful analysis of the problems these attributions cause in organizations.

    • Release said:

      Thanks for the tip! What kinds of problems does it cause, according to him?

      • That a decision made by a manager doesn’t always get examined as carefully as it sometimes should be – because a manager decided it, and they’re a manager so they must be right! – and that managers’ job performance and personal strengths are often overvalued or more highly rated than they should be, just because of the qualities associated with the title of “manager”. Managers are assumed to be competent and wise simply because they are managers, and because of that their individual failings are often downplayed or overlooked.

      • Release said:

        That squares with my understanding of things, too. This is also the foundation of the problem of the camarilla or the yes-man in politics. A tiny inner circle with access to the leader who fail to give critical judgments on the leader’s ideas. Psychological incentives are to select for individuals who are non-critical.

      • What I really like about Zaleznik’s work is that it gets us to look past the specific individual and/or the specific organization, and to think instead about what we generally attribute to the title of “manager” or “leader”. Because often that is as much, if not more, influential on how individuals with those titles get treated, regardless of what they personally do or the requirements of their formal role in the organization.

      • Release said:

        It’s good to be da king, to quote Mel Brooks.

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