Bryan Caplan  

How Much Good Can One Intelligent, Wise, Brave Leader Do?

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Tim Harford's behavioral political economy from Adapt:
Our instinctive response, when faced with a complicated challenge, is to look for a leader who will solve it.  It wasn't just Obama: every president is elected after promising to change the way politics works; and almost every president then slumps in the polls as reality starts to bite.  This isn't because we keep electing the wrong leaders.  It is because we have an inflated sense of what leadership can achieve in the modern world.

Perhaps we have this instinct because we evolved to operate in small hunter-gatherer groups, solving small hunter-gatherer problems... The challenges such societies faced, however formidable, were simple enough to have been solved by an intelligent, wise, brave leader.  They would have been vastly simpler than the challenges facing a newly elected US president.
Libertarians almost instinctively cheer when they hear words like this.  But should they?  I maintain that an intelligent, wise, brave president could do enormous good.  How?  For starters, he could give full presidential pardons to everyone serving time for (federal) drug-related offenses.  The president can't end the drug war on his own, but he could free hordes of innocent people before his term (singular, no doubt) ran out.*  And needless to say, there are plenty of other unjust laws a president could negate with blanket pardons.

The lesson: Libertarians should stop insisting that our problems are too complex for any human being to solve.  Many of our problems can literally be solved with the stroke of a pen.  Any intelligent, wise, brave leader who wants to solve problems faces vast orchards of low-hanging fruit.  The only reason the orchards are so bountiful, unfortunately, is that people who are intelligent, wise, and brave rarely make it to the top. 

* Question for Gary Johnson supporters: Couldn't he have done a lot more for liberty by pardoning everyone unjustly imprisoned under New Mexican law?  Running for president is an extreme long shot for liberty.  Pardoning vast numbers of innocent people is a sure thing.
 


COMMENTS (22 to date)
sk writes:

RE: Johnson, that is an extremely short-sighted view. You're essentially limiting the utility to the extreme short-run. Pardoning all drug-offenders would likely cause a major public backlash. It would not help the effort to shift toward a more libertarian policy at the federal level and would in fact most likely hurt it--the line would be "Radical libertarians, see we can't even consider what they're proposing." By entering the presidential race, on the other hand, Johnson is using the conventional means to advance libertarian thought. Even though he is not likely to get the nomination, he can have an influence in the ideological direction of the party, the way that Howard Dean affected the Democrats in 2004. In other words, the long-term utility is substantially higher in following conventional paths than attempting something radical.

Bob Murphy writes:

Harford wrote: Perhaps we have this instinct because we evolved to operate in small hunter-gatherer groups, solving small hunter-gatherer problems... The challenges such societies faced, however formidable, were simple enough to have been solved by an intelligent, wise, brave leader.

And that's why we keep electing such intelligent, wise, brave men as presidents, who are also really buff and can kill a buffalo with their bare hands.

Or do we?

Scott writes:

Doing good is one thing, getting reelected is another. If any president ever dared do something like what you suggest the opposition would start a massive smear propaganda campaign that would get dash his hopes of reelection. It doesn't matter that he's done the right thing as long as the public perceives him as "soft on crime" or "soft on immigration" or "soft on defense" he's screwed.

Bill Woolsey writes:

Gary Johnson is not governor of New Mexico.

Gary Johnson did not quit as governor of New Mexico in order to run for the President of the U.S.

Gary Johnson was in private life and decided to run for President of the U.S.

Of course, perhaps he should have pardoned a bunch of people when he was governor of New Mexico. But this has little to do with his run for President.

Joseph K writes:

"Libertarians should stop insisting that our problems are too complex for any human being to solve"

I don't think that's the proper way to look at it. Pardoning everyone convicted of a drug crime wouldn't solve any problem, though it'd throw a huge monkey wrench in the drug war. I think it'd be more accurate to say that people in power can do a lot to negate the harmful effects of other people's misguided policies, and the more power they have, the more they can do. But, on the other hand, that's unlikely to happen, since you win points with the public by actively going forward with new things (not cleaning up after others), and going against other powerful people is a sure way to win enemies.

Faze writes:

The president can't end the drug war on his own, but he could free hordes of innocent people ...

However unjust the drug laws may be, those who broke them are not "innocent" in any sense of the word. Every one in jail for a drug offense knew that he or she using or selling an illegal substance, and chose to break the law and accept the risk of arrest and incarceration. For a president or governor to free drug offenders on the grounds that they are "innocent", before having struck the laws down would be a kind moral showboating inappropriate for someone with the actual power to influence lawmaking. While the "War against Drugs" is unquestionably a bad thing, it's not so onerous as to counterbalance the unquestionably good principle that all citizens should obey the laws, even the ones they don't agree with.

Brent Buckner writes:

Bob Murphy wrote:
And that's why we keep electing such intelligent, wise, brave men as presidents, who are also really buff and can kill a buffalo with their bare hands.

Or do we?

Bull Moose Party!

U.S. presidents have tended to be significantly taller than the median. Also, campaigns (and administrations) have featured physical and sports attributes when they could.

Robert Wiblin writes:

But you would be removed and your good undone. Have you read the Logic of Political Survival?

Mathew Crawford writes:

Without getting into specifics, I think there is a great deal of path dependence in the actions of any president. That Obama sounded so different from Bush but acts so similarly is good evidence that the actions of the office are highly constrained (perhaps more than ever) by the forces of public choice economics. Any president who wants to make a difference must be immune to those forces and would, by definition, need something just short of a miracle to win the office.

Philo writes:

No one could be elected President if it were known that he planned to pardon Federal drug offenders. To get himself elected, he would have to lie about his intentions; this would be an offense against public morality.

To be elected honestly, the pardoning President would have to *become wise* only *after* he was elected. Even then, his later wise actions would betray the trust that the voters (in their unwisdom) had placed in him.

hugh writes:

Bryan,

I'm a bit surprised to see you suggesting this "tyrant's" move - I'm the boss these are my pardons.

It would be more libertarian if the President were to introduce legislation to achieve this goal.

Maybe he could help Governors of States wishing to legalise drug use.

But just giving pardons seems the antithesis of the libertarian way.

I said I'm surprised - maybe that should have been shocked.

Mark Bahner writes:

"Every one in jail for a drug offense knew that he or she using or selling an illegal substance, and chose to break the law and accept the risk of arrest and incarceration."

If you think everyone in jail has broken a law, you should probably read the latest edition of Reason magazine.

"This American Life" has also had several good episodes about innocent people imprisoned for long periods of time.

"To be elected honestly, the pardoning President would have to *become wise* only *after* he was elected."

While I think a blanket pardon would not be politically popular, I can easily imagine a candidate coming up with many examples of people in prison for drug offenses that a substantial majority of voters would agree were examples of injustice.

This would seem to be a particularly effective strategy against a "liberal" candidate like Barack Obama.

PrometheeFeu writes:

I agree that blanket pardons might not necessarily be a good thing overall simply because he would then loose all chance of being reelected. It would definitely be a good thing in the short run though so probably should be done. But how about fulfilling simple electoral promises:

Obama could have simply ordered the military to repatriate all Guantanamo prisoners to a federal prison and then told Congress that they had the choice between accepting those people be tried in courts or pardon them.

Obama could have not been the President who presided over the greatest number of whistle-blower lawsuits by ordering his DoJ to not prosecute such offenses.

Also, I think Tim Hardford was not speaking of the problems where government action is the problem in and of itself. He was probably speaking of problems where the type of government action is the problem. On those problems, he is entirely right. The President can't do as much as many think.

James C writes:

i have yet to hear an adequate explanation for why we imprison drug users. we dont even imprison those with mental problems who commit murder, instead going for the humane approach of putting them in psychiatric hospitals. how then can imprisoning drug addicts be helpful? unless people think drug addiction isnt a medical condition? and even then, prisons have become notorious for the drugs smuggled in, so it is impossible to make the argument that it is for rehabilitation. they will continue to use drugs, whether in prison or out.

my biggest problem with the "war on drugs" is that people are dying who are neither drug users nor drug dealers. innocent kids getting gunned down walking home from school right when a gang war breaks out. innocent men getting gunned down in their homes by police officers operating on the faulty word of drug addicted informants. can anyone honestly claim that things could get any worse if drugs were legalized? if anything, honest businessmen would drive out criminal organizations who need prohibition to operate profitably.

im convinced the drug war only persists because of police unions, prison guard unions, private prisons, and even the alcohol and tobacco industries who fear competition. not to mention district attorneys who make their political careers prosecuting drug dealers. they all have an interest in maintaining the current status quo, even if it means lowering the quality of life for everyone.

RPLong writes:

That's a bit of a bait-and-switch. Fearless leaders caused the drug war; of course they can end it any time they want to. Similarly, Obama can call an immediate end to our occupation of Middle East states any time he wants to.

Leaders can immediately undo any problem caused by leaders. That's not the same thing as solving a problem.

You haven't really criticized libertarianism here, you've pointed out how easy it is to stop totalitarianism no matter how far it goes.

Glen Raphael writes:

Faze writes that The War on Some Drugs doesn't negate

the unquestionably good principle that all citizens should obey the laws, even the ones they don't agree with
To the contrary, I assert that citizens ought to actively disobey unjust or unreasonable laws; it is unfortunate that so few do. (For a defense of this position in depth, read Thoreau's Civil Disobedience.)

What is the basis for the claim that "all citizens should obey the laws" is a good principle, if not one's faith that laws generally are reasonable and just? When some category of law so clearly fails to meet that requirement, shouldn't that modify our expectations?

Faze writes:

Glen Raphael:
It's probably morally permissible to disobey laws whose compliance would put your or another's life in danger, or that make it impossible for you to pursue a lawful livelihood. But drug use is a recreational activity, and its prohibition, while foolish and unnecessary and heavy with negative social externalities, doesn't threaten your life or ability to earn your living while you wait for the rest of society to come around to your view that it should be decriminalized. An opposing situation might be if the government one day decided to listen to the antivaccine crowd, and passed laws forbidding children to be immunized against smallpox, measles and rubella. That would call for some kind of civil disobedience -- as would a new draft law that threatened to send unwilling conscripts into battle. But drugs are just one of life's little extras for those who enjoy them, like water skiing and video games are for those who like that sort of thing. Thoreau was jailed (as I recall) to express his opposition a deadly government menace, the odious Mexican American War. Somewhere, there might be a brave and civilly disobedient soul who is willing to stand in the middle of the town square, sell what I believe they call a "nickle bag" of pot to another individual in full view of a policemen, and allow himself to be jailed in support of the principle that the government has no right to prohibit free exchange between willing parties. That would be an act of civil disobedience in support of a larger principle. But the people currently in jail are not testing the law like that -- at least not purposely.

Mark Bahner writes:

"the unquestionably good principle that all citizens should obey the laws, even the ones they don't agree with"

See the PBS American Experience TV show on the Freedom Riders. It's excellent.

When the first Riders were thrown into Parchman state prison, they simply sent more Riders into Mississippi. Eventually, nearly 300 were imprisoned there:

Freedom Riders violating (unconstitutional) laws

They were heroes, and should be honored as such.

[link fixed--Econlib Ed.]

John David Galt writes:

Actually, a president could end the drug war on his own.

The reason this would work is that there is no constitutional authority for the war on drugs. To take the place of one, the US instigated a treaty called the UN Single Convention on Narcotics.

And the president can pull us out just by giving the UN one year's notice. I don't believe he needs the approval of Congress or anyone else before giving that notice.

Once we're out of the treaty, the federal drug laws will be unconstitutional and would be struck down (assuming an honest Supreme Court, which I admit may be too much to assume).

PrometheeFeu writes:

@Faze: I think I would take a broader approach for civil disobedience. If the law violates your rights and violating it does not violate the rights of others, then breaking it is acceptable.

@John David Galt: The President cannot pull out of a treaty without Congress' approval. Treaties must be ratified which is a fancy way to say that they are incorporated into internal law. That power is granted to Congress. For the President to pull out of a treaty would be a legislative act and therefore unconstitutional. Also, given the interstate nature of the vast majority of drug trade, the Commerce clause would most likely apply. (Not counting the fact that the States most likely would pass drug laws themselves if needed)

Let's not deceive ourselves. The Drug War for all its flaws is very popular.

Mark Bahner writes:
Let's not deceive ourselves. The Drug War for all its flaws is very popular.

Many things are popular if people don't know much about them. For ezample (eks key doesn't work) the space shuttle and the space station look good and seem like good things, but they cost an awful lot of money that could be spent elsewhere. (Including money saved and spent by tazpayers themselves.)

If a candidate (probably one who should know he's not going to win anyway, like Ron Paul) wanted to invest time and energy to point out all the bad things that the war on drugs entails, it would probably make a significant difference. It would be necessary to show all sides the badness from their own point of view. For ezample, for conservatives it could be the costs. For social liberals, it could be the disproportionate negative impacts on minorities.

P.S. [link fixed--Econlib Ed.]-->Thanks!

Vince Skolny writes:

Liberty by Executive Order, rather than oppression? You radical!

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