Scott Sumner  

In defense of Johnson's brain freeze

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Gary Johnson has received lots of flack for being unable to name the world leader that he most admires. Here's Matt Yglesias:

The closest thing you will find to a US-style libertarian abroad is what are called "liberal" parties in Europe. They are generally more moderate than US libertarians because they participate in practical governance, but they reflect a basic free market secularist worldview that Johnson should find congenial. There aren't a ton of liberal heads of government, but Mark Rutte of the Netherlands and Lars Løkke Rasmussen of Denmark both fit the bill. Their governments have focused on fiscal austerity, trying to keep taxes low by European standards, and reducing labor market regulation while retaining a more or less socially liberal outlook.
I would have found either answer to be acceptable, but I disagree with Yglesias's claim that Johnson's failure reflects poorly on him:

1. My views of a good society are similar to Johnson's, and I would have had difficulty answering the question too.

2. A person can be fairly intelligent, and yet horrible at remembering names. For instance, I had a very hard time remembering student names. There are many foreign leaders who I feel I know a fair bit about, and yet I cannot recall their names. I kind of like the new leader of Indonesia, for instance, but I don't recall his name.

3. I consider myself reasonably well informed about the world (I've read the Economist for 40 years) and yet I would not have been able to name the leaders of Denmark and the Netherlands. Many presidential candidates would have had trouble providing their names. I was not even aware of their policies, although I was vaguely aware that both countries had moved in a more neoliberal direction in recent decades. There are some countries that I think have pretty good economic policy (Switzerland, Singapore, etc.), where I don't even know the name of their leader.

4. It's a no-win situation for a candidate. Since there are no libertarian countries, if you name a real world leader then you'll get hammered for all his non-libertarian views. Even Gary Johnson (who seems pretty libertarian to me) gets criticized for his views on discrimination laws. Suppose he names Trudeau--for advocating pot legalization. He would then get criticized for picking a big government progressive. If he followed Matt's advice and picked the Danish leader, people would wonder why a libertarian's favorite leader presided over one of the biggest governments in the world (as a share of GDP.) I don't think those attacks would be fair, but just imagine how easily a Paul Krugman could mock the libertarians for admiring a country where the government spends nearly 57.6% of GDP.

5. As the world takes a turn toward the nasty nationalistic right, there are fewer Vaclav Havels to admire. Thatcher is dead---Theresa May? I don't think so.

6. The lady in charge of Burma might be my choice, but I can't recall her name either.

PS. Johnson did deserve criticism over the Aleppo flub.


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COMMENTS (26 to date)

If he had said he admires the prime minister of Denmark, it would have been excellent if for no other reason than to have a million Sanders supporters scratching their heads.

But I agree, it's a no win situation.

Jon Murphy writes:

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MikeP writes:

If any of you faces this question in the future, answer with Sir John Cowperthwaite.

At some point during our first conversation I managed to irk him by suggesting that he was chiefly known "for doing nothing." In fact, he pointed out, keeping the British political busy-bodies from interfering in Hong Kong's economic affairs took up a large portion of his time. Throughout Sir John's tenure in office, the British political elite tried to impose its own ailing socialist economic model on Britain's colonies, including Hong Kong. Sir John managed to quash all such attempts and Hong Kong benefited as a result. In 2004, the World Bank estimated, Hong Kong's per capita income adjusted for purchasing power parity (GNI PPP) was $31,510. Great Britain's 2004 GNI PPP was $31,460.

Not only is he probably the best answer, but he allows you to lead the conversation into a discussion on libertarian policy, as the person who asked the question will want to know more.

I have to admit, though, this answer didn't come to me right away. Granted, he's not a head of government. But then you're not being a very good politician if you can't answer a question in a way that helps you.

Josiah writes:

I'll let you in on a little secret: when a candidate gets asked a silly question like that, he doesn't have to provide a name. He could say "The presidency isn't about playing favorites. Unlike Trump, I'm not going to base my foreign policy on what I think about someone personally." Or there's a half dozen other ways he could answer.

What you can't do is get a look of panic in your eyes and say "I'm having a brain freeze and can't remember the name of the former president of Mexico."

Jon Murphy writes:

@Josiah

"What you can't do is get a look of panic in your eyes and say "I'm having a brain freeze and can't remember the name of the former president of Mexico.""

Why can't you do that?

Daniel Klein writes:

Swedish 2006-2014 finance minister Anders Borg.

Indeed, Swedish 2006-2014 prime minister Fredik Reinfeldt quite good, all things considered, I think.

But in 2014 the four Alliance parties lost power to red-green.

The current leaders of Alliance parties are:
Anna Kinberg Batra (Moderate party)
Annie Lööf (Center party)
Jan Björklund (Liberal party)
/wiki/Ebba_Busch_Thor">Ebba Busch Thor (Christian Democrat party)


Daniel writes:

Now that Stephen Harper is no longer in office, Benjamin Netanyahu is the most "libertarian" leader of a country.

Scott Sumner writes:

Mike, Good story.

Josiah, You mean that you "can't" unless you are an honest person. And we wouldn't want one of "them" running for President, would we?

Scott Sumner writes:

Daniel, Good choice. And I might add that they lost power because they listened to the conservatives on monetary policy, not the market monetarists or New Keynesians.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Daniel,
Now that Stephen Harper is no longer in office, Benjamin Netanyahu is the most "libertarian" leader of a country.
I don’t know if that’s true--Bibi is a pretty aggressive destroyer of property rights. But if it is true, what a sad commentary on world leaders indeed.

Charley Hooper writes:

Asking a libertarian to name their favorite world leader is like asking a vegan to name their favorite steakhouse.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

On not remembering names, I feel your pain brother. I can fail to remember names of people I have known for years -- good for endless embarrassment at social gatherings, even if you use techniques to minimise the public embarrassment.

Scott Sumner writes:

David, I agree.

Charley, Good one.

Lorenzo. Glad I'm not alone.

Hazel Meade writes:

Totally agree.
Just to start with, having a "favorite" anything is fairly juvenile. Different things (books, movies people) have different positive and negative attributes that are unlike comparisons. Attempt to rank dissimilar things is a waste of energy. The fact that he doesn't know who admires most actually tells me that he's got better things to think about than stupid questions like that.

Hazel Meade writes:

He probably meant Vincente Fox.
I had to look it up as well, but he was a significant figure in shifting Mexico's economy away from state centralized control, and ending decades of PRI rule.


Mark Bahner writes:
I'll let you in on a little secret: when a candidate gets asked a silly question like that, he doesn't have to provide a name. He could say "The presidency isn't about playing favorites. Unlike Trump, I'm not going to base my foreign policy on what I think about someone personally." Or there's a half dozen other ways he could answer.

Yes, my answer--not on the spot, but having a 15-20 minutes to think about it--would be: "'Leaders'...you mean 'public servants,' right? Well, any countries that are at the top of both the Freedom House political and civil liberties rankings, and the Heritage economic freedom rankings, and are not at war, have public servants that I think are doing a pretty good job."

What you can't do is get a look of panic in your eyes and say "I'm having a brain freeze and can't remember the name of the former president of Mexico."

I don't see why you can't do that, and provide the explanation that Scott gave. Or that I would give. I'm under 60, and in good health (never smoked anything, and maybe 2 glasses of wine a week), but I've noticed that I have real trouble remembering names. Just a week or so, I couldn't remember the name of a person I'd worked with on and off for maybe 1 year over a period of 3 years, but hadn't worked with for about a year. There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that I know this person much better than Gary Johnson knows Vincente Fox. But when I was trying to remember person's name, I just came up with the name of another person who has the same number of syllables in his/her first and last name.

P.S. And ever since I saw the "60 Minutes" pieces on "face blindness" I can see that I have a bit of that. (Not as bad as those poor people!) I'm really bad when meeting someone I only occasionally meet at work, and who's dressed in casual clothes and in a store or at a movie.

Krist writes:

You can forgiven for not knowing the leader of Switzerland. Most Swiss wouldn't know that either. (In fact, the country doesn't have a leader...)

Jay writes:

Can someone explain to me why the Aleppo "flub" was worthy of condemnation? To me watching the clip, it seems like the interviewer didn't frame the question very well, i.e. leading with a foreign policy introduction or talking about Syria, and just flatly asked "what do you think about Aleppo" out of the blue as if to purposefully ask a relatively obscure question to "catch" him.

Since 98% of viewers also don't know what Aleppo is out of context, the proper way to ask to me would be "Aleppo's been the nexus of a lot of the fighting in Syria, what are your opinions on the conflict and what should be done".

MikeDC writes:

Well, Aleppo had been front-page news for weeks. Even if the answer was a more polite version of "I think what's happening there sucks, but I don't see that we will improve it by intervention", it would have been a much better answer.

Jay writes:

@MikeDC

The conflict had been front-page news but at least the sources I read hardly ever lead off with the Aleppo part or referred to the fighting in whole as just the name of the capital city. The term definitely wasn't saturating the media enough such that one could ask out of the blue and independent of any previous foreign policy talk, "what do you think about Aleppo" and expect the interviewee to immediately know what they're referring to. I give Gary the pass here and think the question was purposefully asked badly to confuse him (I'm not a fanboy, he's given some bad answers before and after, just not that one).

MikeP writes:

I'm with Jay. I listen to NPR all the time, and if you asked me about Aleppo, I would have known it was the largest city in Syria, and that Syria is involved in a very complicated civil war that I could describe pretty fully at a nationwide level. But I could not have told you about Aleppo specifically.

The tightening siege of Aleppo is actually a very recent development, presumably since the success of the government in driving the rebels out of some other city, whose name I don't remember, a month or two ago.

Mark Bahner writes:
I listen to NPR all the time, and if you asked me about Aleppo, I would have known it was the largest city in Syria,...

I think Gary Johnson said later that his first thought was that Aleppo was an acronym. So he was trying to figure out what the acronym stood for.

MikeDC writes:

I want the president to be aware of the crises we shouldn't be intervening in. It's not "disqualifying" to me or anything, but it's certainly a mark against him.

I think that distinction hits upon one of the biggest flaws with electoral politics. The adversarial nature doesn't allow for any realistic discussion. It's extremely difficult for most people to admit that their preferred candidate screwed something up.

Even though, in the grand scheme of things, everyone screws this stuff up. Did I like Johnson not knowing where Alleppo was? Nope. But I didn't like Obama saying he'd campaigned in all 57 states, and he only had one left to go.

That was clearly a bigger mental error than Johnson made, and Obama got a pass on it. Given that we're talking about Johnson in contrast to two candidates who routinely say ridiculous things, it doesn't affect my decision-making one bit.

Jay writes:

@MikeDC

I didn't see any followups, did Gary really not know that Aleppo was the capital? Watching the clip and his response about the acronym, it looks to me like he just wasn't aware that it was what the interviewer was talking about given there was ZERO context in the question or foreign policy lead up which to me screams "gotcha" question that is badly asked if you were trying to be objective.

Bob Murphy writes:

Charley Hooper wrote:

"Asking a libertarian to name their favorite world leader is like asking a vegan to name their favorite steakhouse."

...and Scott applauded the analogy.

OK guys, that's fine insofar as it goes, but let me make it more analogous to what actually happened:

(1) Two guys are running on the Vegan ticket. Chris Matthews asks them, "Name your favorite steakhouse."

(2) The Vegan running for president is having a brain freeze. His VP says, "Ruth's Chris" right away.

(3) The Vegan running for prez has recovered somewhat. "It's um, the one that sounds like Willie Horton, but that's not it..." Then the VP bails him out by prodding, "Morton's." The prez candidate lights up. "MORTON'S STEAKHOUSE, that's what I was trying to come up with."

(4) A day later, on Twitter, the Vegan running for president tweets out, "24 hours later, I still can't think of a steakhouse I like."

(5) People on leading vegan (small-v) websites applaud the honesty of their candidate.

MikeP writes:

...did Gary really not know that Aleppo was the capital?

The capital is Damascus.

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