January 09, 2005

The Marketplace of Ideas

Nobody’s perfect: that’s why dictatorships fail.  A leader may be extraordinarily charismatic or remarkably ruthless – but no one has the breadth of ability, let alone the time, to successfully lead a nation by himself.

The inevitable result of dictatorial hubris is widespread death. Stalin, disastrously, fancied himself a military leader, causing the needless deaths of millions of his own soldiers.  Worse, his catastrophically naïve ideas on property redistribution and his paranoid, totalitarian policies killed millions more – so many, in fact that the total number is disputed.  Kim Jung Il, to give another example, is hardly a polymath; he can’t even keep his people fed.  And given the events of the past few years, I won’t bother to rehearse the failings of the recently deposed Iraq despot – we learned them by rote.

By sharp contrast, democracy provides the widest prosperity and the least repression for its practitioners because every conceivable idea is permitted to compete for primacy, through free speech, free press, and free assembly.  In theory at least, the best ideas rise to the top and the weakest are abandoned, according to criteria chosen by the majority of voters.  Of course, people are still vulnerable to sophistry and propaganda; as British humorist Alan Coren said, “Democracy consists of choosing your dictators, after they've told you what it is you want to hear.” And, unfortunately, the press is often less than fair and balanced, particularly during wartime. And a tyrannous majority can impinge the rights of minorities.  And voting can be rigged or flawed.  But despite all these drawbacks, because – and primarily because – it fosters a relatively open marketplace of ideas, democracy remains, as Churchill famously put it, "the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried."

Recognizing the importance of the competition of ideas that democracy allows, many presidents surround themselves with independent thinkers who challenge them and each other. They also maximize the number of information sources available to them.  John F. Kennedy assembled a “best and brightest” cabinet, which included liberals and moderate conservatives alike. Richard Nixon, according to Ron Suskind’s The Price of Loyalty, realized that the volume of data available to him was overwhelming, yet the complexity of the decisions he faced required him to master it. He therefore created the modern Office of Management and Budget and directed it to write concise briefs outlining the spectrum of views on given issues. Bill Clinton was known to call experts around the country, at all times of day or night, to develop as informed an opinion as possible.

As we have seen, the short term political drawback of open-mindedness is that it leaves the leader open to charges of wish-washiness or flip-floppery.  The leader who is not following a rigid ideology, but rather weighing known facts and potential consequences, cannot know, a priori, the solution to every problem.  He may also change his mind about the right approach as he gathers new information.

But in the long term, just as an athlete who refuses to submit to the rigors of competition is almost certainly a poor performer, a leader who refuses to participate in the marketplace of ideas – who brooks no dissent from the party line; who is incurious about the world around him – will make a lot of bad decisions.

No amount of sophistry or denial will cover up the consequences.  You can cut taxes come hell or high water, but the deficits will keep piling up, the currency will fall, and interest rates will rise. You can claim that a rushed, sparsely supported invasion of Iraq will make Americans safer, but when our armed forces are too tied up to tackle real threats, dictators are emboldened to develop real weapons of mass destruction.  And you can ignore the cost of privatizing Social Security, but someone will have to pay the bill.

Al Smith, the progressive presidential candidate who was defeated by Hebert Hoover, said that “all the ills of democracy can be cured by more democracy.” Certainly these days we could use more free press, free speech, and free assembly – and a broader debate within our government about the right solutions for our country.  If we don’t get that from the current administration, it is worth remembering that Hoover’s ideologically pure but effectively bankrupt ideas (e.g., regulation is always bad, social programs are always bad, unrestrained big business is always good) failed so demonstrably that they paved the way for the Roosevelt era of peace and prosperity. Thus, despite the government having shielded its eyes and ears from dissent to the detriment of the country, democracy indeed provided the cure.  It will do so again.
© Copyright 2004 Will Friedman

By Will Friedman in Commentary, Politics | Permalink  | 


I know you are trying to offer a ray of hope that, after the republicans are finished tearing the world apart like a dog with a chew-toy, progressives can rebuild from the rubble of their destruction.


But considering the technological advances that have occurred since the last time they wreaked havoc, odds are greater that there may be nothing left when they are finished.

Posted by: Shea Comerford | Jan 9, 2005 9:46:22 PM

I would like to take a moment and express to all the radical libs out there how happy I am that you have chosen to take up the "cause". Because of you, we (Republicans)are assured of many more years of righteous, quality guidance from the GOP. God bless you all.

p.s. Please keep Mikey Moore as your spokesman. He great..and incredibly fat!

Posted by: Soldierboy | Jan 19, 2005 7:28:04 AM

It's interesting that commenters like "soldierboy" don't tackle the issues that are raised here. The substance of their 'argument' seems to be stereotyping and lame name-calling (it's pretty creative to leave a fake email address called "[email protected]"). I surely haven't reasoned so soundly that you are left quivering in anger, with nothing to do than spew insults. Or maybe you just concede that by isolating himself from dissent, Bush will make worse decisions, so you want to move on to other topics?

Posted by: Will Friedman | Jan 19, 2005 8:01:33 AM

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