The Leadership Myth

Arnold Kling makes two very profound observations:

  • The conventional wisdom is that we would be better off if politically powerful leaders were less mediocre. Instead, my view is that we would be better off if mediocre political leaders were less powerful.
  • Democracy does not lead to particularly good choices. Most successful institutions in society are not democratic.

Quite true.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Uncategorized,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Cernig says:

    Re Kling:

    Is this a wish for Machiavelli’s Prince to be in charge of America, James?

    An even wiser man once said something even more profound.

    Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.

    Regards, C

  2. madmatt says:

    Democracy does not lead to particularly good choices. Most successful institutions in society are not democratic.

    at least you are honestly coming out for fascism…thats the first step.

  3. James Joyner says:


    Read Kling’s piece. He’s arguing the virtues of limited government, not dictatorship.

    He believes people can be trusted to oust bad leaders –as a check on government–rather than to elect brilliant managers of society.

  4. Cernig says:

    Actually, looking at this twice:

    Most successful institutions in society are not democratic. Prove it.

    The most successful institutions, arguably, are major corporations. Their shareholders comprise a democracy of shares within their own frame of reference, where each share is equal and equally entitled to it’s vote. The shareholders then elect or confirm representatives to be the executive who will govern on their behalf. Through enlightened self-interest, they usually select experts to be on that executive.

    Kling writes that “Many institutions give concentrated decision-making power to experts” – but just forgets to point out that democratic methods usually drive the selection of those experts (over other experts) because it doesn’t argue for his thesis.

    In philosophy class (20 years ago) we called that intellectual laziness. At Lloyd’s of London they just called it damned stupid. You can’t underwrite without knowing all the factors.

    Its a pity really, because otherwise Kling has some interesting things to say.

    Regards, C

  5. legion says:

    Excellent point. While an effective organization has to be run by a single leader, the selection of that leader is generally of democratic origins. There aren’t many CEOs chosen by Right of Combat anymore… tho that would make for some great shareholder meetings!

  6. Steven Plunk says:

    Kling’s point is well taken. Since we are stuck with less than stellar leadership through democracy our best hope to limit the damage is through smaller government.

    I would respectfully disagree with others concerning corporate leadership. Shareholder vote for directors on a board not for CEO’s or other high level managers, the board hires those. It is a highly insulated form of indirect democracy. Couple that with the fact that many shareholders give proxy to others to vote for them and you get a very imperfect democracy.

    Democracy has flaws but is the best system given the choices. One of democracy’s worst flaws is that it yields leaders who are more about compromise and being re-elected and less about true bold leadership. I think Kling is also warning us about a potential charismatic leader who may some day hypnotize us all into doing things were once thought unthinkable. This is also a case for limited government power.

  7. Tano says:

    “One of democracy’s worst flaws is that it yields leaders who are more about compromise and being re-elected and less about true bold leadership”

    That is not a flaw, it is a feature. The underlying notion of democracy is that all citizens share in decision making, justifed by their inherintly equal nature as human beings. Given the diversity of interests and preferences amongst any collection of free people, compromise is the absolutely essential feature of any non-tyrannical government. Politicians skilled at compromise are the heros of, and embodiment of the democratic spirit. “Trying to get reelected” is the medium through which politicians remain disciplined transmitters of the will of the people into the halls of government.

    Bold leadership, while sometimes essential, is usually a symptom of one faction ramming its preferences, and advancing its interests at the expense of others. All successful tyrannies exhibit bold leadership.

  8. James Joyner says:


    Would Microsoft be more or less successful if, instead of being run by Bill Gates and his hand-pointed team, it was led by people who looked good on TV, talked in nice sound bytes, and ran better negative ads than the other guy?


    We have to expect mediocrity from political leaders. They are selected by a very unreliable process. In general, I try to avoid contact with narcissists who spend their time pleading for money. Those are hardly the intellectual and emotional characteristics that make someone admirable, yet they are the traits of people who go into politics.

    Tano: Kling isn’t disagreeing with you. Two more exerpts:

    For me, the value of democracy is that it provides a check on government officials. The fact that leaders can be tossed out by popular vote helps to limit their abuse of power. Democracy gives the people the power to toss out the bums.


    The libertarian view is that private institutions, both for-profit and non-profit, are better at problem-solving than government institutions. Regardless of whether political leadership is wise or mediocre, our goal should be to limit the damage that public officials can do. Do not demand that they “solve” health care, “fix” education, or launch a “Manhattan project” for energy independence. Even for experts, those are impossible tasks. The harder we press our existing leaders to address these issues, the more trouble they are going to cause.

  9. Tano says:


    I realize that Kling might agree, to some extent, with my last comment. But I don’t agree with Kling, or with the libertarians in general, on some other important points.

    I think the fundamental problem with that point of view is that it seems to be based on the notion that tyranny, or the exercise of power over individuals without their participation in the making of the decisions, is somehow a problem only with government. In fact there are many collective decisions made in society, or decisions that affect the collective society, that are made in the private sector, and can have enormous effect on all of us.

    To take a simple example, the owners of a private factory can decide to make a product that yields toxic wastes, and they can decide to dump them in places that impact our water supply, or the air we breathe. The decision is private – I dont get to chime in with my concerns. And this decision may have as much, or more impact on my life than anything the local government does. It can be a form of tyranny every bit as much as what a government does.

    The virtue of government decision making is that I have a voice, albeit small. Private-sector decision making is primed for being tyrannical. That there might be consequences for the decision makers in the marketplace is not sufficient a pressure as to evade this problem.

    I think the emphasis on “smaller government” as a path to less tyranny is fundamentally flawed. Tyranny exists as a function of unaccountable decisions affecting society. The number and scope of collective decisions are an organic function of the size and complexity of our society. For any given society, there are a certain number of decisions that will be made – by someone. Competing philosophies do not lead to more or fewer decisions, they just decide who gets to make them.

    Minimizing the size of government does not minimize the number of decisions that will be made affecting the collective society. All it does it is minimize the probability that the decision will be made by an institution that affords all individuals a voice.

    Libertarians claim to be for the empowerment of the individual, but their policies all lead toward empowering private, unaccountable institutions being the ones to make decisions, rather than democratically based institutions, ones in which we all get a say.

  10. Steven Plunk says:


    I understand your point. Often, as you say, compromise leads to good decisions and measured responses. Often compromise leads to watered down initiatives that don’t have enough power to make them successful. It looks as though it is both a feature and a flaw. In terms of leadership, which is what Kling is addressing, I think it is more of a flaw.

    I don’t see democracy as everyone sharing in decision making. Given a choice of A or B at the ballot box we must vote for one. If A gets 50% plus one it passes and those who made up 50% less one have their will thwarted. Elected officials can compromise while direct democracy is simple majority rule.

    Many times the compromise I speak of is trading a vote on one issue for a vote on another issue. Many other times compromise positions are taken not to reflect good policy choices but to appease special interest voters. When it’s about retaining your seat more than what’s good for the country I think it’s a flaw.

    Limiting the power of government allows for bold leadership while also providing a check on the possible abuse of power.

  11. Dave Schuler says:

    While I agree with Arnold’s points generally I find some problems with them specifically.

    So, for example, I don’t have quite as much problem with government as Arnold seems to have but I do wish that the principle of subsidiarity were more honored. I also think that mediocre leadership is a feature rather than a bug of our form of government.

    But I’m not quite as impressed with “successful institutions” as I think Arnold is. There’s too much rent-seeking passing for entrepeneurship these days. IMO without rent-seeking Bill Gates would still be working out of his parents’ basement.

  12. Anderson says:

    Skepticism about democracy should be part of the toolkit of every small-D democrat.

  13. legion says:

    Kling’s point is well taken. Since we are stuck with less than stellar leadership through democracy our best hope to limit the damage is through smaller government.

    While I don’t disagree with the first part, I don’t buy the implied ‘only’ solution… My suggestion would be to find a way to make society actually care & pay attention to the people they (we) elect. The idea that we put the most powerful politicians in the world into office based on how their makeup looks on MTP (just as an example) is appalling. Smaller gov’t, populated by the same crowd of idiots and greedheads we have today, would be no better.