Leadership: Academic Elitism vs Principled Wisdom  

Posted by Rob Barton

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From Scott at Conservatism Today:

President-elect Barack Obama swiftly revealed the direction his team would take, as the Washington Post noted last Sunday:

All told, of Obama's top 35 appointments so far, 22 have degrees from an Ivy
League school, MIT, Stanford, the University of Chicago or one of the top
British universities...

While Obama's picks have been lauded for their
ethnic and ideological mix, they lack diversity in one regard: They are almost
exclusively products of the nation's elite institutions and generally share a
more intellectual outlook than is often the norm in government. Their erudition
has already begun to set a new tone in the capital, cheering Obama's supporters
and serving as a clarion call to other academics. Yale law professor Dan Kahan
said several of his colleagues are for the first time considering leaving their
perches for Washington...

Absent-Minded Professors

Just what America needs, huh? A bunch of pointy-headed theorists who have never accomplished anything outside of Planet Academia, rushing to Washington to tell inhabitants of the real world how we can solve all our problems.

We tried this "best and brightest" approach under Kennedy. As the article notes, that's how we got mired in Vietnam. We had our own President Egghead with Jimmy Carter. He was always the smartest man in the room, and usually the least able to decide what course of action would be best to take.

High intelligence and even higher education is not a prerequisite for leadership - it is a warning signal. More often than not, these types suffer from Absent-minded Professor Syndrome - great genius in the laboratory or the classroom, but an inability to locate their car keys and an empty place where their common sense should be.

Dangerous Geniuses

Occasionally you find a highly-intelligent, highly-educated person who is not totally incapable of completing normal tasks successfully. Someone who can shoot hoops and smoke a cigarette at the same time. Someone like Barack Obama. Their education tells them that they have all the answers. Their high intelligence tells them that they are the only person who can save America from itself.

This is dangerous. Once this conclusion is reached (and I believe it already has been) it's all over. These people might have good intentions. They might make the trains run on time for awhile. But soon no policy, no law, no relationship becomes as important as maintaining power. Mistakes will be made, laws will be broken and ignored, preachers and grandmothers will get thrown under the bus.

This doesn't just go for liberals, either. One of my favorite theoreticians ever is Newt Gingrich, and he suffered from the same problem. For a short period of time, he accomplished great things. But his belief in his own greatness caused him to make mistakes, break rules of ethics and throw people under the bus. Until the bus made a detour and ran him over. Since he's gone back to working as a theoretician, he's been doing great things again. But he should never be President.

If extreme intelligence and high educational achievement are not positive character traits in leaders, what is? Wisdom, based on timeless principles of individual liberty. Reasonable intelligence mixed with common sense and love for that which is good. A high sense of personal morality.

The article notes that my political hero, Ronald Reagan, graduated from tiny Eureka College. Certainly he was an intelligent man; you don't save multiple lives as a teenage lifeguard, become a top sports announcer, become a household name as an actor, become President of an actors union, become governor of the largest state in the nation, and then become President of the United States without intelligence. Being one of the best in the world at whatever you choose to be doing at any given time takes some smarts. But his intelligence and education were not uncommon.

As President, he would nod off during meetings when advisors talked about missile throw-weights. The minutia didn't interest him. Pointy-headed academics didn't interest him. He was interested in the big picture.

He believed that insuring personal freedom was the greatest goal of government. He knew that socialist utopianism doesn't solve problems, that government planners don't solve problems, they exacerbate them. And he knew these things because he knew all about the existence of evil.

And because he knew about evil, he knew what Soviet communism was. He learned this as President of the Screen Actors Guild, when he had to carry a gun with him to cross picket lines and when he had to battle Soviet infiltrators in the film industry. And because he knew evil, he knew that the Soviet Union would someday crumble from within. He knew that if America ever applied the right types of pressure, it would crumble sooner.

The academics laughed at the "ignorant cowboy" when he said the following in June of 1982 to the British Parliament. None of the great minds with their fancy degrees knew what Reagan knew: That the Soviet Union was doomed because it was evil, if free men and women would just shine their light upon it.

We're approaching the end of a bloody century plagued by a terrible political
invention -- totalitarianism. Optimism comes less easily today, not because
democracy is less vigorous, but because democracy's enemies have refined their
instruments of repression. Yet optimism is in order, because day by day
democracy is proving itself to be a not-at-all-fragile flower. From Stettin on
the Baltic to Varna on the Black Sea, the regimes planted by totalitarianism
have had more than 30 years to establish their legitimacy. But none -- not one
regime -- has yet been able to risk free elections. Regimes planted by bayonets
do not take root....

(t)he gift of vision, the willingness to see the
future based on the experience of the past. It is this sense of history, this
understanding of the past that I want to talk with you about today, for it is in
remembering what we share of the past that our two nations can make common cause
for the future...

History teaches the dangers of government that
overreaches -- political control taking precedence over free economic growth,
secret police, mindless bureaucracy, all combining to stifle individual
excellence and personal freedom.

President Reagan then predicts the future:

Historians looking back at our time will note the consistent restraint and
peaceful intentions of the West. They will note that it was the democracies who
refused to use the threat of their nuclear monopoly in the forties and early
fifties for territorial or imperial gain. Had that nuclear monopoly been in the
hands of the Communist world, the map of Europe -- indeed, the world -- would
look very different today... At the same time we see totalitarian forces in the
world who seek subversion and conflict around the globe to further their
barbarous assault on the human spirit. What, then, is our course? Must
civilization perish in a hail of fiery atoms? Must freedom wither in a quiet,
deadening accommodation with totalitarian evil?In an ironic sense Karl Marx was
right. We are witnessing today a great revolutionary crisis, a crisis where the
demands of the economic order are conflicting directly with those of the
political order. But the crisis is happening not in the free, non-Marxist West,
but in the home of Marxist-Leninism, the Soviet Union.

It is the Soviet
Union that runs against the tide of history by denying human freedom and human
dignity to its citizens. It also is in deep economic difficulty. The rate of
growth in the national product has been steadily declining since the fifties and
is less than half of what it was then. The dimensions of this failure are
astounding: A country which employs one-fifth of its population in agriculture
is unable to feed its own people...

I have discussed on other occasions,
including my address on May 9th, the elements of Western policies toward the
Soviet Union to safeguard our interests and protect the peace. What I am
describing now is a plan and a hope for the long term -- the march of freedom
and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history as it
has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression
of the people.

He went further in his Evil Empire speech in 1983.

So, in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware
the temptation of pride -- the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above
it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and
the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant
misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and
wrong and good and evil...

Whittaker Chambers, the man whose own
religious conversion made him a witness to one of the terrible traumas of our
time, the Hiss-Chambers case, wrote that the crisis of the Western World exists
to the degree in which the West is indifferent to God, the degree to which it
collaborates in communism's attempt to make man stand alone without God. And
then he said, for Marxism-Leninism is actually the second oldest faith, first
proclaimed in the Garden of Eden with the words of temptation, "Ye shall be as

The Western world can answer this challenge, he wrote, "but only
provided that its faith in God and the freedom He enjoins is as great as
communism's faith in Man."

I believe we shall rise to the challenge. I
believe that communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose
last pages even now are being written. I believe this because the source of our
strength in the quest for human freedom is not material, but spiritual. And
because it knows no limitation, it must terrify and ultimately triumph over
those who would enslave their fellow man.

We forget what leadership based on the wisdom of conservative, small government principles looks like, because we haven't seen it on a national scale since Reagan left office. We'll need to see it again following four years of Barack Obama and his fellow academic elites.


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