Here’s the problem with any leadership position: You’re going to make decisions some will like, but most won’t. It’s that simple. It’s the harsh reality of being in charge, but one true leaders embrace. One either has the stomach to make said decisions, or they don’t. The true leader can stare into the abyss and “make the call” without flinching. Those people tend to be the most successful while enduring the most spectacular flameouts, only to be energized to begin again.
Leaders also tend to suffer the greatest criticism, mostly by those unwilling or unable to take the lead; the latter being cherry pickers, the ones that stand in the back of the room or off to the side snickering and telling everyone else what they would do, but rarely, if ever, have the gumption to engage.
This doesn’t mean to suggest one in a leadership position doesn’t have confidants or advisors, those around to be a sounding board, to aid in fleshing out a decision. Such confidants are necessary, providing well-reasoned opposition in order to facilitate a final decision. In the end, however, the decision, even a modified one, rests with the person in charge.
This leadership principal is not popular in our political class (yes, it is a class despite the best efforts of the founders to avoid such a distinction, something to which they also fell victim), and in fact, is largely rejected throughout larger society today. Policy platform is guided, in part, but growing larger, by such non-concrete terms as feelings and morality rather than cold rationality. Even saying the term rationality denotes a certain frost on the grass.
If one listens closely to debates, discussion, and political theory, the term morality, or the phrase the moral thing to do is bandied about as though it is the chief consideration before any decision is made.
“Well, it might not be the right thing to do, but it is the moral thing” is often a phrase heard along with, “We must do it, it’s the moral thing to do.” Such phrases are worn on the lapel as dictators splash unearned medals on their chests proclaiming their greatness.
History as Our Guide
The struggle between morality and politics is nothing new, and, in fact, moral considerations in political decision making led to some important, even necessary reforms. During the 18th century European Enlightenment, societal reform was seen as not only as necessary but moral. The abolition of serfdom, elimination of torture as a means of gaining confession (torture in the 18th century had a much different meaning that what our century considers torture), and the notion of one being born with natural rights as espoused by John Locke (his ideas forming the basis for our Declaration of Independence and Constitution) being but a few examples.
Since World War II and the scourge of fascist and communist authoritarianism, morality has taken an even larger chunk of our political discourse. The Second World War changed the entire course of Western thought and government in myriad ways, morality becoming more dominant regarding government policy than ever before, the growth of the welfare state in post-war Europe being a prime example.
Our national economics has also been colored by the paintbrush of morality. The advent of social security and a minimum wage under FDR as well as the monstrosity of the Great Society enacted by LBJ are prime examples of morality influencing and fashioning federal policy, and that notion of morality guiding policy is still steering the nation’s economic vehicle, causing us to spend ourselves into oblivion.
The question is if these policies, guided more and more by morality, have made the nation better?
Certainly, there is an argument to be made regarding the moraldecision; it makes people feel better, presents a better, kinder face of the nation, and people smile. Politicians like it because it allows them to present themselves as “for the people”, giving credence to the notion that they “understand your pain”, as they hug babies, or shake hands.
The problem is that morality and what I’ll term the feels are not always simpatico, especially when it comes to running a nation or a business…and make no mistake, a nation is a business. When decisions are made with morality being the chief consideration more so than what numbers tell us, problems will arise.
Increasing government spending to quell the shouting voices or garner votes while ignoring basic monetary policy is simply irresponsible and leads to a host of larger problems, inflation being one of them. Enacting policy at the federal or state level which provides more and more services at the expense of increasing national or state debt is folly at the highest level, but if it garners votes…
Is there a happy medium?
“What we need and what we want is to moralize politics, not politicize morals.” – Karl Popper, Austrian philosopher
This does not mean to say morality should never be taken into consideration: placing a nuclear waste facility near a children’s park because it’s cost effective to do so is simply wrong and should never be done under any circumstances, bottom line be damned. But any good businessperson knows this and despite what Hollywood would like you to believe (and they have outsized impact on our thought), corporations generally do not engage in such egregious behavior.
However, when morality or the feels is the overriding factor in political decision making, the state becomes something other than what it was intended; it becomes the police of your morality, injecting itself into your life, becoming the determiner or what it believes is right or wrong, imposing itself whether you agree or not. The populace, in the process, has no choice but to adopt what the federal government decrees is morality. There is no choice.
This is how authoritarianism becomes the norm.
When considering the economic health of a nation, the most important aspect of said nation’s survival, the preference should be as Machiavelli said in The Prince when he stated: “If given the choice to be feared or loved, better to be feared.”
Decisions must be made for the betterment of the whole, knowing some in the whole are going to reject it, despite its necessity. That is the cost of leadership.
Therein lies the genius of the Constitution; States can be governed as the population sees fit while the federal government is contained, forcibly restrained to govern rationally, not subject to the whims of an ever-changing morality. Unfortunately, the lines of that constitutional divide are now blurred.
Decisions are going to have to be made, and tough decisions at that. The question is if those in our national government have the stomach to make them, or if our population, conditioned now more than ever to accept federal government overreach, has the stomach to accept the castor oil of prudence and federal government reduction?
It’s only our nation at stake.