Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Good government

In a workshop on creative thinking we speculated: If magic somehow would exist, what would be the highest form of magic? Surprisingly, but clearly, good government was the winner. Or, as it is called in business: good governance.

This reminds me of Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly, analyzing historical examples of foolish government. She distinguishes four kinds of misgovernment:  tyranny or oppression; excessive ambition; incompetence or decadence;  and folly or perversity. She adds that these kinds are unfortunately not mutually exclusive. Tuchman is eminently quotable:

Outside government, man has accomplished marvels: voyaged to the moon; harnessed wind and electricity, raised stones into cathedrals, wove silk brocades out of the spinnings of a worm, constructed the instruments of music, derived power from steam, controlled or eliminated diseases, pushed back the North Sea and created land in its place, classified the forms of nature, penetrated the mysteries of the cosmos. While all other sciences have advanced, confessed John Adams, government is at a stand; little better practiced now than three or four thousand years ago.

Tuchman concludes that most follies are unnecessarily activist. And once the action misfires, compounding the error by continuing and enlarging it. Her champion of wooden‑headedness is Philip II of Spain: No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.

She sees folly not as the child of limited mental powers, but as the child of power hunger, especially clinging to a position of power once gained: The chief force behind political folly is addiction to power, for fear of losing it. … Power breeds folly; the power to command triggers failure to think; responsibility often fades in exercising it. … Lure of office stultifies government performance. The bureaucrat dreams of promotion, higher officials want to extend their reach, legislators and the chief of state want re‑election; the guiding principle is to please as many and offend as few as possible.
As Winston Churchill quipped: Democracy is the worst system of government - except for all the others.

Henry Kissinger: Leaders in government do not learn beyond the convictions they bring with them. Learning from experience is absent.
Mental standstill fixes the principles and boundaries governing a political problem. When dissonances and failures of a policy appear, the advocates rigidify. Their rigidity increases investment and the need to protect egos; policy founded upon error multiplies, never retreats.

Already Machiavelli wrote that a prince ought always to be a great asker and a patient hearer of truth about those things of which he has inquired, and he should be angry if he finds that anyone who shrinks from telling him the truth. Government needs great askers. In the search for wiser government we should look for character, for moral courage.
One of the few who outright admitted error was Harry Truman. Famous was his smiling retort when a journalist asked him if he hadn’t made an error in a decision during the Korea War: A schoolboy’s hindsight is better than a president’s foresight.  A lonely example of reversing a policy, was when Sadat visited Israel and offered peace.

Tuchman: We cannot expect much improvement. We can only muddle on like we have done in those three or four thousand years, through patches of brilliance and decline, great endeavor and shadow. There you have it.

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