Why the Unprincipled Worst Get on Top
“Nothing sinks people faster in their careers than arrogance,” according to Stephen R. Covey, the bestselling author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. But it is hard to imagine a less humble or more arrogant individual than Donald Trump, and to date, his shoot-from-the-hip, prideful, self-referencing arrogance has not sunk his career.
In his book Principle-Centered Leadership, Covey described “politics without principle” as a politics of personality focused on “the instant creation of an image that sells well in the social and economic marketplace. You see politicians spending millions of dollars to create an image, even though it’s superficial, lacking substance, in order to get votes and gain office.”
The marketplace imposes a check on empty promotion and false confidence, which is why, as Covey observes, the most successful leaders in the private sector are often also quite humble.
So why do the arrogant do so well in elections? Is there something different about the political process that allows the worst to succeed?
In his seminal book The Road to Serfdom, Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek offers part of the answer. He lists three widely held beliefs that allow arrogant politicians to emerge.
Belief 1: We should be able to get out of our economic difficulties without pain.
As Hayek saw it, some people blame “the system” for their troubles and “wish to be relieved of the bitter choice which hard facts often impose upon them.” They “are only too ready to believe that the choice is not really necessary, that it is imposed upon them merely by the particular economic system under which we live.”
Let the implication of Hayek’s words sink in. The successful politicians may be those who increasingly blame the “system.”
With a majority of Americans feeling economically insecure, there is plenty of fear for Trump to exploit and a ready audience for promises that he can ease the economic pain of ordinary Americans.
Trump postures as a great fixer. Consider this retweet on Trump’s official Twitter page:
He promises that things are going to be “great again,” once he gets us a better deal with China. Trump tells us he gets what he wants. To purchase a hotel in Miami, he brags, “I went in and punched and punched and beat the hell out of people, and I ended up getting it.”
Of course, Trump is not alone. In their arrogance, politicians will claim to fix social pain points — while they create many, many more.
Belief 2: Government should command or partially command significant portions of the economy.
Hayek observes that many well-meaning people ask, “Why should it not be possible that the same sort of system, if it be necessary to achieve important ends, be run by decent people for the good of the community as a whole?”
Those who believe in command economies think that when things go wrong, it must be because the wrong people are in charge. They don’t question their core belief that controls are needed.
History, economics, and the contemporary world teach lessons of command-and-control societies that have experienced economic failure. Yet, the wrong-person-in-charge belief is sadly all too common.
In her book The Art of Choosing, social psychologist and business professor Sheena Iyengar reports on 2007 research about societal attitudes in East Germany. She observes that among former East Germans, “more than 90% believed socialism was a good idea in principle, one that had just been poorly implemented in the past.”
Look around at your friends and neighbors who are supporting a candidate who advocates top-down solutions to social and economic problems. With few exceptions, they want the same things that you want: prosperity and peace for their family and the world. It is not that they want different outcomes than you do. They simply don’t understand that command economies are inherently, fatally flawed and cannot accomplish those goals.
Without examining their core beliefs, decent people tell themselves they’re choosing the “right” person to put in charge. Arrogant politicians are standing by, posturing as the “right” people.
Belief 3: There is a “good of the community as a whole” that our current economy is not meeting.
It is essential to understand why there can be no such thing as the “good of the community as a whole.” Hayek explains,
The “social goal” or “common purpose” for which society is to be organized is usually vaguely described as the “common good,” the “general welfare,” or the “general interest.” It does not need much reflection to see that these terms have no sufficiently definite meaning to determine a particular course of action.
All top-down solutions will be win-lose, benefiting some and harming others, for as Hayek explains,
The welfare and happiness of millions cannot be measured on a single scale of less or more. The welfare of the people, like the happiness of a man, depends up on a great many things that can be provided in an infinite variety of combinations.
Some see health care as a common good and a human right that the market system has failed to provide. In my FEE essay, “Castro and Obama Are Wrong about ‘Human Rights’” (FEE.org, March 25, 2016), I explain why real rights are win-win, not win-lose. “Rights” such as health care are win-lose and not real rights at all.
The arrogant believe they know what is best for you and best for the community. To them the course of action is clear. However, Hayek warns that in collectivist ethics, the ends justify the means and thus lead to amoral totalitarianism:
There is literally nothing which the consistent collectivist must not be prepared to do if it serves “the good of the whole” because “the good of the whole” is to him the only criterion of what ought to be done.
The Consequences of Our False Beliefs
Since there is no majority to agree on a specific plan of action to promote a nonexistent “common good,” the worst get on top in a centrally planned economy.
The “worst” will take advantage of the fact that agreement can be more readily forged by focusing on a “negative program.” Hayek writes,
It seems to be almost a law of human nature that it is easier for people to agree on a negative program — on the hatred of an enemy, on the envy of those better off — than on any positive task. The contrast between the “we” and the “they,” the common fight against those outside the group, seems to be an essential ingredient in any creed which will solidly knit together a group for common action. It is consequently always employed by those who seek, not merely support of a policy, but the unreserved allegiance of huge masses.
The “mass” that the “worst” seek to mobilize will include those who themselves are not grounded on principles. Hayek cautions that those having “imperfectly formed ideas are easily swayed”; their “passions and emotions are readily aroused.”
Hayek helps us to understand why the careers of arrogant politicians do not sink fast. The careers of arrogant politicians rise as long as we believe in a common good, seek the “right” politicians to be in charge, and support those who promise to shelter us from the work of examining our beliefs and the pain of making a different choice.
We shouldn’t be surprised when the outcome is not what we expect. As Freeman editor B.K. Marcus observes, “The more decisions we cede to the political process, the less we should expect anyone to protect our interests” (“Why Do We Believe These Pathological Liars?” FEE.org, April 27, 2016).
As individuals, we can question our core beliefs. We can humbly “try to live in harmony with natural laws and universal principles.” And we can demand the same of our politicians.
Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore. He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership. He blogs at BarryBrownstein.com, Giving up Control, and America’s Highest Purpose.
This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author.