Brain­i­ness and charisma don’t al­ways de­liver

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Thomas Sow­ell

Many peo­ple, in­clud­ing some con­ser­va­tives, have been very im­pressed with how brainy the pres­i­dent and his ad­vis­ers are. But that is not quite as re­as­sur­ing as it might seem.

It was, af­ter all, Franklin D. Roo­sevelt’s bril­liant “brains trust” ad­vis­ers whose poli­cies are now in­creas­ingly rec­og­nized as hav­ing pro­longed the Great De­pres­sion of the 1930s, while claim­ing credit for end­ing it. The Great De­pres­sion ended only when the Sec­ond World War put an end to many New Deal poli­cies.

FDR him­self said that “Dr. New Deal” had been re­placed by “Dr. Win-the-War.” But those to­day who are for big spending like to credit war­time big spending for bring­ing the Great De­pres­sion to an end. They never ask the ques­tion as to why pre­vi­ous de­pres­sions had al­ways ended on their own, much faster than the one un­der FDR, and without gov­ern­ment in­ter­ven­tion or mas­sive gov­ern­ment spending.

Brainy folks were also present in Lyn­don John­son’s ad­min­is­tra­tion, es­pe­cially in the Pen­tagon, where Sec­re­tary of De­fense Robert McNa­mara’s bril­liant “whiz kids” tried to mi­cro-man­age the Viet­nam war, with dis- as­trous re­sults.

There is usu­ally only a lim­ited amount of dam­age that can be done by dull or stupid peo­ple. For cre­at­ing a truly mon­u­men­tal dis­as­ter, you need peo­ple with high IQs.

Such peo­ple have been told all their lives how bril­liant they are, un­til fi­nally they feel forced to ad­mit it, with all due mod­esty. But they not only tend to over-es­ti­mate their own bril­liance, more fun­da­men­tally they tend to over-es­ti­mate how im­por­tant bril­liance it­self is when deal­ing with real world prob­lems.

Many cru­cial things in life are learned from ex­pe­ri­ence, rather than from clever thoughts or clever words. In­deed, a gift for the clever phras­ing so much ad­mired by the me­dia can be a fa­tal tal­ent, es­pe­cially for some­one cho­sen to lead a gov­ern­ment.

Make no mis­take about it, Adolf Hitler was bril­liant. His un­der­ly­ing be­liefs may have been half-baked and his ha­treds over­whelm­ing, but he was a ge­nius when it came to car­ry­ing out his plans po­lit­i­cally, based on those be­liefs and ha­treds.

Start­ing from a po­si­tion of Ger­many’s mil­i­tary weak­ness in the early 1930s, Hitler not only built up Ger­many’s war­mak­ing po­ten­tial, he did so in ways that min­i­mized the dan­ger that his po­ten­tial vic­tims would match his mil­i­tary build-up with their own. He said what­ever sooth­ing words they wanted to hear that would spare them the cost of mil­i­tary de­ter­rence and the pain of con­tem­plat­ing an­other war.

He played some of the most highly ed­u­cated peo­ple of his time for fools — not only for­eign po­lit­i­cal leaders but also mem­bers of the in­tel­li­gentsia. The ed­i­tor of The Times of Lon­don fil­tered out re­ports that his own for­eign cor­re­spon­dents in Ger­many sent him about the evils and dan­gers of the Nazis. In the United States, W.E.B. Du Bois — with a Ph.D. from Har­vard — said that dic­ta­tor­ship in Ger­many was “ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary to get the state in or­der.”

In an age when facts seem to carry less weight than the vi­sions of bril­liant and charis­matic leaders, it is more im­por­tant than ever to look at the ac­tual track records of those bril­liant and charis­matic leaders. Af­ter all, Hitler led Ger­many into mil­i­tary catas­tro­phe and left much of the coun­try in ru­ins.

Even in a coun­try which suf­fered none of the war­time de­struc­tion that oth­ers suf­fered in the 20th cen­tury, Ar­gentina be­gan that cen­tury as one of the 10 rich­est na­tions in the world — ahead of France and Ger­many — and ended it as such an eco­nomic dis­as­ter that no one would even com­pare it to France or Ger­many.

Po­lit­i­cally bril­liant and charis­matic leaders, pro­mot­ing reck­less gov­ern­ment spending — of whom Juan Peron was the most prom­i­nent, but by no means alone — man­aged to cre­ate an eco­nomic dis­as­ter in a coun­try with an abun­dance of nat­u­ral re­sources and a coun­try that was spared the stresses that wars in­flicted on other na­tions in the 20th cen­tury.

Some­one re­cently pointed out how much Barack Obama’s style and strate­gies re­sem­ble those of Latin Amer­i­can charis­matic despots— the takeover of in­dus­tries by dem­a­gogues who never ran a busi­ness, the rous­ing rhetoric of re­sent­ment ad­dressed to the masses and the per­sonal cult of the leader pro­moted by the me­dia. But do we want to be­come the world‘s largest ba­nana repub­lic?

Thomas Sow­ell is a na­tion­ally syndicated colum­nist.

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