Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

24 May 2007

One-Man Rule


We humans like to think we are rational beings. Over millennia we have gained a rudimentary understanding of our physical world and our own biology. In the United States we have a nation founded on Reason. We can fly through the air. We can understand our own molecular genetics. We can diagnose, prevent and cure disease better than ever before.

Our greatest achievements have always been collective. In a much simpler era, it took dozens of wise people to frame American democracy. It takes thousands of experts to build an airplane, tens of thousands to run an airline. Deciphering the human genome was a group project on a massive scale, involving thousands of scientists and laboratory technicians. It is still ongoing. Progress in medicine, in particular, has been slow and steady, requiring the efforts of armies of doctors, scientists and technicians and the cooperation of tens of thousands of patients. Every clinical trial of a new drug is a gigantic exercise in rational collaboration.

Yet even in science—our most conclusive proof that more heads are better than one—we are hierarchical. When we think of physics, we think of the genius of Newton and Einstein; we don’t think of the thousands of scientists now laboring to prepare CERN’s Large Hadron Collider to probe the secrets of the Big Bang. When we think of medicine, we think of Pasteur, Lavoisier, and Fleming, not the incremental progress of thousands of doctors and experimenters, working in clinics and laboratories worldwide over generations. When we think of biology, we visualize Darwin, Crick, and Watson, not all the men and women daily enhancing and re-confirming these visionaries’ work and putting it to practical use.

Our tendency toward hierarchy reaches its nadir in politics and government. It is not limited to extreme cases like Ivan the Terrible, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot or Saddam Hussein. The same trend—to follow the leader, with sometime disastrous consequences—persists to some extent all over the world.

Take Yasser Arafat, for example. He was the Palestinians’ alpha male. What did he bring them? Decades of unrelenting suffering, poverty, oppression, violence and misery. His legacy is playing out in the streets of Gaza today. Yet just as Russians still revere Stalin, who made them slaves and nearly lost their greatest war through incompetence, paranoia, cowardice and stupidity, Palestinians still see Arafat as their savior, if only he could have lived longer. This blindness shows no signs of abating.

Now look at our own country. George W. Bush is our very own Yasser Arafat. Much like Arafat (albeit for a shorter time), he has kept his people suspended in agony between war and peace. Unwilling to support or lead a real war, he has supervised a grinding and degrading exercise in futile, halfhearted violence that threatens to persist at least until he leaves office. Doesn’t that sound a lot like Arafat’s intifada? Yet Bush insists his own failed, half-hearted effort is both necessary and sufficient to avoid a threat to our very survival.

Bush’s position differs from Arafat’s in one important respect. Unlike Arafat, who never had any hope of defeating Israel militarily, Bush could have won his War in Iraq with competent leadership and adequate resources.

We could still “win” it, whatever that word now means. We have nearly fifteen times Iraq’s population, incomparably better technology and industry, and a military infrastructure orders of magnitude richer, stronger, and larger than Iraq’s. If we really wanted to, we could raise and send an army of a million troops—one-third of one percent of our population—fill Iraq’s skies with manned and unmanned spy planes, give every foot soldier the latest body armor and every patrol a well-armored vehicle, and lock Iraq down. We could even annex Iraq as our fifty-first state, and no power on Earth would stop us.

All we would have to do is raise taxes, tighten our collective belts, put our whole nation to work, and spread the sacrifice. Yet instead we throw our brave but hapless small band of troops into a meat grinder of our own making, waiting for the fractious Iraqis to help us.

We think we have a democracy, but we don’t. We have half a democracy. In domestic affairs our democracy functions poorly but perceptibly, at least when it is not in deadlock. (The jury on immigration is still out.) In foreign affairs we have one-man rule.

Our Constitution is partly at fault. It makes the president commander in chief but has no explicit provision for countervailing power or oversight during wartime. All that Congress can do is declare a war and cut off funds for troops in its midst. Congress has some related powers under Article I, Section 8. They include the power to “make Rules” for “Captures on Land and Water” and “the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces.”

But let Congress try to enforce these rules or interfere with a president’s prerogatives. As President Andrew Jackson is once reported to have pointed out, the Supreme Court has no way of enforcing its rules, no army, no bureaucracy and no direct contact with the chain of command. The same is true of Congress.

So in wartime, the president rules. Despite millennia of democratic evolution, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the brilliance of our Framers, our structure of government still leaves us like the ancient Romans, under the control of a dictator in time of war.

We don’t use the same word any more, but the word we use still begins with “d.” Bush calls himself “the decider.” When a “war” seems to have no end, as at present, the “decidership” can last a long time. How much at home a Caesar or Crassus would feel in the United States today!

Few question this awesome anachronism. In the twenty-first century, in a nation of 300 million in a world of 6 billion, a single alpha ape decides the fate of all. Given all we know about psychology, sociology, government, law and collective human behavior, nothing could be more irrational. Yet still we soldier on behind our solitary leader.

The more than sixty percent of us who object do not question the system. The system, we think, is OK; we just have a bad leader, a fluke. We don’t consider that Bush made no revolution or coup d’etat. He may have pushed the envelope a bit, but he used our system as it is.

Meanwhile, the beta apes—the likes of Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and Senators Cornyn and Kyle—jostle to line up behind the alpha male. Follow the leader, they thunder, or the enemy will soon be climbing over your window sills.

A moment’s thought reveals the absurdity of that claim. There are 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide, and there are terrorist cells in sixty countries, probably including our own. Even a complete “victory” in Iraq (whatever that means) will not stop international terrorism. Nor will a complete “loss” (whatever that means) necessarily bring more terrorists to our homeland. The terrorists’ chief goal is and has always been to create an Islamic Caliphate in as much of the Middle East as possible; we are a secondary and only occasional target.

As for containment strategy, having the best-trained terrorists in a single location may make them more, not less, easy to surveill and control. It would be nice if we could capture or kill them all off in a single place, but we can’t: the Muslim world will provide an unending supply as long as present social, political and economic conditions prevail. We can no more stop terrorism by jailing or killing all terrorists now in Iraq than we can stop illegal immigration by fencing a small part of our border with Mexico.

The simplistic view of the beta males also fails to recognize that we are not alone in this fight. As Iraqis and others taste more of Al Qaeda’s recipe for mayhem and religious tyranny, more of them will join the fight on our side. Iraq’s Sunnis are already moving in that direction.

In the final analysis, the notion that the sky will fall if we Americans don’t get complete control over Iraq is no more valid than the “domino theory” in the Vietnam war. The immediate risks of total civil war in Iraq may be greater than those of our withdrawal from Vietnam. But the exaggerated claims of catastrophe are nothing but a paranoid fantasy. Whatever happens in Iraq, we will still have our increasingly secure borders, the FBI, the CIA, our close cooperation with allies worldwide, our unsurpassed military, our nuclear arsenal, and our growing capability (via satellites and unmanned aircraft) to surveill and destroy terrorists and their weapons anywhere in the world. We don’t have to continue to wage an unnecessary war—far less to wage it halfheartedly—in order to keep our homeland safe.

So why does the nonsense that peddlers of half-hearted war try to sell us have such resonance? The answer is emotion, not reason. The thirty percent who still want to follow Bush over the cliff include the beta males. When a rival tribe threatens, beta males line up behind the alpha male; there is no thought, only instinct. Listening to Cornyn and Kyle spout their patent nonsense in the Senate, you can almost see the beta males screeching behind the alpha male as he beats his chest.

The greatest irony is not how much we all act like apes while some deny our origins. A greater irony is how much the United States is beginning to resemble our erstwhile Communist rivals, China and Russia. All three of these great nations seem to be drifting from their divergent roots, moving toward a common style of government in which one-man rule alternates with collective rule. (Under Alberto Gonzales, we are also beginning to resemble China and Russia in a second respect—converting justice into a matter of politics—but that’s another story.)

In our country this phenomenon may be limited to foreign and military affairs and may be subject to reversal. But if you doubt that it is happening, review the last five years. Every major decision—and every major mistake—of the last five years is traceable to decisions ultimately made by a single man, George W. Bush. He alone decided or approved decisions to invade Iraq, to send too few troops, to short-change our effort in Afghanistan, to neglect the drug and corruption problems there, to abandon our “honest-broker” status in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in favor of uncritical support for Israel, to alienate our allies in Europe, and (lately) to keep our troops in Iraq in inadequate strength with a pathetically inadequate “surge,” to play “chicken” with the Russians in several respects, and to abandon much of Latin America to demagogues, whom he strengthened with his own demagogic rhetoric. And he made these decisions, in many cases, after ignoring the advice of his own experts, members of his bureaucracy and Congress, allies, and distinguished retired experts. If we have not had one-man rule for the last five years, we have had the next worst thing.

Now consider Russia. Although it has backslid a bit for the last two or three years, it is generally trending in the opposite direction. Stalin was the last true tsar of Russia, and he died in 1953. After he died, the Soviets moved toward a more cautious and bureaucratic form of government. With Stalin’s despotism fresh in their minds, they had no desire to anoint another tsar.

The Soviets’ high council, called the Plenum of the Central Committee, occasionally saw dissent and robust debate. That’s one reason why we all survived the Cuban Missile Crisis and rapprochement and disarmament became possible. Group decision making—even in a small, elite and tightly controlled group like the Soviet Plenum—tends to avoid recklessness and crisis better than one-man rule.

After perestroika and the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia moved smartly toward democracy. It abolished the gulags, freed the press, and adopted a new constitution, “trying on” parliamentary democracy. Despite the economic hardships that followed, neither the Russian people nor their leaders wanted to resurrect tyranny.

Now, of course, there is a counter-trend. President Vladimir Putin has seized control over the hinterlands by abolishing elections for regional governors. He has cowed, intimidated and bought up most of the press (ironically, using capitalist methods) and much of the Duma. Russia is a far more authoritarian place under Putin than it was under Yeltsin, although it is also far more prosperous.

Yet a return to one-man rule after Putin seems unlikely. Putin himself is a special case. He is the most intelligent, public-spirited, capable, and effective ruler that Russia has seen in over a century. He has done more to improve Russians’ standard of living and reduce poverty in Russia than any leader since Peter the Great. It was natural, although regrettable, for him to try to seize more power in order to accomplish more of the Sisyphean task of reforming and modernizing Russia before his two terms are up.

As Russia diversifies its economy from selling natural resources to competing in international business and industry, Russia’s authoritarian form of state capitalism will probably evolve into more genuine democracy. That sort of evolution has plenty of models, from Spain before and after Franco, to Taiwan, Korea and Mexico. The alternative is likely to be a modified form of bureaucratic state, in which the cabinet (perhaps in cooperation with the security services from which Putin comes) holds real power, while the Duma exercises weak and sporadic oversight.

A return to one-man rule in Russia is unlikely under either scenario. Russians do like a good, strong man (Putin) as leader but don’t want one who is too strong (Stalin). And Putin is far too intelligent and aware of history to knowingly prepare conditions for a return to permanent one-man rule. While many in Russia still revere Stalin, no one wants to bring him back.

China has the most interesting story. Badly burned by Mao’s caprice and destructiveness in his later years, China seems determined to avoid repeating the tragedy of one-man rule. Even China experts have trouble determining what is really happening inside the closed doors of China’s higher leadership. But it appears that Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao are just the most prominent among a small group of top leaders making important decisions collectively. They seem to recognize that more heads are better than one, and they are generally thoughtful, careful, prudent and conservative.

To assess China’s relative prudence, compare wars. Since the Korean War, China has fought precisely zero wars, while we have fought five, excluding Grenada and Haiti: Vietnam, Gulf I, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Of those five, we have lost one and are rapidly losing the latest.

At the same time as they avoid wars and one-man rule, China’s leaders are transforming the Communist Party into an educated, technocratic elite similar to the old Mandarin bureaucracy under the emperors. If this apparent trend continues, the result could be the world’s most effective government, with well-trained and educated operatives at every level and prudent, collective decision making at the top.

So don’t count China out, whether or not it eventually develops a democracy that looks like ours. China’s old Mandarin bureaucracy was a world-class social innovation. The Japanese copied it, and their MITI and Ministry of Finance helped them achieve their economic miracle. If the Chinese can replicate and improve their old Mandarin bureaucracy under the so-called Communist Party’s aegis, and if they can maintain wise collective leadership at the top, they may have a world-beating combination.

Notwithstanding Francis Fukuyama, history is a long way from over. Whether our species’ future history will be a happy one remains in doubt. Among the most important remaining historical questions is whether humankind can break from its genetic origins and stop following the alpha ape.

To any student of history, the advantages of collective leadership over one-man rule are self-evident. Subjecting a modern, complex, multiethnic, technological nation to the caprice, foibles and limitations of a single individual is folly on a colossal scale. Yet, like the refrain of a bad song, one-man rule recurs again and again.

Democracies may have ameliorated the worst personal vendettas, but they are not immune from the caprice of one-man rule. Witness George W. Bush and Tony Blair, leading their supposedly strong democracies into an unnecessary war, and continuing to wage that war with grossly inadequate forces, convinced that “steadfastness” and “resolve” will overcome both reality and determined enemies.

Viewed from an evolutionary perspective, their “resolve” means following the alpha ape regardless of consequences.

After millions of years of biological evolution and tens of thousands of years of social evolution, we humans are still groping for a stable, durable and effective form of collective government. Far too often, even the best and strongest nations have lapsed into one-man rule, with disastrous consequences, in times of stress. If the last five years have proved anything, they have proved that neither popular elections nor the United States Constitution holds a final solution to the recurring tragedy of one-man rule.

The last five years have seen much backsliding. Most discouraging, the United States and Russia are beginning to resemble each other more than at any time in their history. Both are increasingly characterized by manipulation of public opinion, control or manipulation of the press, impenetrable government secrecy, and the substance, if not the form, of one-man rule.

Yet there are encouraging countertrends. Non-hierarchical social and political structures, mediated by the Internet and modern communication technology, have the potential to create a serious alternative to one-man rule.

The United States’ slow reaction to global warming is the best example. Stubborn as a mule, our presidential alpha ape has persisted for six years in a policy of wishful thinking, ignoring and distorting the truth. Those who want to hear the truth and save our planet as we know it follow a different alpha male, Al Gore. And so we have a weird battle for supremacy of two alpha apes—a sort of ideological replay of the 2000 presidential election.

A similar battle of champions might have played out on the jousting fields of medieval Europe a millennium ago. Not so good for the progress of human social evolution.

But below the level of national politics and policy, another very different phenomenon is emerging. Individuals and smaller groups are “voting” with their minds and acts. Consumers are buying compact fluorescent light bulbs, “tuning up” their cars and homes, buying more efficient cars and appliances, and even planting trees and buying carbon credits. Businesses large and small are doing much the same thing, but on a larger scale. Our several states, with California in the lead, are preparing to take matters into their own hands with various forms of governmental regulation of greenhouse gases. Even evangelical Christians are getting into the act, working to retard global warming based on the notion, derived from Genesis, that we humans are stewards of the Earth.

If these trends continue and spread, they have the potential for replacing stagnant biological evolution with useful social evolution. They might eventually drag us from the social organization of our primate ancestors to a better, more rational form of collective decision making.

More traditional forms of collective government also show encouraging signs. Although sometimes dismissed as a satellite of the United States, Japan has its own, unique form of representative democracy in a culture found nowhere else in the world.

Japan has a world-class, highly educated and elite bureaucracy, built on China’s Mandarin model. That bureaucracy has “guided” its private economy from the ruins of World War II to global supremacy in automobiles, railways and consumer electronics. A single political party with two wings “rules” Japan softly and quietly, relying on a constant search for consensus and harmony that springs from the deepest wells of Japanese culture. While superficially similar in form to our system, Japan is worlds away from the divisiveness and litigiousness that constantly threaten gridlock and are slowly corroding our social institutions (including Congress) from within.

Japan gets far too much scorn and far too little study of its highly effective consensus-seeking, collective form of government. Its industry has reached the pinnacle of quality in cars and electronics, two of the most advanced forms of human collective achievement. Its clean and safe 180 mile-per-hour trains routinely pull into their stations and stop just as the second hand hits the appointed time. Social trust is so high in Japan that people send large amounts of cash through the mails in brightly colored envelopes, trusting each envelope to reach its addressee. It virtually always does.

Japan is the only country in the world in which an inebriated foreigner can stumble along the back alleys of a major city in the wee hours in complete safety and tranquility. It is probably the safest, cleanest, best organized and most orderly society on Earth. With its aging population and puzzling (to Westerners) social-consensus system, Japan is an exemplar of rational collective government.

Alpha apes, as we know them in the West, are rare in Japan. The emperor is now only a figurehead. The prime minister rules, if at all, by consensus or finesse. The myths of John Wayne and Rambo do not loom large in Japanese culture.

So our human experiments in collective self-rule continue. In Japan, in China, in Europe, in Russia, in our own country, in NATO, at the United Nations, and yes, in the Islamic world, humanity is searching for a stable, effective form of collective government—an antidote to one-man rule.

It is now abundantly clear that the United States has found no durable or universal solution. If our species’ ongoing social trials don’t produce some good answers before we blow ourselves up or poison our planet, Francis Fukuyama may end up being right, just a bit later than he expected.



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