The Case for Political Impotence
@14 May 2000
Civilization has been measured in many ways, from house bricks to the hanging gardens of Babylon, from symphonies to computer code, from political power to libraries of law books. Many buildings and offices in the Central Chinese city of Wuhan are adorned with a brass plate which reads in English: "this is a civilized work unit". If we had a conference of the Chinese city official who hands out the brass plates, Julius Caesar, the Chief Justice of the High Court of India, Beethoven, Florence Nightingale, and the architect Charles Wright, we'd probably have a tough time arriving at a consensus about what constituted a civilized human being, or even a civil human being.
Maybe it is easier to agree upon some of the characteristics of a civil society. Central to the notion seems to be some kind of voluntary social cooperation, within which the contribution of all participants is respected and promoted. Using a framework like this, it is fairly clear that some kinds of political organization are basically hostile to civil society, whereas others promote it.
Broadly (very broadly) democracies tend to encourage civil society, while dictatorships tend to suppress it. These categories alone however are not sufficient to predict the state of a civil society. A more precise notion is that the concentration of power almost always diminishes civil society. Thus although a president, say, may be selected by a populist campaign, if his office is excessively powerful, then civil society will suffer.
The most successful democracies seem to be those in which the office of president and/or prime minister carry strictly limited authority. These are not jobs for Great Men, but for corporate managers who can make reasonable decisions in an orderly manner, cheer the team along a bit, and keep an eye on the main game.
Historically, the persons attracted to these posts in the Western democracies have not been "great leaders" at all, but slightly above average individuals of the kind that you will find managing any successful company. Sometimes they have been slightly below average, but the limited nature of their power has meant that their blunders have not been catastrophic, and their respective citizenries have been able to get on with their lives without fear or suffering.
All opinions expressed in Thor's Unwise Ideas and The Passionate Skeptic are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument.
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