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The Worst and the Dullest

Mises Daily: Wednesday, January 26, 2000 by

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John F. Kennedy has many enduring legacies. Aside from his personal corruption, he embroiled the United States in the Vietnam War, something that still has repercussions more than three decades later. And he presided over the beginnings of unprecedented expansion of the powers of the national government under the guise of the "New Frontier."

Despite the many disasters of his regime, JFK continues to receive praise and adulation from this country's intellectuals and journalists. He and his wife cut glamorous figures at home and abroad, which explains why the superficial media types still worship at his shrine.

However, he was a truly shallow character in both intellect and personality, which one would think should have translated into being a subject of disdain by intellectuals. That is clearly not the case.

American intellectuals still revere Kennedy, despite the fact that he was not one of them. But however intellectually superficial JFK might have been, he knew how to play up to the vanities and the lust for power of those who are considered to be the most intelligent among us. Kennedy appointed intellectuals and those revered by intellectuals to positions in the cabinet and as personal advisors.

Robert McNamara, formerly of Harvard University and Ford Motor Company, took over policies of national defense. Devout Keynesian Walter Heller of the University of Minnesota became JFK's chief economic advisor, while Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., of Harvard (who is still the "distorian" of that era) served as a special assistant to both Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson after JFK's assassination. Meanwhile, socialist John Kenneth Galbraith, also of Harvard, became U.S. Ambassador to India.

These and others, named by the adoring media as "the best and the brightest," took the reins of government and arrogantly began the process of expanding the powers of government. When they were through, they had laid the foundations of numerous disasters. There was the Vietnam War, which resulted in more than two million deaths in Southeast Asia and strife at home. The application of Heller's "New Economics" led to the ruinous inflation of the 1970s, collapse of the U.S. gold standard, the oil crises, and general social chaos.

Like Franklin Roosevelt's Ivy League educated "Brain Trust," the advisors to Kennedy (and later, Lyndon Johnson) were products of America's most elite institutions. According to U.S. intellectuals and their media supporters, these "qualifications" were proof that these policymakers were endowed with whatever capabilities were required to make decisions for Americans who, apparently, were believed to be incapable of making themselves even though throughout most of the history of this country they had been doing just that.

The failure of the "best and the brightest" was hardly isolated to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. From J.B. Colbert of the regime of Louis XIV to New Dealer G. Rexford Tugwell, some of the most intelligent people within a society have inflicted some of the worst disasters. This should come as no surprise. As economist Thomas Sowell has so aptly pointed out, experts at best, while having much general information on a certain subject, are usually unequipped with the needed knowledge to deal with specific events.

Thus, the economic commissars of the old Soviet Union, while having a formal education in neoclassical economics (they really did, no kidding), were unable to plan an entire economy. Their massive failures speak for themselves.

The personal scrutiny that many in government have faced in the last couple of decades, and especially in the last two presidential administrations, has been protested by those who claim that having one's life under a microscope will "keep good people out of government." While one can sympathize with government appointees who find themselves the subjects of obvious politically-motivated witch hunts, the idea that our well-being depends upon well-qualified people in government is simply not true.

In fact, the reverse is true, to a large extent. Society in general is made better off when highly-talented and entrepreneurial people pursue opportunities not in government but rather in business and other private occupations. What might have happened, for example, had those people who developed personal computers become government bureaucrats instead? Imagine Steven Jobs as a government regulator or a pencil pusher, not as the developer of the famed Macintosh computer.

However intelligent and creative Mr. Jobs might be, there can be no doubt that society would not have benefitted much, if at all, had he simply been another regulator from an agency such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration checking the shape of toilet seats. Even had Mr. Jobs been a high-profile political appointee as a member of the cabinet or an undersecretary or something, most likely his contribution as a government employee would not have equalled what he accomplished as an entrepreneur and an inventor.

It is a truism that those who accomplish the most for society while working in government do so by rolling back the powers of the state, not expanding them. Alfred Kahn, who is a liberal mainstream economist from Cornell University, nonetheless pushed for airline deregulation in 1978 and helped lay the groundwork for elimination of the Interstate Commerce Commission, all while working in the Jimmy Carter Administration. Trucking and railroads also saw important changes--and reductions--in their regulatory structures. The modern retail economy, along with the vital Just In Time inventory control, would not have been possible had the old transportation regulatory structures stayed in place.

In short, it is not the intelligence of the person in government that determines his or her social usefulness. Rather, it is whether or not the government workers understand their own limitations and are constrained in their exercise of power. The "Whiz Kids" who served under McNamara at the Pentagon clearly believed their elite intelligence made them invincible. Nearly 60,000 American soldiers died in the jungles of Southeast Asia as a result of McNamara's arrogance.

For all of the accolades given to "public service," the greatest service given to humanity does not come from those in government. While we should never condone unjust witch hunts of people in government, let us not delude ourselves into thinking that our prosperity and security depends upon the "best and the brightest" working as "GS-11's."

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William Anderson teaches economics at North Greenville College.