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The Worst and the Dullest

January 26, 2000

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.


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