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Home | Blog | The Libertarian Defense of Mediocrity

The Libertarian Defense of Mediocrity


Now we’ve all had some fun at the expense of the retiring David Souter. But then Todd Zywicki had to go and hit below the belt:

[I]t is my opinion that Souter’s unpreparedness for the job manifested it in his inability to carry the weight of the Supreme Court robe. He never really seemed to have any coherent idea of what the judge’s proper role was. . . In that sense, he was similar to Sandra Day O’Connor, a potential “accident of history” contender as well because of Reagan’s campaign promise. In my opinion, she too was one of the more mediocre Justice of recent times.

In the end, I don’t think that anyone would champion Souter as a anything other than a mediocre Justice. It is hard to measure how “good” a Justice is–one could imagine many different criteria: smarts, influence, coalition-building skills, etc. No matter what criteria one uses, however, doesn’t it seem to be the consensus that Souter is certainly near the bottom, if not at the bottom, of the current Court? Perhaps this is an unusually talented Court. But still, Souter is by any measure a weak link on the Court most would think.

Playing the mediocrity card is something I’d expect of, well, a mediocre, ex-government academic like Zywicki. Whenever the intelligista compile such “rankings” of officeholders, the tendency is to reward the loud and the statist. Souter was no libertarian, but he did a respectable job of staying out of the Beltway culture for nearly two decades. Zywicki seems to be equating mediocre with low-key.

It’s also curious that Zywicki holds the other eight justices in such higher esteem. This is a fairly homogenous court. As Radley Balko pointed out this morning, “All but one of the current Supreme Court justices went to Harvard or Yale. All were federal appellate judges when they were nominated. And this one seems particularly troubling: Only one-Souter-ever actually presided over a trial.” Maybe that’s what made Souter mediocre – he sullied his hands as a lowly trial judge! John Roberts never did that: He was carried from one elite office to another until he was released from his hermetically-sealed chamber to ascend the chief justice’s throne.

Joking aside, Zywicki’s grumbling about Souter’s “mediocrity” reflects a very dangerous error in thinking that’s common among even libertarian-leaning academics: The notion that charisma and high-sounding credentials are necessary – or even desirable – for state officers. It’s a restatement of the classic “government will work if we just find the right people” fallacy (a fallacy Zywicki has embraced before.) The libertarian objective is to demystify the state and expose the high and mighty as unworthy of their positions. Mediocrity is something that we should embrace, not reject. I don’t want the “best and brightest” working on the Supreme Court. I want them working in the marketplace, helping us to advance liberty against power.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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