Back to Business

December 23, 2016

Multiple Pages
Back to Business

The Electoral College has spoken, and it’s full steam ahead for President-to-be Trump. Many foreigners—and I daresay a number of Americans too—are puzzled by the Electoral College and its survival into modern times. Certainly its function ain’t what it used to be. It was devised as a means to keep popular democracy in check. Instead of being allowed to choose the president, the mass of citizens were permitted only to choose wise men to form the Electoral College, and it would be the wise men who actually elected the president. Now, of course, it has become a simple exercise in rubber-stamping, even though six of the electors apparently displayed a degree of independence this time.

Meanwhile, we have the Trump Cabinet to savor—the richest, apparently, ever assembled, though it includes a couple of generals who will seem like poor relations at the Cabinet table. Many, however, will be happy to see it is more or less free of professional career politicians. Instead, alongside the generals, we have a Cabinet of billionaire businessmen and moneylenders. (They prefer to describe themselves as investment bankers, but moneylending is their true trade; or, of course, gambling.)

“Whenever democratic governments seem to stumble, there is a demand for businessmen in place of career politicians.”

Many will be pleased. Whenever democratic governments seem to stumble, there is a demand for businessmen in place of these career politicians who have never run a whelk stall or candy store. It’s understandable. As Mr. Trump likes to remind us, he is very “smart” and so he has picked a team that, being composed of very rich men, is also evidently very “smart.” So indeed, on their own terms and in their own trade, we may agree they are.

The trouble is that the demands of government and business are very different. It’s fairly easy to measure the success of a business. Does it make a profit? Does it increase its market share? Does it satisfy its customers? The first two questions are easily answered. The third is a bit more difficult, for even a failing business may have a good many happy customers; some of us, for example, will have eaten well in restaurants that sadly closed down.

Government, however, is a different matter. Though we like to think it should manage the public finances with some degree of competence, the success of much for which it is responsible isn’t, and can’t be, measured in monetary terms. Nobody expects the government to make a profit out of public education or social security. The government has responsibility for defense, and even though what President Eisenhower called the military–industrial complex may yield profits for manufacturers, the success of a defense policy is judged by quite different standards. The same goes for bodies like the CIA and the FBI, or indeed police forces or the administration of justice. The conduct of a nation’s foreign policy is a matter of making fine and often difficult judgments, and it will often be years before the wisdom or otherwise of these judgments can be determined. The international agreement made with Iran on its development of nuclear power is a good example. Some think that agreement rash and foolish; others think it prudent. Is the world safer or more dangerous as a result of this agreement? We can’t tell now; we may not know the answer for a long time.

Or take one of the most vexed issues of our time: climate change. There is a consensus among scientists (though there are exceptions) that this is an immediate and pressing issue, that human activity—the use of fossil fuels—is a prime cause and that remedial action is possible. Others accept that the climate is changing but are skeptical of the man-made explanation. Others deny that there is any unusual, unprecedented, or worrying shift in climatic conditions. Politicians have to assess the quality of these arguments and act accordingly, aware also of the economic implications of any course of action they adopt. The wisdom or foolishness of whatever decisions are taken will eventually be judged by our children and grandchildren—let’s say Mr. Trump’s grandchildren—not by us.

It’s easy to inveigh against professional or career politicians, and of course some are always duds, fools, or scoundrels, but we should also recognize that politics is a fine art or craft that, like other arts and crafts, requires a long apprenticeship. William Gladstone, the great 19th-century British prime minister, once said that a man might as well start training for the ballet at the age of 40 as for the Cabinet; he had no hope of success. Most of the more effective American presidents of the 20th century were career politicians: the two Roosevelts, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon. At first glance, Eisenhower and Reagan might seem exceptions, but Eisenhower, as Supreme Allied Commander and then the first military head of NATO, was a very political general, and Reagan had eight years as governor of California before he entered the White House. All learned from experience that politics is the art of the possible, and that political choices are seldom between black and white, but between different shades of gray.

Edmund Burke, the voice of intelligent Whig conservatism, wrote of politics: “Nor is it a short experience that can instruct us in that practical science because the real effects of moral causes are not immediate; but that which in the first instance is prejudicial may be excellent in its remoter operation…. The reverse also happens; and very plausible schemes, with very pleasing commencements, have often shameful and lamentable conclusions…. The science of government being therefore so practical in itself…is a matter which requires experience…”

Quite so: Over to you, President Trump.

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