Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Friday, January 4, 2013

2013: Fewer firefighters and more architects?

Last month, during a London School of Economics symposium on the European Union a student asked whether we need fewer firefighters and more architects in positions of power. The question sounded slightly rhetorical. The audience applauded.

Four Decembers ago, on either side of the Atlantic, such an audience of political scientists would have laughed.

Whether elected as visionaries or as technocrats, leaders in Europe and North America were not required to envision, but to act. It didn’t matter then whether they were democrats or bullies, outgoing or shy, elected to office or one step removed and running central banks. They didn’t have to define the problem; they just had to fix it.

Thanks to four years of successful firefighting, it shouldn’t be surprising that the public is less awed today by can-do executive resumes and talk of imminent collapse. (Otherwise, in the US, Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney would be President-elect, and Donald Trump would be recognized as a builder and not as an arsonist.)

As people get used to breathing more easily, they’re less easily impressed and are more open to new worries--new problems that can’t be addressed by the emergency power leaders have been relying on through the Great Recession.

Centrists in Washington probably have enough votes to stabilize the public debt’s share of US GNP. North Americans should also be able to stabilize and eventually reduce CO2 emissions, in absolute terms. A Canadian-style immigration policy should eventually be adopted by the US.

Nevertheless, North American and European leaders do not know how to stay ahead of China and the other BRIC’s economically while meeting the frustrated expectations of their own middle classes. Whatever they do domestically, they don’t know how to inspire collective global action on the environment without being in charge anymore.

Firefighters have little to offer. Technocrats may agree broadly that more continental integration and less parochialism on both continents would offer the scale--and the architecture--for greater success. However, big policy, on paper, is cheap. 

The leadership task now won’t be solved literally by replacing today’s leaders with architects. However, the ones we have need to master politics’ toughest job. They need to be able to be persuasive, to convince us that we ought to try something new rather than simply replace the smoke detectors. 

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