…Besides, the almost beseeching way the men looked at him was irritating. Sometimes they acted as if they would forget how to breathe if he or Gus wasn’t there to show them. They were all resourceful men–he knew that, if they didn’t–and yet at certain times they became like children. All his adult life, he had consented to lead, and yet occasionally, when the men seemed particularly dumbstruck, he wondered why he had done it.
He and Augustus had discussed the question of leadership many times.
“It ain’t complicated,” Augustus maintained. “Most men doubt their own abilities. You don’t. It’s no wonder they want to keep you around. It keeps them from having to worry about failure all the time.”
“They ain’t failures, most of them,” Call pointed out.”They can do perfectly well for themselves.”
Augustus chuckled. “You work too hard,” he said. “It puts most men to shame. They figure out they can’t keep up, and it’s just a step or two from that to feeling that they can’t do nothing much unless you’re around to get them started.”
Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry
With these few paragraphs, Larry McMurtry demonstrates more insight into leadership than scads of studies and tomes. There is a fascination with political leaders far disproportionate to their actual importance. Most of what importance they have is of the negative variety: they can and usually do mess things up. McMurtry dissects the psychology of the led, putting his finger on the human frailty behind the cult of leadership. Not bad for a cowboy novel.
Read typical history texts, newspapers and news-oriented websites and you’ll conclude that the only phenomena worthy of notice are the leaders’ personalities, bloviations, and machinations. Part of it is by design of leaders themselves, they’re always circulating their propaganda and versions of events. Part of it, as far as journalism goes, is ideology and temperament among the journalists. Most of them are statist to the core. Covering government and its leaders fits their view of the world and philosophical precepts. Besides, it’s easy. There are all those press releases and leaders makes themselves available to the media.
For historians, the most extensive archives available are usually those of political and military figures. (With the possible exception of writers, who often leave copious quantities of personal journals and letters. It’s why many biographies of writers make good doorstops.) Some of truly important and interesting historical figures leave no record at all, other than their works.
Who has had more effect on the lives of the average American, Presidents Eisenhower through Trump, or the inventors of the birth control pill, the microprocessor, and the internet? Most people will answer the latter. Why then, can they name the presidents but not the inventors? What hugely significant innovations are being birthed right now by obscure innovators while Trump hogs the headlines?
Noise is not usually important and it’s not progress. That’s often a quiet affair, conceived in the minds of innovators and furthered in laboratories and the like. Innovators work hard, think for themselves, and don’t doubt their own abilities. This, according to Augustus, separates them from the mass of people, crying for their leaders. Unfortunately, he’s right.
It’s that thinking for one’s self that’s most problematic. Thinking is often difficult. Confusion, with which every thinker must grapple, is stressful. People look to leaders to do their thinking for them: “It keeps them from having to worry about failure all the time.” Of course leaders often fail, and turning over responsibility for your life to one precludes individual achievement and success. However, being relieved of thought and responsibility makes it all worthwhile for those who find those burdens troublesome.
If you read between the lines of received “history”—the comings and goings, wars, depredations, and the all too rare wisdom and courage of aristocrats and rulers—you can discover those incremental steps that propelled humanity forward. Gutenberg’s printing press, invented in 1453, and Columbus’s voyage to America 39 years later had far more impact on humanity’s course than anything the mostly forgotten rulers of the time did.
The Industrial Revolution wrought more progress in a shorter time than any period before or since. Historians virtually ignore it, probably because the leaders of the time are no more than footnotes (see “The Magnificent Eleven,” SLL).
Piqued, shoved from the limelight by inventors and other innovators, leaders reasserted themselves, doing what they do best, engulfing the world in the war that brought the Revolution to a close. There were deaths in the millions, but the leaders were once again front and center, a position they haven’t relinquished since.
If you think of a society as a living organism, freedom allows every sensory, perceptual, and cognitive cell to operate. Information flows across the cellular network, enabling the organism to best adapt to and improve its environment. When the state and its leaders exercise control, the organism is essentially shutting off its own cells. The rulers become the only cognitive agents, doing most of the thinking, and only approved narratives can be communicated across the network. In totalitarian regimes, individuals even learn to “not perceive” anything that contradicts those narratives.
Most people in such societies become, in McMurtry’s words, dumbstruck children; it’s the safest course. They’re taken care of and not thrown in jail. But they’re also not questioning, thinking, experimenting, failing, succeeding, innovating, or progressing. One phenomenon is universal across unfree societies: decay. Having shut off so many of its own cells, gangrene sets in and the organism rots and eventually dies.
Left to their own devices, most people “can do perfectly well for themselves.” They take responsibility for their own lives because nobody else will. Doing well for themselves there’s a spillover: they do well for others. Each individual becomes a potential agent of perception, experimentation, discovery, and innovation for the organism as a whole. Through communication, trade, and myriad other voluntary interactions, networks are formed and individuals have choices and opportunities they never would have had on their own. This decentralized, dynamic, and ceaseless organic adaptation, when relatively unhindered, is history’s hidden theme and the true engine of progress.
The best thing “leaders” can do is let it happen, but that’s the opposite of where our leaders are leading and their dumbstruck children are following. Terminal gangrene is well advanced. Pacified by the media and distracted, surveilled, and soon, social-credit scored by their technology, dumbstruck children don’t protest the rot and stench. Thought, responsibility, and courage are just too hard.
Perdition is where the leaders are leading. Perdition connotes both death and damnation. Those who abdicate their minds and follow the leaders deserve no better. The collectively borne consequences of foolishness, venality, and evil can’t be avoided, but thinking, taking responsibility, shunning the lemmings, and speaking out are choices open to everyone. It’s not just a matter of survival, it’s a matter of soul.