Our misplaced faith in political Messiahs

Opinion: Too often people are turning to political leaders for answers to all that ails them. It’s a dangerous tendency that needs to change.

Mark Milke
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Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump models a hard hat in support of the miners during his rally at the Charleston Civic Center on May 5, 2016 in Charleston, West Virginia. Trump became the Republican presumptive nominee following his landslide win in indiana on Tuesday. (Mark Lyons/Getty Images)

Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump models a hard hat in support of the miners during his rally at the Charleston Civic Center on May 5, 2016 in Charleston, West Virginia. Trump became the Republican presumptive nominee following his landslide win in indiana on Tuesday. (Mark Lyons/Getty Images)
Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump at the Charleston Civic Center on May 5, 2016 in Charleston, West Virginia. (Mark Lyons/Getty Images)

From the interventionist left to the authoritarian right, and even in the sensible space between such political and ideological sharp ends, a major fallacy in human political history is the belief in political messiahs—that if only “my” candidate wins, all shall be set aright.

It’s nonsense. And it’s a problem because it leads people to believe that governments and politicians are capable of more than is humanly and institutionally possible. That sets up the public for continued disappointment. The result is populist outbursts where another Messiah or set of radical tools is sought to replace the last failed version.

In countries with a weak attachment to liberal democracy and its assumptions—the rule of law, a separation of powers, an independent judiciary, free media, freedom of expression, religious freedom and property rights—such political Messiah-worship can be disastrous because it is difficult to dislodge an autocrat once in power.

The most recent international example of this is Venezuela. When Venezuelans voted in Hugo Chavez in 1999, the hope was that his highly interventionist policy prescriptions would help the poor.

They didn’t and couldn’t because his policies assumed, as all top-down policies and proponents do, that micro-managing entrepreneurs and other aspects of human society is possible if only governments have enough data, money and power to carry out enlightened central planning.

That misunderstood how open economies with price signals and other free-flowing bits of information are necessary for families and businesses to adjust and do their own planning. It also ignored how pulling countries out of poverty is a multi-year task involving education, foreign investment and job creation.

Once a political Messiah like Chavez, or his successor, Nicolas Maduro, is shown to be flawed and incapable of righting every possible ill, such leaders have a choice: admit that they are mere humans and cannot solve all ills. Or, as Maduro has done, deny that reality and double-down on flawed policy and grip political power even tighter. That’s led to Venezuela’s decline and everyday repression.

Even in countries where institutional safeguards are more robust and civil society more powerful—America, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Western Europe as examples—milder versions of political Messiah-worship are still harmful. That’s because such faith leads the public and politicians to think they can deliver more than humanly possible, including through collective institutions.

An example: When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau promise they can help innovators courtesy of tax dollars—see their various corporate welfare schemes from the old aerospace and automotive varieties to newer subsidy versions—they assume abilities to spot, direct and pick winners and losers among specific sectors and businesses.

They assume an ability to juice the economy via central decision-making. Problem: The best, independent, peer-reviewed economic literature on subsidy policy demolish that hubris-filled notion.

Besides, even private sector angel investors with much more experience can get it wrong. It is thus political pride and a desire to be seen as “doing something” that leads politicians into the morass of over-the-top government intervention, into policies that assume such centrally-directed action can outperform the market.

The same problem exists among our neighbours to the south and the same disappointment awaits. When then-presidential candidate Donald Trump promised to save jobs in the rust belt—regardless of local conditions, technological vagaries or market demand for the products produced—he played the role of political Messiah. Given that many of his campaign promises were already disconnected from reality, further disappointment with Trump is inevitable. And I mean in addition to disappointment already flowering from other failed aspects of the Trump personality and presidency.

I’m not arguing broad policy strokes don’t matter, they do. Nor would I assert that individual politicians do not matter to harmful or helpful outcomes. Politicians who are more in touch with reality, and who exhibit moderation about what they can do and deliver, are preferable to their overconfident opposites.  I’d rather see a politician with more realistic promises—I’ll pave your road and build a school—over ones who promise to create entire mini-economic clusters based on dreamy economic thinking disconnected from economic realities.

The core problem in all this is that once countries, such as those in the West between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries, moved beyond defensible roles—defence, a moderate welfare state including universal education, health care, sensible but not crazy regulation, and other foundational elements of a civilized functional state—politicians have been tempted into ever-more micromanaging. They went there courtesy of a public that puts too much faith in these same would-be Messiahs.

What politicians should do is concentrate on ensuring broadly needed programs operate at maximum effectiveness. That means dampening special interest influences—government unions in the case of programs, businesses in the case of government grants—both of which are costly to the public purse.  That reformist task alone is enough to keep any government busy for a long time without giving into public and political expectations of more detailed micro-managing. The latter assumes political and institutional omniscience.

When citizens see politics as an answer to much of what ails one or one’s community or country, they place faith in politicians and civil servants as able to direct and fine-tune policy from the top-down to solve every private problem with public intervention.

In that sense, faith in government replaced faith in God over the last century, which is why populist movements with hopes invested in personalities—Chavez in Venezuela, Trump in America—always arise and always crash. Because humans are not capable of living up to the hopes invested in them. They’re not miracle workers and they are not capable of overseeing and directing all that matters from a political perch.

Stop believing in political Messiahs. Ask them to do a bit less and adjust your own expectations accordingly.

Mark Milke is an author and columnist. Follow him on Twitter at @MilkeMark.