Political Leaders & Wagon Trains
Jude Wanniski
March 16, 2001


Memo To: Students of Supply-Side University
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Political Leadership & Wagon Trains

Since the dawn of civilization, people have been pondering the question of leadership. Civilization means organized society, which has the ability to tax and spend, which means those societies that have systems of producing better leaders who know how to make the best use of those resources will defeat and absorb those that have weak systems. I’m not sure it is true, although I once read it someplace, that the very first people who were hired by civilized society to do a government job that did not require heavy lifting, fishing or hunting were astronomers. These were the very first “economists,” who were paid to study the stars in order to figure out when the seasons began and ended. If you had a top-notch astronomer, he could tell you when to plant and when to harvest to get the most out of your workers. In later centuries, the special garb of these wizards included long, flowing robes, and tall conical hats with pictures of stars and moons and planets on them. To this day, if the President of the United States does not have a good Treasury Secretary, his chances of success are poor, although in recent years it has been Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan who has worn the tall, pointed hat.

Because I try to think of complex issues in political economy in the simplest terms, my background, education and experience led me to think of a wagon train heading west to California as a metaphor for leadership. The people in the wagon train put themselves in the hands of a leader who will get them to the promised land and if they pick the wrong leader, they may all get scalped by hostile Indians on the trail he chooses. It was this picture I presented to Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, when he was planning to run for the Republican nomination for President. Those of you old enough to be observers of that election will remember the press corps incessantly questioned Dole’s “vision,” and Dole himself began to refer to “the vision thing.” In other words, the leader not only has to know what he is looking for and what the people he is leading are looking for, but also, more importantly, how to get them where they want to go, with as little muss and fuss as possible.

When it came to “the vision thing,” nobody ever accused Ronald Reagan of lacking it. He not only had a sense of where the American people wanted to go, that promised land, that City on a Hill, but he had a clear sense of direction. He was the leader of the wagon train and for the most part knew which turns to take, which paths to avoid. The men and women he chose to assist him might have their own ideas on the right path, and Reagan would listen to them carefully, but if he saw they did not share his vision to begin with and did not have information he had not thought about, he simply would ignore them and proceed on the path he had reckoned was the right one. Our system of government is arranged to give every advantage to such a leader, as the national electorate really knows where it wants to go from one election cycle to the next, and only needs a vessel into which it will pour its ideas on direction and pace of travel. There may be two candidates for the presidency who know the direction of travel, but then the one who seems most likely to strike the right pace of travel down that path will be chosen.

Bob Dole did not have that sure sense of the electorate’s silent wish, which is why he was accused of lacking “the vision thing.” He’d spent his political career as a successful legislator, able to translate the simple needs and wants of his fellow Kansans into several terms in the House and Senate as their representatives. And he was sufficiently subdued in his own ideological beliefs that he could be chosen as the Leader of his fellow Republicans in the U.S. Senate. For a man to be chosen his party’s leader in the Senate or the House is a fairly good sign that he will not be chosen as President by the national electorate. That is, to be successful in managing the divergent interests of 50 egos, one has to be flexible enough to put aside all burning personal beliefs. The Leader adds up 50 or so viewpoints and divides by 50 to figure out which way to go. The national electorate can and must have these kinds of leaders in the legislative arena, but when it comes to the Presidency, they must find men who have more of a sense of direction. Legislative leaders like Lyndon Johnson can make it to the White House, but usually only as LBJ did, as a Vice President who succeeds to a President who dies in office.

Still, Dole had a shot at winning, I told him one day in his Senate Leadership office, if he chose the right people to help him get the wagon train through Indian country, to the land of milk and honey. He knows he wants to get the people to the land of milk and honey, but is not quite sure which trail to take. This is why a leader will choose exceptional scouts, to ride ahead and make sure the chosen trail is clear of danger. Unfortunately for Dole, he did not have a good run with the scouts he chose to conduct his presidential bid, as I wrote in my book about the campaign, The Last Race of the 20th Century. Every time his campaign seemed to be getting some traction, his campaign team would point him in the direction of the Indians and he would be attacked. With all his personal weaknesses, President Clinton clearly had better personnel, better strategists, and a better sense of direction.

Governor George W. Bush did not seem to have a much better sense of direction than Dole when he began his campaign for the presidency, and in my opinion he seemed to be relying on the same people who performed so poorly for his father in 1992. I’d always believed Vice President Al Gore would be easy for a Republican to defeat, because he represented total security. In other words, any path to the promised land was too risky, so Gore would propose to circle the wagons and sit still for four years, fretting about global warming and too much economic growth. The electorate almost chose that course, but our system of government gave the nod, by one vote in the Electoral College, to Bush. My personal belief is that it was The Way the World Works, which I wrote in 1977, I made the simple argument that the advance of civilization has been the result of trial-and-error experiments in search of better systems for producing political leaders. The masses of the world population -- the global family -- knows the direction they would like as history moves forward, but they still are limited by the imperfect systems of finding the right leaders. China, for example, has made great advances in economic policymaking, as I predicted it would in the Epilogue of my book, but it still is struggling to find a better system of finding political leaders. Here is how I concluded the Epilogue, written on September 30, 1977:

Will there be a third world war? The Chinese leadership in Peking say one is inevitable, that it will take war to resolve the competition among systems just as it has before. But the Chinese also say that the world’s political leaders must work to at least push this inevitable war into the next century. Our model can’t tell us whether or not war will come, but it certainly does not hold that it is inevitable. And surely the Chinese goal of working to push conflict into the future can be realized by adjustment of economic policies as suggested by the model. Most of the political tensions in the world today are the result of the global inflation of the past decade. A global effort at tax reform, especially in the developing world, would free intellectual resources that have been locked up at least since the Second World War. It may well be that the global electorate arranged the inflation as a way of forcing the attention of the developed world to the unnecessary burdens it placed on the Third World, the burdens of grossly incorrect economic theories.

And if these prescriptions are followed and a genuine worldwide expansion follows global tax and monetary reform, what about the planet and its resources? Will wars occur as nations compete for an ever-diminishing supply of natural resources? Our model says no. The planet’s bounty is for all practical purposes unlimited, but it yields this bounty stubbornly, at a pace determined by the intellectual resources of mankind. The past decade of inflation and contraction have made it seem that the planet has shriveled in its resources. A reconstruction of a world monetary system tied to the planet through gold or silver or oil or something real, matched by an understanding of the Laffer Curve that did not exist at Bretton Woods, would enable the world to grow without straining the planet. Nor will the world’s population continue to expand as rapidly, given these economic developments, for as individuals can more easily develop their intellectual potential and increase the quality of human capital, they will independently choose to reduce the quantity of human capital they are now forming. The exponential population growth the Malthusians fear will not occur where there is real economic growth.

Conflict is more likely to come as a result of uneven advance. If all members of a family unit save one are developing, the one left behind will cause trouble, drain the resources of those who have been advancing, and create tensions and strife that will block the advance of the unit as a whole. If the West, China and the Third World manage a major economic advance in the 1980s as the result of simultaneous moves down the Laffer Curve, but the Soviet Union is unable to break through the crusts of ideological dogma that would enable it to advance as well, one would expect an increase in the potential for conflict. A happier outcome would be general global advance, with the fresh economic and political impulses of Eastern Europe spreading into the heartland of Russia.

More important than the Laffer Curve, after all, is the persistence of the global electorate in pushing toward concord. It will not for long permit the smallest part of its membership from being left behind, economically or politically, in this historic trek. For thousands of years the world has been moving toward more, not less, democracy, and it will continue to do so. It will, as it always has, ultimately reject all systems that do not revolve around the individual, for the survival of all ultimately depends on the survival of the least of its members. In this sense, the global electorate is the good shepherd.

Morristown, N.J.
September 30, 1977