Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Presidential Humility

The best form of government will lead to bad results, if the individuals who fill that form act badly; the worst form of government can lead to successes, if the people who occupy that form's offices act honorably. Therefore we examine not only the policies of those in office, but also their characters.

Humility is always a virtue, but all the more so In the executive branch of government. Those who occupy this branch must view themselves as facilitators, managers, caretakers, or stewards of the republic. To be sure, leadership is occasionally necessary, often in foreign policy, and especially in war. But the egotistical executive will fancy that his leadership is everywhere necessary.

Aware of the temptation posed by pride, Calvin Coolidge, himself a model executive, wrote:

It is a great advantage to a President, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man. When a man begins to feel that he is the only one who can lead in this republic, he is guilty of treason to the spirit of our institutions.

This thought was doubtless in the minds of the Founding Fathers as they wrote the Constitution. In 1788, Alexander Hamilton wrote The Federalist Papers number 70, in which he noted:

Men often oppose a thing, merely because they have had no agency in planning it, or because it may have been planned by those whom they dislike. But if they have been consulted, and have happened to disapprove, opposition then becomes, in their estimation, an indispensable duty of self-love. They seem to think themselves bound in honor, and by all the motives of personal infallibility, to defeat the success of what has been resolved upon contrary to their sentiments. Men of upright, benevolent tempers have too many opportunities of remarking, with horror, to what desperate lengths this disposition is sometimes carried, and how often the great interests of society are sacrificed to the vanity, to the conceit, and to the obstinacy of individuals, who have credit enough to make their passions and their caprices interesting to mankind. Perhaps the question now before the public may, in its consequences, afford melancholy proofs of the effects of this despicable frailty, or rather detestable vice in the human character.

With this awareness, the Founders wrote the Constitution with the famed system of "check and balance" and "separation of powers." But beyond these external checks on the innate flaws of human nature - everyone's inborn susceptibility to temptations of pride - it is good if an executive has internal checks on the ego.