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Political Overconfidence

By Aaron C. Gyde

There’s a new man in town, a new frontrunner in the Republican presidential primary.  And, I fear, it will be very difficult for Harvard students to understand him.

Spend much time at all at Harvard and you’ll see that the students are incredibly bright. In the student body, genius and creativity are as common as house-list emails.  And it is obvious and accurate to say the accomplishments will continue to pile up in the years to come.  Harvard students are successful in so many areas that we often think that if we just carefully analyze a problem, plan, and then execute our plan, we will achieve success.  Our confidence is often well placed, however, in the field of politics, we have reason to doubt such ability.

For generations, the ranks of federal government officials and aides have been dominated by Harvard graduates, the “elite.”  And why not?  The best and the brightest are the most successful, so putting them into power might appear to be a surefire way to bring prosperity and success to America.  As the logic goes: Elect a president with an academically stellar record, fill his cabinet positions with Nobel Prize winners, and the policies and schemes they devise will surely bring the good days back again.

A look at recent history shows a starkly opposite effect of the elite in office.  Our past four presidents have been members of this elite—all graduating from Ivy League universities. Similarly, throughout the federal government, the upper crust of the educated still dominate.  And yet, during a period of unprecedented opportunity for economic growth through technology and globalization, America finds herself in the worst economic situation since the Great Depression, fighting in multiple wars and with an embarrassing credit rating.  In the past few years our elite presidents and policymakers have had a pretty poor track record in their endeavors.  They have been overconfident in our homeland security, as well as in overseas nation building, in the longevity of the budget surplus, in bubbling markets and overconfidence, and in the success of stimulus spending.  Policies in these areas crafted by the elite have failed, often miserably.

What the federal government needs is not the misplaced confidence that comes from the elite, but rather some humility. The nation needs someone to lead who is not overconfident in his ability to devise a clever program but will lead us away from government-instituted Ponzi schemes like Social Security. Someone who does not believe government can regulate businesses into job creation but gets out of the way so as to let businessmen succeed.  We need somebody who does not think nationwide one-size-fits-all policies are the best way to legislate, need somebody who does not believe government has all the answers.

Enter Governor Goodhair Rick Perry, the man who grew up in a place without indoor plumbing or a zip code, who had modest grades at a modest college, and the new Republican frontrunner for the presidential nomination.  He is the consummate anti-elite.  While he has a number of things working against him—his distrust of scientists, political speeches that occasionally border on rude, and questionable foreign policy credentials.  But, he is humble.  He admits government, especially the federal government, does not have and never will have all the answers to the problems America faces.  He wants policies to be backed with clear constitutional authority that doesn’t take an elite law degree and studying 200 years of court decisions to understand.  He wants entitlement programs to be systematically sound.  He wants less money in the hands of the government and more in the hands of the people.  He wants the people’s decisions to be made by the people.  I support Perry because he is humble enough to understand his government cannot break the laws of common sense.

Right now this humility is concentrated in the anti-elite.  The less bright, lessser educated politicians like Perry seem to understand what the confidence of the elite blinds that group (us)  to.  Despite our gifts, despite our intelligence and creativity, we fail to recognize that our elaborate schemes inevitably break down when some innocent assumption turns out to be false.  With our elaborate plans we create not golden days but pain, instead of achieving dreams we destroy them.

I long for the day when the elite will be humble.  For now, I’ll vote for Perry.

Aaron C. Gyde ‘14 lives in Currier House.

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