How Much Good Could a Good Leader Do?

Libertarians, economists, and my fellow constitutional theorists are all known for arguing that the conventional wisdom overstates the importance of individual political leaders. Instead, we emphasize the the constraining impact of institutions, public opinion, and political incentives. The structure of the system matters a lot more than the individual leader. Libertarian economist Bryan Caplan, however, recently argued that a great leader could do a lot more good than most libertarians believe:

I maintain that an intelligent, wise, brave president could do enormous good. How? For starters, he could give full presidential pardons to everyone serving time for (federal) drug-related offenses. The president can’t end the drug war on his own, but he could free hordes of innocent people before his term (singular, no doubt) ran out.* And needless to say, there are plenty of other unjust laws a president could negate with blanket pardons.

The lesson: Libertarians should stop insisting that our problems are too complex for any human being to solve. Many of our problems can literally be solved with the stroke of a pen. Any intelligent, wise, brave leader who wants to solve problems faces vast orchards of low-hanging fruit. The only reason the orchards are so bountiful, unfortunately, is that people who are intelligent, wise, and brave rarely make it to the top.

Bryan’s main point is well taken. An “intelligent, wise, brave president” unconcerned about reelection could do a lot of good that conventional politicians avoid for fear that it would hurt their electoral prospects. By the same token, such a leader could also do a lot of harm, if his unpopular policies turn out to be worse than those preferred by the electorate. At the same time, as Bryan recognizes, it’s no accident that such leaders “rarely make it to the top.” The political process systematically advantages those candidates who prioritize seizing and holding on to power over those who are willing to sacrifice office for the sake of principle.

In addition, Bryan somewhat overstates the good that even a president totally indifferent to his political fate can do in the unlikely event that he could get elected in the first place. Such a leader would still have to trim his sails somewhat in order to avoid a political backlash that makes things worse than they were before. Consider Bryan’s example of a president who decides to pardon everyone serving time for federal drug-related offenses. That policy would be extremely unpopular. It will be even more so if even one or two of the pardoned drug dealers goes on to commit a highly publicized murder or other serious crime.

In response, Congress might well enact broader and more punitive anti-drug laws; even if the incumbent vetoes them, his successor would not. The next president would sweep into office on a pro-drug war platform; quite possibly, he would order federal prosecutors and law enforcement agencies to pursue the War on Drugs more aggressively than before. There might be a similar backlash at the state level (the states imprison many more drug offenders than the feds do). The cause of drug legalization, which has been slowly gaining ground over the last several decades, would suffer a significant political setback. The net result could well be a long-term increase in the number of people imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses. Other principled but highly unpopular policies could backfire in similar ways.

That said, there is much that a politically brave president opposed to the War on Drugs could do to make things better without generating a massive backlash. He could order federal prosecutors to deemphasize drug prosecutions relative to other priorities (without actually banning such prosecutions entirely). He could issue pardons or commutations in some of the more egregious drug cases (ones involving police abuses or extremely long sentences for minor offenses). He could keep President Obama’s broken campaign promise and genuinely end medical marijuana prosecutions in states where medical marijuana is legal. Many of these measures would carry a political price, which is one reason why Obama hasn’t done any of them. On the other hand, they probably are not large-scale enough to make drugs a major issue in the next presidential election or generate a backlash large enough to undue the good they would do at the margin. These changes are small enough that the majority of rationally ignorant voters wouldn’t even notice them, thereby reducing the likelihood of a major backlash.

The bottom line: A good, wise, and politically fearless president could do a lot more good than many suppose. But even the best and bravest leader would still have to make substantial concessions to political reality, lest all his good works be undone.