Plumb Lines

October 9, 2009

The Fierce Urgency of Doing Absolutely Nothing

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 2:17 pm

The members of the Nobel Peace Prize committee gave their award to President Obama not for what he did, but for what he didn’t do, not because of who he was, but because he wasn’t George Bush. As a conservative, I applaud their decision. If the disastrous missteps of the past eight years taught us anything, it’s that good leadership requires restraint as much as it does readiness. In a busybody world, inaction is often the hardest and most necessary policy.

We often make the mistake of believing the greatest presidents are the ones who did the most, even when their choices were disastrous. Woodrow Wilson won the Nobel Peace Prize, but he also involved the country in a war that it probably didn’t need to fight. How does this make Wilson greater—and especially more peaceful—than, say, Calvin Coolidge?

How many of the major initiatives of the last eight years, like the Iraq War or No Child Left Behind, would gain majority support if we considered them today?

Conservatives who voted for a limited government, one that valued continuity over change, found themselves with an activist president whose forays into Medicare prescription drug benefits and, most disastrously, into Iraq, enlarged the federal bureaucracy and led to a host of unintended consequences. Bush’s creation of new entitlements at home and engagements abroad weakened America’s financial stability and global influence.

The virtue of a truly conservative government is that it is content to do nothing. This kind of leadership might be best modeled in the novel War and Peace. Tolstoy takes for his model of wartime leadership a man named Kutuzov, who was widely criticized in his time for being indolent and neglectful in repelling the Russians. The genius of Kutuzov’s leadership was his realization that the most important thing was to simply kill bad ideas. When the enemy attacked, the main challenge was to not overreact. The brilliant innovation of Obama has been to adopt this approach while distracting the media from his real strategy with a flurry of ballyhooed addresses.

Obama has practiced strategic inaction for years. While a professor at the University of Chicago, he never published a single piece of scholarship, but still was offered tenure. In the Illinois State Legislature and the United States Congress he had no significant pieces of legislation. I’m glad for that, because if he had passed something, it would almost certainly have been a bad idea.

For years conservatives have derided the judicial activism of liberal courts and the overreach of liberal leaders. Activity is a virtue of private enterprise, but in public service it is often a vice.

Obama has made a few missteps that no doubt gave the committee pause. The bailouts were wildly unpopular and, in the case of Detroit’s big-three automakers, far from wise. Health-care reform is likely to arrive riddled with concessions to special interests and loaded with hidden costs. These dark spots should not totally obscure his otherwise impressive record of doing nothing. The fact that his few major initiatives are so likely to cause new fiscal nightmares suggests that to be more deserving of the Nobel Prize, Obama should not have done more, but less. Good for the Nobel Committee for recognizing that.

-Matthew Schmitz

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1 Comment »

  1. This kind of leadership might be best modeled in the novel War and Peace. The genius of Kutuzov’s leadership was his realization that the most important thing was to simply kill bad ideas. When the enemy attacked, the main challenge was to not overreact.

    Arguably such leadership was also modeled by James Madison’s refusal to overreact to an enemy or unnecessarily expand executive powers in the War of 1812.

    Comment by millinerd — October 10, 2009 @ 10:01 am


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