February 26, 1999


Good kings are the only dangerous enemies that modern democracy has.

Wilde, 1883

When King Husein of Jordan died he was mourned by many people, a few of whom are world leaders. Apparently a lot of people thought that he was quite a person.

He was not always held in such high esteem. He was made king at age 17. Unlike many in such a position, he grew with time so that, by the time he was in his fifties. he had a sense of values that said that life is better than death and peace is better than war. This did not happen overnight; it took about 40 years.

I suspect that every world leader learns as he makes mistakes; which is the most meaningful type of learning because it is tested. Everything else that we learn has to be taken on faith. Much of it is wrong and some of it is downright stupid or wicked.

The trouble with a monarchy is that by the time a king learns, if he learns much at all, his subjects will have put up with him for at least 30 years. Some never learn and the people have to put up with a ruler who is interested solely in his own welfare, not that of his people. They will get rid of him when he dies, or someone puts a bullet in him.

The wisest men of the past have come to the conclusion that a king can do much more harm than good, so it is better to have a ruler with a limited term. Republics operate on that principle, although some have limited terms and others will keep a head of state until he dies or, as in the case of Boris Yeltsin, simply falls apart physically and mentally.

Still, the ideal is a very wise ruler, be he king, president or prime minister. The only problem is that invariably, the wise ruler is the product of all of the foolishness of his early years. So, it is better to have someone who is not quite so wise nor quite so foolish. In other words, our fate in a republic is to usually be stuck with mediocrity in the people who head nations.

In order to get things done, a person needs to have the power to do things. If he is given the power, he may misuse it. The odds are very high that he will do just that. So a person's power is often limited by law to protect us from tyranny. The price that is paid for this is that very little is actually accomplished by democratic governments. Accomplishment is usually left to the so-called "private sector." Fortunately, heads of companies usually have absolute power until they screw up, when they are booted out (with a fancy pension) and replaced with some younger and more energetic, as well as more foolish, head.

Why not replace the head with an older and wiser one? The reason is that an older and wiser person knows better than to get involved. After Apple Computer got screwed up by a series of incompetent heads, they finally got Steve Jobs back to put the company in the black. If he doesn't quit again, he will die in the saddle. What an awful fate; to die as the head of a corporation when you know that the absolutely worst place that you can be is at the top of a steep pyramid where anyone can knock you off.

Next column

Return to the Politics Home Page

Return to Ira's Home Page