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Why Washington Can’t Be Fixed, But America Can

Why Washington Can’t Be Fixed, But America Can

January 7th, 2014 // 10:00 am @

fix america 300x300 Why Washington Cant Be Fixed, But America Can   Oliver DeMilleThe problems in Washington D.C. aren’t going to be fixed, because Washington is the problem.

One fundamental way Washington operates is incompatible with freedom, prosperity, and common sense. Specifically, Washington today is caught in the rut of post bellum auxilium, and there is little chance of this changing any time soon.

This phrase was used in ancient times to describe politicians and generals who would hear warnings of danger and refuse to provide troops — then, upon hearing that their posts had been attacked and overrun by the enemy, would angrily and publicly gather troops and send them. The troops would arrive at empty battlefields, too late to do anything — which should have been obvious, since the politicians didn’t even send them until the battles were over.

Our government is profoundly dedicated to this method. Consider the many warnings of impending terrorism that came before 9/11, and the drastic Bush Administration response after. Or the fact that only a very few, isolated people saw the Great Recession of 2008 coming, but afterwards the Bush and Obama Administrations took draconian pains to ensure that nothing like this would ever happen again.

Then, when the Arab Spring started with a massive uprising in Egypt, President Obama blamed the intelligence community for failing to predict this event. There are dozens of similar examples, in just the last decade.

Here is the problem. Washington believes the experts. But, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb teaches in his excellent book, Antifragile, the experts are terrible at predicting surprises.

Obviously, that’s what makes such events surprising. And they keep coming, despite the experts’ best attempts to predict and forecast.

Taleb wrote that intelligence analysts and economists fail to forecast most major world changes because these events “are unpredictable, and their probabilities are not scientifically measurable.”

He points out a real weakness with most modern government leadership:

  1. governments focus on prediction, then when they are surprised they
  2. blame the experts for not forecasting effectively, and
  3. rally to create regulations and policies designed to anticipate and prevent events that have already happened.

What they don’t do is create what Taleb calls real resilience, or the ability to withstand surprises — whatever comes.

There are several consequences of this mistaken approach. First, the numbers of regulations skyrocket because politicians think it is their job to anticipate every possible surprise.

Second, the size of governments, debts, and deficits increase as officials try to be prepared for anything.

Third, after each failure, the government becomes more and more dependent on the “experts.”

Common sense dictates that we stop listening to those who consistently get most of their forecasts wrong, but the worry that government must foresee and block every surprise trumps common sense — and more money is spent on more experts whose predictions continue to fall short.

In our book, LeaderShift, Orrin Woodward and I called this widespread problem “Credentialism.”

Taleb wrote:

“Governments are wasting billions of dollars on attempting to predict events that are produced by interdependent systems and are therefore not statistically understandable at the individual level…This was not just money wasted but the construction of a false confidence based on an erroneous focus.”

Surprises will still come, including natural disasters and man-made crises. Nothing government does can stop this.

Some will no doubt ask, “So, what should we do? Just give up?”

The answer is interesting.

Instead of focusing on trying to forecast and prevent surprising events in the world, Taleb says that wise leaders will focus on creating a strong and resilient nation and society that isn’t hurt by surprise. In fact, he recommends that nations seek to become “antifragile,” meaning that they get even stronger during surprises and other crises.

This is how America responded to World War II, for example. Instead of weakening us, this crisis made us stronger. This happened because we were more antifragile than today. We had, on the whole, stronger families, stronger community bonds, and stronger dedication to morals. We also maintained a true free-enterprise system where anyone had the opportunity to take risks and create widespread prosperity — and many people did just that as a response to crisis.

In our current environment — where only 35n percent of all jobs are full time, and more than 48 percent of people are on welfare, food stamps, or other government benefits, and where the regulatory barriers to starting a business are much higher than fifty years ago — we are a lot more fragile.

In short, we are a nation deeply addicted to being ruled by experts. Our best future will come, Taleb suggests, by focusing on the things that make us stronger, more resilient, and even antifragile.

In my view, this means a return to genuine free enterprise, pure and simple.

The reason this works is because it incentivizes individuals, with enlightened self-interest, to take on the challenge of becoming entrepreneurs, i.e.: producers, independents and bastions of self-reliance, sharing their wealth and security with those who buy into their vision and help make it happen through intrepreneurial positions in their businesses.

Thousands of such entrepreneurs unleashed on our woes would have a leavening effect and the grassroots spread of forward-thinking innovation will put into operation the principles that govern freedom and prosperity.

We need to take a good look at our nation and government, identify areas where were we are fragile, and fix them. Government has a small but vital role to play in this, mainly in fixing our long-term government spending problem, but the majority of change must come from the American people.

The problem, as always, is that such change requires risk. This means that those who are willing to face risk and innovate must lead out — entrepreneurs, not politicians, bureaucrats, or experts.

The Washington/Ivy League/Wall Street crowd that depends on experts is extremely fragile, if for no other reason than it relies on experts whose forecasts are frequently weak.

If we are to put America on a path to a truly flourishing economy and society where every child can benefit from a rebirth of the American Dream, risk is necessary. Without great risk, there will be no great rewards.

The truth is, the most innovative entrepreneurs have already detected areas of fragility and are taking action in response — that’s what makes them innovators. But Washington seems committed to stopping all this initiative.

A national addiction to experts, and a simultaneous rejection of entrepreneurs, is a sure path to decline. This is where we now are as a nation.

The reality is that expertise thrives when there is no crisis, but crumbles in the face of surprises. Entrepreneurship flourishes in times of peace and crisis, even when it isn’t given much of a chance.

When a nation encourages entrepreneurship and the natural innovation and resilience of entrepreneurs, it becomes strong — strong when surprises come, and even if they don’t.

How do we become such a nation? Three things are needed:

  1. We have to be innovators and entrepreneurs regardless of what Washington does.
  2. We have to effectively stand behind those few in Washington who do take on the expert establishment and call for real change, even (especially) when it upsets the career politicians and media pundits.
  3. We have to show real respect for entrepreneurs, and teach all our kids to seriously consider and admire the higher calling of entrepreneurship.

As Taleb put it,

“We didn’t get to where we are today thanks to policy makers — but thanks to the appetite for risks and errors of a certain class of people [entrepreneurs] we need to encourage, protect, and respect.”

Our solutions are simple, not complex. But the “expert-dominated” elites are trying to keep things complex in order to “justify their profession,” as Taleb said.

Innovators can do better. They always have. Carpe diem!


odemille What Every Citizen Must Know About Government Finances Oliver DeMille is the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestselling co-author of LeaderShift: A Call for Americans to Finally Stand Up and Lead, the co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of TJEd.

Among many other works, he is the author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, The Coming Aristocracy, and FreedomShift: 3 Choices to Reclaim America’s Destiny.

Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.

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