The difference between government and leadership
Government is often called leadership, as in the phrase “this country needs new leadership”. I believe this thinking conflates two ideas that might, in fact, be opposites.
Leaders inspire others into action by showing their capabilities. They expound their visions and say “let’s move toward it together”, and those who believe in them will follow, and those who do not are free to stay behind. Governments, by contrast, tell people what to do and force them to act. They force them to pay for everything the government does and force them to follow every rule they make. When a leader makes a rule, you follow it or you are off the team; or perhaps you could discuss it with the leader; or you could prove yourself a better leader and encourage people to follow you. If a government makes a rule, either you follow it, or you go to jail. A leader would not force anyone, or else he or she would lose followers and not get the work done. Leaders treat people as a team working together; governments treat people like cattle who are producing to feed the government’s choice of projects. Leaders make hard decisions and take responsibility for them. Governments avoid hard decisions until they are politically necessary, by which time it may be too late to salvage anything, and they avoid all responsibility by blaming predecessors, foreigners, minorities or the free market. So to think of politicians as leaders seems rather ironic.
We are sometimes told that “society needs to be organised.” This idea raises a number of questions. Does society not organise itself? Why must it be organised by force? Why do we need a central authority, rather than leaders competing for followers in the marketplace of ideas? How can we trust this single authority? Why does organisation have to take place on a national level? And why is the criminalisation of marijuana and lemonade stands, for instance, part of this organisation? These are questions statists must answer. As I point out elsewhere, people self-organise when organisation is not forced on them. In Tunisia and Egypt, the people rose up spontaneously against their governments and were successful. But they weren’t organised and led by a coercive authority. They were, basically, angry mobs that disprove the hypothesis that we need direction or force from above to get anything done.
Organisation with real leaders can mean real progress toward whatever goals we as groups, however we choose to affiliate, have. Organisation by force is merely the attempt to control us. Force is inimical to society, because society is about voluntary transactions, movement, interaction and association. Governments limit all those things.
So why do we confuse government with leadership? My guess is, for the same reason we believe that the government protects us from immorality, foreign threats, repression, chaos and ignorance: because it says it does. From the education system to government communications, we are led to believe in the inherent necessity and goodness of government, and to call its initiatives leadership. In the words of Thomas E. Woods,
The problem is the idea that we are helpless boobs who can accomplish nothing without the wise ‘leadership’ of some guy with the power to expropriate our property and employ violence. To the contrary, the spontaneous order of the marketplace, in which you and I interact peacefully without anyone ‘leading’ us or issuing commands, has made possible miracles no one could have dreamed of 200 years ago. Why are we still so brainwashed into thinking we need someone to ‘lead’ in this picture? Live your life and contribute to society in what you do. You do not need to be ordered around to have a fulfilling life.
The great thing about leadership is that people can and do create voluntary institutions to solve the problems that government and God do not. Take the issue of poverty. Government has not eliminated it; in fact, it has entrenched it. Not only does the state not care for the poor, the private sector is making up for its shortcomings. Real leadership is producing houses that cost only a few hundred dollars, cheap water filters, cheap medical equipment, cheap solar power generators, and is making a profit. Good thing they do, too. Decades of leaving these things up to government “leadership” is one reason the poor are still poor. Conflating government with leadership is an insult to true leaders.