Leaders and Politicians and Geese

Milton Friedman once described the difference between leaders and politicians with a geese analogy. At the time, he was an advisor to then-unelected Ronald Reagan.

According to Friedman, politicians look at which way the geese are flying and then fly to the front of the flock. By flying in front, these phonies pretend to lead. Friedman argued Reagan was a true leader, meaning he would choose his own course. The geese, according to Friedman, would change course to follow Reagan.

The “leaders and politicians” analogy is useful in a number of contexts. It applies to the coronavirus crisis. Uncertainty and fear made it easy to drive people into seclusion and close everything down. Medical advice, which errs on the cautious side, reinforced this drive. The medical models and predictions were extraordinarily wrong and and scared everyone.

In this environment, it was safe politically to overreact. “A good crisis is a shame to waste.” The “flock” were scared. Most political leaders shut down everything. That action was easy because the flock was flying in that direction.

Real leadership, exhibited by a few governors, assessed the situation in terms of people, places, and trade-offs. Their approach required flying in a different direction. They recognized that, as Thomas Sowell  emphasizes, “there are no solutions, only trade-offs.” Balanced decisions, ones which protected the vulnerable with minimum harm to those at low risk required courage. It required flying a different direction from the flock. It became even more difficult given the irresponsibility of the media, some in the medical community and those seeking to score political points.

Time and data show that flying in front of the geese was wrong. Models grossly overstated the problems. So-called “experts” were wrong either due to stupidity or ulterior motives. Still now, these experts are warning against relaxing the rules. The tyranny gene of many governors could not be more pleased to continue their arbitrary rules over the peasants.

Dead Goose

The geese analogy applies twice in this instance. Those who blindly closed everything and imposed absurd and arbitrary rules were the politicians pretending to lead. They saw the people were scared and desperate. It was easy (but wrong) to shut down states without consideration to demographics and specifics.

Finally the point has been reached where the people see the errors in what occurred. Independently they are rebelling against rules that preclude them socialization and the ability to feed their families.  Now these phony political leaders are reducing restrictions with as little rationale as when they imposed them. In short, the geese have changed direction and the phony leaders do not want to be flying away from them. What you see now is politicians beginning to panic and changing course so as not to be left without a flock.

True leaders (think Georgia, Florida and several other Republican governors) were ahead of their flocks. They flew in the right direction. The flock is now following them.

Milton Friedman was right.