About the expertise of ruling elites and leaders

The last days I spent a few hours on playing Deus Ex, an RPG set in 2052 and released in 2000. Several conversations between protagonist JC Denton and other characters mark the setting of the game. When the protagonist arrives in future Hong Kong, two rivaling triad gangs act open on the streets, and an optional conversation with an australian bartender can be conducted.

Transcript of the discussion

JC: Despite all I’ve read about the Triads, I wasn’t prepared to see them operating in the open, on the streets, and wearing uniforms. Doesn’t the Chinese government care?

Bartender: The Chinese leave Hong Kong alone. They barricade the roads to control trade to the mainland, but they know how business is done.

JC: I would think the secret smuggling operations of the Triads would disturb the Chinese government.

Bartender: Maybe the Luminous Path, but China knows that the Red Arrow are business owners, entrepreneurs, community leaders, and that they protect the city from outside influences.

JC: You said “outside influences”. What does China fear?

Bartender: China is the last souvereign country in the world. Authoritian but willing — unlike U. N.-governed countries — to give its people the freedom to do what they want.

JC: As long as they don’t break the law.

Bartender: Listen to me. This is real freedom, freedom to own property, make a profit, make your life. The West, so afraid of a strong government, now has no government. Only financial power.

JC: Our governments have limited power by design.

Bartender: Rhetoric… and you believe it! Don’t you know where these slogans come from?

JC: I give up.

Bartender: Well-paid researchers — how do you say it? — “think tanks,” funded by big businesses. What is that? A “think tank”?

JC: Hardly as sinister as a dictator, like China’s Premier.

Bartender: It’s privately-funded propaganda. The Trilateral Commission in the United States, for instance.

JC: The seperation of powers acknowledges the petty ambitions of individiuals; that’s its strength.

Bartender: A system organized around the weakest qualities of individuals will produce these same qualities in its leaders.

JC: Perhaps certain qualities are an inseperable part of human nature.

Bartender: The mark of the educated man is the suppression of these qualities in favor of better ones. The same is true of civilization.

While there are several points in this discussion to argue about, I will contribute to the last paragraph, beginning with the bartender saying that the qualities of individuals reflect in their leaders. Key (1966) writes:

If politicians perceive the electorate as responsive to father images, they will give it father images. If they see voters as most certainly responsive to nonsense, they will give them nonsense.  If they see voters as susceptible to delusion, they will delude them. If they see an electorate receptive to the cold, hard realities, they will give it the cold, hard realities.

A politican that fits himself to the articulated needs of the electorate is successful. A similar phenomenon applies for leadership in general (Dewan & Myatt 2008):

A leader’s ability to communicate clearly to the masses is relatively more important than her ability to discover the best course of action for them.
This adjusted communication is even important for new elites to replace older ones (Drochon 2017):
Pareto’s thesis was that elites always rule. There is always the domination of the minority over the majority. And history is just the story of one elite replacing another. This is what he called the “circulation of elites”. … In Les systèmes socialistes, Pareto elaborated on how a new elite replaces the old. A, the old elite, would be challenged by B, the new, in alliance with C, the people. B would win the support of C by making promises that, once in power, it wouldn’t keep. If that sounds like the behaviour of most politicians, that is because it probably is.
In a metaphorical sense the bartender says that the western elites share the incompetence of the electorate, while “strong” governments like China’s don’t. Two current examples undermine his argument against western democratic leaders:

However, while current China’s premier and core-leader is popular even among non-chinese people and is labeled competent by a non-chinese-publication, one should not forget that former dictator Mao Zedong is responsible for tens of millions of deaths by famine, the exact number varying by different sources, first of all due to this ignorance:

With his god-like status, he was able to launch his ridiculous political campaigns such as the Great Leap Forward where he fantasised about “overtaking Britain and catching up with America” or his Cultural Revolution where he wanted to overthrow the so-called revisionists that existed only in his muddled mind. These blunders were as much his as the undemocratic system’s.

To return to the dialogue, one could say that weak or incompetent leaders are not a result of a specific form of government. History provides many examples for good and bad democratic leaders as well as autacrats and anything in between.


Featured Image – Screenshot of video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PiQS_Wnb9Y

Dewan, T., & Myatt, D. P. (2008). The qualities of leadership: Direction, communication, and obfuscation. American Political science review, 102(03), 351-368.

Drochon, Hugo (2017). Why the elites always rule. http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2017/01/why-elites-always-rule

Key, V. O. (1966). The responsible electorate (p. 150). Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.