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Whenever a problem arises, be it an incomprehensible tragedy like Newtown or an imperfection in our economy, those in government and their media enablers are the first to cry, “do something.”
But when Washington decides on a something to do, it usually makes the situation worse. “Do something about poverty!” The War on Poverty locked the poor into intergenerational dependency. “Do something about education!” The Department of Education has vastly increased spending without improving performance. “Do something about health care!” Even before Obamacare fully takes effect, insurance rates are skyrocketing and doctors are fleeing the industry.
The something-doers never learn that doing nothing often has the best result. Just imagine the economic growth if our politicians had spent the last five years lying in hammocks rather than doing, doing, doing.
Helmuth von Moltke understood this. “Helmuth von Who-ke?” See, I told you the Department of Education was worthless. Okay, a remedial history lesson…
Helmuth von Moltke the Younger was in charge of personnel for the German army more than a century ago. Like his uncle (the aptly named Helmuth von Moltke the Elder) he was famous for his austere brand of self-discipline and hard work. You can imagine how uptight the 19th century German officer corps was; these squares thought of Moltke as Captain Buzzkill.
Moltke’s superiors expected him to turn the rest of the German army into Type A workaholics. Instead, Moltke took a much different approach. He started by dividing the officer corps into four categories:
The first group (lazy dullards) were given simple, repetitive, unchallenging tasks.
You would assume that the second group (bright and energetic) would be the cream of the crop. However Moltke viewed these officers as obsessive micromanagers, which led them to be lousy leaders. He never promoted this type to a commanding officer level.
Group three (busy dullards) was considered the most dangerous. Moltke viewed them as nothing more than mistake generators needing constant supervision. These officers caused so many problems many were simply dismissed.
The last group (bright and lazy) held those officers Molke promoted to the highest levels of the military. Why did he want lazy people in charge? Moltke determined that this group was smart enough to see what needed to be done but lazy enough to find the easiest, most direct way to succeed. And of course such an person won’t get mired in the details, but will delegate those chores to his staff. Better yet, he would rather take a long lunch than micromanage his subordinates.
Unfortunately, most of our political class is in groups two and three. The brainy micromanagers concoct ornate bureaucracies that ultimately fail. The dim-witted busy-bodies slap together ill-considered laws that damage our economy and our lives. If we had more bright and lazy leaders, Washington might take a moment to think before they did something foolish.
Moltke’s wisdom recalls President Calvin Coolidge’s advice: “When you see ten problems rolling down the road, if you don’t do anything, nine of them will roll into a ditch before they get to you.”
Instead of frantically chasing every perceived issue, our politicians should identify those rare issues that they actually can improve. And before rushing out to do something, they should think long and hard about the solution and its repercussions first. Preferably after a long nap in their hammock.
Follow me on Twitter at @exjon.
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