Three Important Lessons from Bridgegate

The pundits have been busy with their analysis of the Chris Christie bridge scandal. Their analysis is as disheartening as the scandal itself. Instead of asking real questions about how such an event could have occurred and what it means for this country, they are more concerned about how the scandal impacts Christie’s chances to become president. What an inappropriate question! If a drunk driver killed people in a car crash should reporters be focusing on whether the drunk will be home for Christmas?

Christie’s denials do not ring true to me; and in any case, Christie is responsible for those he hires and the expectations he sets. Consider this recent disclosure:

An appointee of Gov. Chris Christie personally showed up to observe the closure of lanes at the George Washington Bridge that triggered an epic traffic jam in New Jersey in September, according to documents made public Friday.

The documents also show that Wildstein and Bill Baroni, another Christie appointee, were directly told on the first day that the backups were causing problems for police and paramedics.

How likely is it that several individuals would gleefully agree to harm the public unless they believed that their leader would approve? A culture of contempt toward the public must have already been established by their leader.

Christie is either a criminal or at the very least the enabler of criminal activity. Rather than being concerned about his fortunes, there are real lessons that American should be learning from this scandal.

Lesson 1: Even if they are not carrying out political retribution, bureaucrats will consistently make bad decisions.

In his new book What Matters Now, noted management thinker Gary Hamel writes, “Without the threat of defecting customers, hostile takeovers, and bankruptcy, the only thing that keeps public-sector bureaucrats on their toes is the surveillance of more senior bureaucrats, who are even further removed from the point of service.”

Thomas Sowell writes even more pointedly, “It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.” Joel Avrunin adds, “Or more to the point, … [decision-makers] get rewarded for being wrong by getting to make even more decisions.”

Can you imagine the shipping manager for Amazon sabotaging customer shipments to New Jersey because he doesn’t like the governor? Of course not.

Soviet central planners destroyed the Aral Sea. North Korean despot Kim Jong-un ordered scarce resources to be used in production of “vinalon, a wonderful textile their country makes from anthracite and limestone.” Chris Christie’s minions disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. What is the difference? There is no difference in kind; the differences are only in degrees. Former Soviet bureaucrats, despots, and American bureaucrats often make decisions based on politics or personal whim. The absence of market discipline means that their poor decisions go uncorrected.

Lesson 2:  Politicians who govern with a tribal mentality, rather than by principles, endanger our prosperity, our freedom, and our lives. 

In a tribal society, the supremacy of tribe or clan is the overarching organizing principle for society. Often many tribes occupy the same land. For example, Nigeria is home to over 300 different tribes. “Outsiders” are seen as not worthy of the same rights or respect as tribe members. Hatreds, ancient superstitions, and the powers of tribal leaders are maintained by traditions that discourage relations among tribes. Personality cults arise around some tribal leaders –loyalty to the clan is valued above all.

Many countries are organized around the supremacy of the tribe, and outsiders suffer every day. Blood is often shed. The recent horrific atrocities in The Central African Republic are a case in point.

A tribal leader starts a war with another tribe in his own country. Chris Christie’s minions ordered retribution against people who didn’t support Christie and mocked those who were impacted calling them Buono voters. (Buono was Christie’s opponent.) Again there is a difference in degree, but not in kind. Both are acting from a sickening tribal mentality where “outsiders” are seen as not worthy of respect or basic rights.

The United States was organized around the principle of the rule of law. Leaders like Chris Christie are more fit to lead in Afghanistan or the Central African Republic than in the United States.

I am sickened when I read defenses of Christie that center around the argument that his scandals are nothing compared to other presidents or Obama’s. Libertarian David Boaz opines that “experts” believe “that closing a few bridge lanes is pretty thin gruel as far as punishing your enemies goes.” Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg complains, “The three network news shows have devoted orders of magnitude more coverage to a story about closed lanes on the George Washington Bridge than they have to the IRS scandal.”

No doubt this is true; but if that is a defense of “your man,” it is pathetic and irrelevant indeed. Equally sickening are the Obama supporters who have been silent about Obama scandals but are gleeful at Christie’s downfall. Both Democrats and Republicans are exhibiting the same trial mentality—he’s my guy so his bad behavior is OK. This tribal mentality is ruining this country.

Lesson 3: Instead of being fixated on which personality becomes president, focus on which leader can articulate the principles they stand for and determine if those principles service the cause of freedom and prosperity.

The late comedian Red Skelton said, “Our principles are the springs of our actions; our actions, the springs of our happiness or misery. Too much care, therefore, cannot be taken in forming our principles.”

Politicians are not the source of our well-being. An apocryphal story describes a meeting between Alexander the Great and the great philosopher Diogenes. When Alexander asked if there was anything he could do for him, Diogenes replied, “Yes, could you stand a little less between me and the sun.”

Value is created when individuals are free to produce and exchange. It is time to drop the notion that politicians should be visionaries and central planners. They should be stewards of the great founding principles of this country and then get out of the way of their fellow Americans. If we understood this we would never elect the likes of Chris Christie in the first place.

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4 Responses to Three Important Lessons from Bridgegate

  1. Susan Kelly says:

    Yes! That about covers it. I appreciate the insight into how tribal America has become. Sad, sad.

  2. Barry Brownstein says:

    Thanks, Susan. It is at times almost unbearably sad and yet there seems to be no end in sight to our free-fall. Of course, all trends end but they can go on for a long-time. Just look at Argentina.

  3. Jim D. says:

    I wish there was anything in this post I could disagree with…but there isn’t. The only thing I could add would be that I’m not sure if our citizens are guilty of omission or commission, because remember, we elected these fools…

    • Barry Brownstein says:

      Exactly, Jim. It is amazing that polls show that Christie remains popular and still is seen as a good leader.

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