In a recent syndicated column, Jonah Goldberg recently shared what he deems “Washington’s dirty little secret”: no one is running the show.
This, to be clear, isn’t new to the Trump Presidency, even if it is on a bit more display. Rather, it’s a reality of any sufficiently complex system.
Let’s detour to the private sector: you’ve seen this if you’ve worked in any company with more than a handful of people. While approvals do flow up the hierarchy and edits flow down from the top, there’s a lot going on outside the purview of any one person. Indeed, companies – good ones anyway – thrive on this as they do things far too advanced for any one human brain to keep track of.
To be sure, CEO’s control a lot and exert great influence on a company, but it’s often a mix of focused spotlighting on critical issues and then broad influence by embedding values and a culture into the company.
But back to government. As ours is bigger than any company, it naturally stands to reason that a President has even less control and influence on the running of things. Presidents (as with CEOs) must project an aura of authority to the public, but behind the scenes much of what they do is attempt to embed an ethos.
While Presidents do have the ability to name key positions in the government, they have very little control over the bureaucratic class of entrenched employees. This makes it quite hard for even the President or a cabinet head to steer a Department off its current trajectory.
Hence the message “no one is running things.” Much of what the federal government does has been established quite chaotically and is steered not just by a President and cabinet heads, but by thousands of bureaucrats all with different levels of competence, values, and motivations.
If this reality makes you feel uncomfortable, this is natural. In his piece, Jonah ties it to our evolutionary roots. We evolved in systems with clear leadership: families, small clans, tribes, et cetera. Systems with the chaos of modern corporations or capitalism grate against our sensibilities because we expect someone to be in charge and want them to be held as the monocausal point of failure or success. But a world like that has long since past.