One Vote for Late Trains

Tom Peters

Ten years after In Search of Excellence, “a bias for action” still tops my list of business commandments. So you might be surprised to learn that I oppose Ross Perot’s presidential candidacy. Here’s why:

1. What Constitution? Mr. Perot would strip Congress of its exclusive right to raise revenues. And as for privacy, forget it: It’s said he once suggested we cordon off poor neighborhoods, then go on a house-by-house search for guns and drugs. But it’s Perot’s teledemocracy scheme that could unleash the darkest forces imaginable. “We go through television through the town hall,” Perot told Larry King on April 16. “We explain that to the American people, we build a consensus, we pass the laws, and we move on to the next problem.” House Republican Minority Whip Newt Gingrich minced no words—”Mussolini would have loved it.”

Teledemocracy, the New Republic magazine says, means “the Madisonian system would be replaced by the Geraldo system; checks and balances by applause meter.” Time magazine added, “The Founding Fathers did not have computers or cable TV. But they did have some experience with crowds and mass behavior. From this they concluded that people were too easily swayed by passion to be entrusted with direct democracy. The government they fashioned was not a national town meeting, in which everybody votes on issues, but a representative democracy. … The very things the disgruntled citizens decry in representative democracy—namely that it often leads to paralysis and a tendency to cater to narrow interest groups—are also the sources of its strengths. Checks and balances guard against popular whims and demagoguery.”

2. Yo, industrial policy. Perot doesn’t like free trade. He wants to whack the Japanese and close the doors to Mexico. What Perot admires about Japan is its once imperious ministry for International Trade and Industry. Though the Japanese are largely ignoring MITI these days, Perot says we ought to have our own central planning agency. Why? We’re on the ropes, he claims, and only an industry-by-industry strategy will save us. Translation: The government picks winners and losers.

It’s clear that “industrial policy” and “managed trade” would be mainstays of Perot’s competitiveness policy. In a recent Fortune magazine poll, only 11 percent of CEOs said they’d vote for Perot. It’s not hard to see why. (Lee Iacocca, on the other hand, says he might campaign for Perot—and that’s not hard to understand either.)

3. A passion for arm twisting. I admire Electronic Data Systems, the corporation Perot created. Its “can do” zest has few peers. But let’s not forget how the firm rose to prominence: “(W)ith the institution of Medicare and Medicaid, Perot emerged as a post-industrial wheeler-dealer,” John Judis wrote in the New
, “finagling state contracts for software programs through high-pressure political lobbying and massive political contributions.” Ross Perot is no Sam Walton. He didn’t catch big firms napping. He got rich sucking hundreds of millions of dollars from government coffers.

4. Attila the bum. It’s not surprising that Perot loved the book Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun (“A great book”—H. Ross Perot). The editors of the New Republic recently wrote, “(Perot’s) past shows him to be personally vicious, self-obsessed, and verging on paranoid.” In the same issue, the respected journalist Sidney Blumenthal adds, “His preferred method is paramilitary. … Lie detector tests were administered (at EDS). … He referred to men in blue shirts (white shirts were standard EDS attire) and foreigners as ‘sissies,’ and those who disagreed with him as ‘limp-wristed.'”

Old school chums, who were early EDS employees, tell me tales that make the New Republic‘s unsettling disclosures pale. But management style is not the point. Neither are Perot’s cockamamie economic policies. It’s his apparent contempt for American-style democracy that has moved me, reluctantly, to go public with my fears.

“Government in the U.S. is not designed to be efficient or powerful, but tolerable and malleable,” the archconservative James Q. Wilson writes in his book Bureaucracy. “Government has to be slower, has to safeguard process. … It is not hyperbole to say that constitutional order is animated by a desire to make government inefficient.” Why? Because, Wilson continues, “Americans distrust anyone who wields power and sought to prevent abuse by surrounding all power wielders with constitutional checks and laws.”

America was invented against government. We had a “CEO” running the show prior to 1776: King George III. James Madison was determined that the British monarch should not be replaced by King George (Washington) I. As shrewd an observer of human nature as ever lived, Madison was no fan of “can do” government. Thwarting any effort to accumulate and exercise excessive power, particularly the power of the majority to dictate to the minority, was the cornerstone of his scheme.

Madison and his colleagues anticipated that the exercise of democracy would be frustrating as hell. They were right. Mussolini made the trains run on time. But the price was far too high. Do George Bush and Bill Clinton inspire me? Hardly! But I’ll gladly put up with late trains in return for the freedom our messy system offers.

(C) 1992 TPG Communications.

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