Beware the Rigid Idealist

The Hobgoblins[1] of Idealistic Minds

A Case for Practical Leadership










By Jay B Gaskill



True-believer idealists are gravitating to politics these days more than ever because, for the most part, they are prone to grand gestures… after all, politics is a media stage.  Occasionally, one or more of these idealists is given an executive position. This requires performance of an entirely different kind, one ill-suited to an idealist’s style.  A pattern usually follows: There is a giddy period of exultation among the followers, grand gestures and extravagant hopes.  Then, as it always does, reality hits the parade. Flash forward to the end of term. Idealists-in-power are prone to neglect the necessary, mundane aspects of governance in favor of the Holy Grail of grand achievement. Typically, when an idealist leaves office, there are unrepaired potholes, unaddressed necessities… I’m using potholes as a stand-in for all the necessities that we used to take for granted when good governance was the priority.


In 2008 and 2012, America elected a progressive idealist who promised to transcend partisan politics, but ended up being the most polarizing POTUS in recent history. If history is any guide, the country will swing, like a disenchanted lover, to someone of an entirely different type. If this theory is correct, the next president will be more practical, less idealistic, less ideological and far more authentically “middle of the road.”


The eventual reaction against an idealist-in-power is not a new story. I am an idealist by temperament, but I’ve learned to temper my policy positions in light of real world conditions, especially the inevitability of unintended consequences.


If we want to really change the human situation into a something better, we need to cultivate the virtues of patience, humility, and self-reexamination – especially the willingness to recognize when we have taken a wrong turn. For the fervent true believers among us, especially those who have not yet cultivated the humility virtues, the relentless pursuit of the ideal rarely ends well.  Often it has a disastrous authoritarian phase – broken eggs for a rotten omelet – or a bitter disillusionment.


The mind of a true-believer idealist is rarely able give up the pursuit of the Holy Grail. He or she is fixated on achieving that ever-retreating ideal state of the affairs that “everyone” wants to see realized “in our time.” …So fixated, that the very possibility of discovering a fatal error buried in the core of the Ideal is never seriously entertained…until the damage has been done.


True-believer idealists inhabit both right and left wing political aviaries. The Austrian economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek, an adopted Englishman, is typically called a “conservative” or even “right wing” thinker. But Hayek’s classic cautionary work, The Road to Serfdom, begins with a comment addressed “mainly to a very special class of readers in England. It was in no spirit of mockery that I dedicated it ‘To the Socialists of All Parties.’ It had its origin in many discussions which, during the preceding ten years, I had with friends and colleagues whose sympathies had been inclined toward the left, and it was in continuation of those arguments that I wrote The Road to Serfdom.” {F. A. Hayek. The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents–The Definitive Edition}


Hayek was writing about Nazi Germany, as a socialist experiment, but made clear that he also had the Stalin’s Soviet Union in mind, not to exclude the idealists who managed the British Labour Party’s 50 year dance with socialism. Hayek was a practical humanist who supported government assistance to the less fortunate and other “socialist” goals. But he realized that the largest socialist agenda, the top-down attempt to direct social and economic change, always leads to increasingly intrusive authoritarian means such that, over time, the outcomes are guaranteed to shock the consciences of  most socialists.


In fact, all Ideal Future Projects eventually collide with the messy real world – that gritty, but endlessly interesting venue where divergent human interests compete, unexpected events disrupt, “retrograde” tendencies seem to prevail, but wholly unexpected creative developments emerge to change everyone’s game plan…once again.


But for a true-believer idealist, the serial failures of any particular Ideal World Project must not be attributed to the Cause, itself.  This is a resistance to the accumulating evidence of failure, something that no bridge or airplane designer can afford to ignore, but something that idealists take in stride. Their mindset of denial is the product of idealist-faith, in which the idealist sees all the real-world failures as a problem of implementation, never of the Ideal, as such.  This evidence-resistant attitude has often led its adherents to embrace a sinister conclusion: insufficient means were employed on behalf of the Ideal cause. Through a chain of reasoning from that single false premise, about half of true idealists become full-on authoritarians. The rest tend to become bitter cynics, dropouts, moderate, incremental reformers, or thoughtful conservatives.


Idealists eventually face the problem of means and ends. The 20th century is rich with truly scary object lessons – the corpses and other dead-ends achieved by ruthless idealism.  Recoiling from the bloody 20th Century authoritarian excesses, many idealists of the 21st century embraced non-violence. Others, having become frustrated with the lack of “progress”, are increasingly willing to use deception and manipulation as a substitute for force. This is an ongoing tendency among current progressives of a certain stripe.


In general, modern and postmodern idealists tend to sort themselves in two flavors, the “progressive” and the “libertarian.” The first promote functional, outcome equality; the second promote process or opportunity-equality. The first can easily become unreasonably authoritarian, because, for them, human nature is considered an obstacle to progress. Members of the second group can become unreasonably anti-authoritarian, because political power is considered an inherent evil, in contrast with human nature, seen as naturally benign. Unreasonable excesses are likely in each form of idealism, because too much or too little authority are each fully capable of making a hash of freedom and human dignity under real world conditions.


Rarely do either postmodern progressive or libertarian idealists pause to reconsider whether their adopted ideals and the accompanying assumptions were flawed from the very beginning. Yet the two camps can sometimes reach agreement about policies. This agreement should not be taken as a reason for the rest of us to endorse a particular policy. When authoritarian and anti-authoritarians seem to agree, it should be a red flag for the practical minded among us.  Consider some illustrations:


Progressive idealists are attracted to peace through kindness and conciliation; equality and human dignity through redistribution of property. Libertarian idealists are attracted to peace through isolationism; freedom and human dignity through unfettered access to recreational narcotics. Both sides fear surveillance, partly out of political paranoia, partly out of complacency about threats.  Both are a little bit right, and both share naïve blind spots about the real world implications of their respective world views.


  • A drug addicted population is less able to self-govern, becoming an invitation to authoritarian manipulation.
  • An isolationist, over-conciliatory stance in a world governed by thuggish regimes becomes an invitation to war and attempted conquest.
  • The politically managed redistribution of property tends to substitute unnatural political inequalities for natural economic inequalities.


In these and certain other convergent stances, the progressive/libertarian idealists overlap in a way that can facilitates onset of authoritarian regimes, whether imposed from within or from outside.






Beware the politicians who talk about getting “more creative” ideas; this almost always telegraphs their bankruptcy of foresight and their history of floundering and drift.  Be critical of the commentator who freely uses the term “centrist” to describe an idea or policy shared by the two extremes; it is almost always an example of mediocrity of worse.


And do not be taken in by the politicians who give praise to the creative centers within their purview as a way of distracting us from the fact that such centers are working in spite of, not because of those same politicians.


I’m use the term “creative center” here in three overlapping ways:

As in: The center of creativity is moral alignment. Think of the benign creative geniuses of the Renaissance vs. the malignant minds who designed the Nazi medical experiments and mass murder technologies. The great axis of morality, as used here, aims towards the promotion of human life, human intelligence and continued human creativity as these three value aims are seen as mutually supporting.

As in: The center of creativity is a locus or community of creative people who flourish because of special conditions that protect and reward creative freedom and accomplishment.

As in: The adaptive, innovative, productive center is the soul of a flourishing civilization.


All over the world, creative centers, are under attack by envy-driven primitives (thinking of the jihad against Israel (a small creative center in its own right), the USA and Europe, for example), and by members of the political class who want to control (i.e., diminish and suffocate) these creative centers for their own advantage.


Bureaucracies (particularly of the authoritarian-idealistic stripe) are toxic to the creative centers. I note that where bureaucratic tyranny, in its various forms, takes root, many of the creative ones flee, seeking refuge in haven states. The polar opposite of authoritarian bureaucracy is chaos. That is also toxic to the creative centers, because chaos disrupts the stability of a creativity-supporting civilization.


These insights about Creative Centers are not meant to be a guide for political rhetoric. But they should be part of any vetting process with which we test the insight, credibility and policy savvy of the political class, especially of those who seek high executive office. But mere proposals require competent implementation. …Which brings us to the matter of leadership.






Leaders must be followed to be effective, which is why we are attracted to the charismatic ones. But, over time, the most effective form of executive leadership is mundane. When all is said and done we need problem-solving leaders. This is accomplishment-leadership, measurable not in gestures, but in real human terms.


We expect a good leader to have and to be able to express a vision. But, vision or no, to be worthy of support, a leader must recognize the real-world problems we care about, and to be able to explain the concrete steps to be taken to solve them. And if we are to be really astute in picking a leader, we will expect him or her to demonstrate the ability to adapt and revise plans as reality dictates – something idealists tend to fail at.


Untested leaders with powerful rhetorical skills are risky choices, often worthless – even affirmatively harmful. Without a track record of accomplishment or a cadre of subordinates with a record of real world experience, a charismatic new leader, however eloquent, is rarely worth the risk.


Leaving aside great wartime presidents like Lincoln and FDR, Dwight Eisenhower stands out as a model leader, one who simply got things done. Without soaring rhetoric, grandstanding or partisan rancor, President Eisenhower created the Interstate Highway system; ended the Korean War; managed the Cold War without risking Armageddon; enacted the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960; launched DARPA[2] (the source of endless technical innovation with both military and civilian uses); started NASA; fully desegregated the Armed Forces, established the nuclear powered Navy fleet, and inaugurated programs to develop the peacetime uses of atomic power.






We are right to be underwhelmed at the current selection of POTUS aspirants from both parties who are jockeying for their party’s nomination.


But we don’t require great leadership, just competent, determined, practical leadership focused an actually implementing (as opposed to merely advocating of talking about) effective solutions to the most pressing problems most Americans face. Among these neglected problems: overpriced state college opportunities for the children of American citizens; a dwindling American middle class; a growing circle of foreign enemies, emboldened by the perception of American weakness; and a lack of commitment to true energy abundance.



A license to link to this article or to publish pull quotes from it (with full attribution) is hereby granted. For all other permissions and comments, please contact the author via email at The author served as the chief Public Defender for the County of Alameda, CA, headquartered in Oakland for 10 years, following a long career as an Assistant Public Defender. Then, Gaskill left his “life of crime” to devote more time to writing.


Learn more about Jay B Gaskill, attorney, analyst and author, at



[1] Hobgoblins, borrowed from R W Emerson’s, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

[2] The Defense Advanced  Research Projects Agency < > has produced amazing advances with civilian applications, especially in medicine and the nascent private space program industry.

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