How to Pick a President

I posted yesterday on how the key to making good decisions is to understand the guiding principles of the area. Everything else follows from those principles. So if you understand the guiding principles, you will be able to make good decisions.

This has significant implications for how to choose a president. For it means that you don’t need to go through the details on hundreds of different issues. You only need to know a few things in order to pick the best candidate for office.

So, here’s how to pick a president:

1. Determine the Major Issues

You don’t need to evaluate the candidates on 100 different issues. Everything rolls up into about 5-6 major categories. The top 3 are: economic policy, foreign policy, and social policy. These three areas (along with judicial appointments) encompass the bulk of the influence that a president has, and affect the nation in massive ways.

2. Determine Which Candidate Understands the Guiding Principles of Those Issues

You don’t need to drill down into thousands of details within the major issues. Instead, you simply need to know which candidate understands the governing principles on those issues. For if a leader gets the major guiding principles on an area, then the thousands of details involved in the area are going to fall in line as well. Not perfectly, of course. But far more fully than when the leader doesn’t get the major principles. Electing someone who does not grasp the guiding principles of economic policy, for example, is like hiring someone to fix your radiator who has no knowledge of mechanics and, worse, is using the wrong instruction manual.

When it comes to economic policy, the major guiding principle is to maximize freedom to the greatest extent possible. (I blogged on this yesterday so I won’t go into more detail on that here. Some really helpful books that flesh out this principle are Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose and Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson: The Shortest and Surest Way to Understand Basic Economics.) When it comes to foreign policy, one of the major principles is peace through strength. On social policy, the central function of government is to protect life.

So what you do, then, is ask yourself: Which candidate understands these fundamental, guiding principles of economics? Of foreign policy? And of social policy? Sometimes a candidate might not have the fundamentals down on all three areas, in which case you will have to prioritize which is most important. But generally, there is one candidate who totally blows it on all three, and the other candidate usually is fundamentally sound on at least two, if not all three, of these issues.

Now, we run into a problem here for those who feel that they themselves do not understand the fundamentals of economics, foreign policy, and social policy. My advice here is this: First, economic policy is more important than foreign policy. So if you have to choose, focus on economic policy over foreign policy. And it is not too difficult to come to a solid grasp of the fundamentals of economics. I would recommend reading one of the two books I mentioned above, or Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics 3rd Ed: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy. You can also read Thomas Sowell’s columns online and get a good beginning grasp of things in about 30 minutes.

(By the way, Sowell points out that the basic principles of economics are not partisan–they are agreed on by economists of all stripes: “While there are controversies in economics, as there are in science, this does not mean that economics is just a matter of opinion. There are basic propositions and procedures in economics on which a Marxist economist like Oskar Lange did not differ in any fundamental way from a conservative economicst like Milton Friedman. It is these basic economic principles that this book is about” [Sowell, Basic Economics 2nd edition, 4]).

3. Consider Leadership Ability Last

Leadership is an integral characteristic of an effective president. But its consideration has to come last because it doesn’t matter how good of a leader someone is if they are leading in the wrong direction. More important than leadership ability is knowing where we should be going–that is, knowing the fundamental, guiding principles of sound economics, foreign policy, and social policy. In fact, I would say that knowing the right direction to be going is a fundamental characteristic of good leadership. Another reason that leadership ability should be considered last is because of the tendency to confuse charisma with leadership.

4. Vote

Last of all, vote. Don’t sit at home and say that neither candidate is your ideal. Good grief, when you grasp the fundamentals of economics you see that there is a huge divide between the candidates. Don’t settle for a mechanic who doesn’t know what he is doing simply because the other mechanic doesn’t match up to everything you would ideally have wanted to have in a candidate.

Some people are saying these days that if you aren’t informed on the issues, don’t vote. I don’t know if I agree with that or not. I’d rather say: Spend 2 hours familiarizing yourself with the fundamentals of economics. Read some of Thomas Sowell’s columns if you feel like you are behind on this issue and aren’t up to speed. And then make sure to understand the fundamentals much better yourself when the next election comes around.

  • Dan S.

    I think I’ve tried to follow this process in how I made my decision. Check it out and tell me what you think:

  • admin

    Dan: Very thoughtful post. I enjoyed reading it.

    Looks like we differ on a lot of issues, including economic and tax policy. See my Post “What McCain Should Say” for some reasons I would differ from your perspective there:

  • Bryan DeWire

    Hey Matt, you said, “My advice here is this: First, economic policy is more important than foreign policy. So if you have to choose, focus on economic policy over foreign policy.”

    I am not disagreeing with you- I just was wondering if you were planning on fleshing that belief out some time. I’m interested in hearing why you believe that. Thanks!

  • admin

    Bryan: Great question. I might take that up at some point; I think it would probably end up being a really long post!

    But I would not want to imply that foreign policy is not highly important, or that it would be fine for a president to be way off on that as long as his economic policy were good. My main point here is that: as a voter, if you don’t know what you think about foreign policy or economic policy and you don’t have time to learn the basic principles of both, familiarize with economic policy first. Also, I think that’s easier.

  • Bryan DeWire

    Thanks for the response- looking forward to more!