Any weekday morning in any metropolitan area, thousands of cars leave their many separate origins, mix with trucks and buses, and make their way to their many separate destinations. The driver of each car determines when to start, what route to take, and the tactical management of the car in traffic. The cars have been produced by many different companies in a number of different countries over a decade or so. The highways have been constructed by other companies, financed by a number of governments, over routes developed many years ago. The highways are maintained and patrolled by units from a number of local and state governments. Several radio announcers periodically broadcast weather and traffic conditions to augment the information on which the many individual decisions are based.
At the busiest intersection in the central city, where the traffic is too complex to manage by programmed signals, a traffic cop performs his duties. Most of the time, the traffic cop does his job so well that he is nearly invisible; drivers accept his necessary role, follow his signals, and are only vaguely aware of him as they pass. On occasion, some traffic cop will perform his duties with such style and grace that drivers notice and appreciate his skills. Some reporter may even take his picture and write an article about him and his family. His style, however, is ancillary to his duties; it is a nice personal touch, but not essential. On occasion, some traffic cop will not perform his duties very well. At such times, for a very short period, congestion will increase and there may be an accident. In a slightly longer period, traffic will flow around this intersection. If this problem develops again in the evening rush, the traffic cop will probably be replaced and reassigned to some less important duty such as the vice squad. The traffic cops who regularly man this position perform a valuable, limited function that is widely, if somewhat vaguely, appreciated by the local community.
As a rule, the urban traffic "system" works very well. Most drivers arrive at their expected destination within a few minutes of their expected time. Some accidents occur, but most do not substantially reduce traffic flow, and a pattern of accidents usually induces some corrective action. The cars, highways, and traffic-management technology are continuously maintained and improved. Over time, traffic volume and average speed continue to increase and the accident rate continues to decline. Every driver has some complaints, usually about the behavior of other drivers, but there are few obvious changes in the urban traffic system on which there would be a consensus.
HEADING UP TRAFFIC Who directs or heads the urban traffic system? "Nobody" is the simple answer. No one person directs any combination of the many functions involved in maintaining the flow of urban traffic. The many people involved do not derive the authority for their own actions from any one person. "Everybody" is the more complex answer. Every person makes his own decisions to serve his own interests—subject to the available technology, the legal system, and the necessary interactions forced by the inherent limitations of space and time.
The traffic cop at the busiest intersection probably has a more important role in the urban traffic system than any other one person, but he affects only a small part of the total traffic. No one would seriously contend that he is the "leader" of the urban traffic system. No one has ever even imagined that he is the leader of the urban community. No one, except maybe his children, would ever expect the traffic cop to provide moral leadership. The urban community has every reason to expect the traffic cop to do his limited job well, without burdening him with expectations about a role that is inconsistent with the nature of the urban traffic system and is beyond the capability of mere mortals.
The president of the United States is a traffic cop. He directs the flow of traffic through the Oval Office, the busiest intersection of the federal government. This is an important, limited role. The president has a more important role than that of the urban traffic cop because some very dangerous cargoes move through his intersection. Selection of the president is more important because it is more difficult to replace the incumbent for poor performance.
Some presidents, such as Coolidge, perform their role so well that they are almost invisible; other politicians and officials accept his necessary role, follow his signals, and are only vaguely aware of him as they pass. Some presidents, such as Kennedy, perform their role with such style that academics and Sunday supplement writers fail to notice whether his performance is satisfactory. Some presidents, such as Nixon, do not perform their duties very well. For a short period, some important decisions will be delayed and some mistakes will be made on other important decisions. In the slightly longer period, more of the political traffic will flow around the Oval Office. If this problem persists, the incumbent president is replaced and reassigned to write his memoirs.
The president as a traffic cop is a very different role from the president as the head of the federal government, the leader of the nation, and a moral example to the world. The president as a traffic cop, however, is both more realistic and less dangerous than the contemporary image of this role. The urban traffic system is a better model of the federal government than the hierarchy suggested by the organization charts. The political traffic system involves thousands of people choosing their own routes toward their private ends. Most of this traffic flows over routes that do not pass through the president's intersection. The many politicians and officials derive the authority for their decisions, not from the president, but from the Constitution and legislation.
Most of the decisions made within the federal political system are not significantly affected by the party or the personality of the president. Most decisions would be unchanged if a signature machine, following programmed rules, were substituted for a person as the president. In complex conditions, a good president, like a good traffic cop, can make better decisions than can be programmed, but a bad president can make worse decisions. A president has about the same relative influence as a university president. No one has any illusions that a university president actually runs a university.
Where did the contemporary image of the president as a director, leader, and moral teacher arise? The president is not even the head of the federal government; his only constitutional responsibilities are to be chief executive and commander of the armed forces. Members of Congress and the judiciary do not work for the president. There is no single head, or final arbiter, of the federal government.
The contemporary view that the president is the leader of the nation is even more absurd. Our complex national community is not a hierarchy. The federal government is not the superior institution in the nation, and its chief traffic cop has no claim to be its leader.
The view that the president should provide moral guidance to the world is the most absurd. The process of selecting politicians does not reinforce moral character, and there is some evidence that this is a subordinate trait of the most successful politicians. The US federal government, in any case, does not have a world mission; this government was established to "secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity" (my emphasis).
Contemporary political writers have not served us very well. They have assumed, like medieval theologians, that the appearance of order proves the existence of a director. They have confused political science with political biography. The president has a difficult, important, limited role. We should not burden him with expectations that he will perform a role that is beyond human capabilities, a role that is both unnecessary and inconsistent with the character of American institutions. If we maintain these unrealistic expectations, every president will be perceived to be a failure, and some, by trying to do too much, will fail in the important role they could perform.
One gains a better sense of the nature of the federal government and the American community from the great paintings of Pieter Bruegel than from contemporary political writing. "The Carrying of the Cross" and "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" are full of life and a sense of order, but one looks with difficulty to find the central heroic figure.
Chief economist for a major US corporation, Mr. Niskanen is the author of Representative Government and Bureaucracy and was featured in a REASON interview (November 1978).
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The President Is Not Our Leader".