The Man Who Would Not Be an Expert

Brian Brown: Paul Ryan is the anti-policy-wonk. He’s a creator who doesn’t mind the rough-and-tumble of politics, and he doesn’t mind submitting his ideas to the authority of lesser people.

This post was originally published in April 2011.

Suddenly, Paul Ryan is big. Columnists in The Economist, The New York Times, and other moderate-to-liberal publications are writing in admiration of his leadership.

While this respect is certainly merited, it won’t last. Because ultimately, Ryan’s character is contrary to the established norms in both parties, and antithetical to deep-rooted ideology on the Left: he is the policy wonk who believes in the citizens.

Let’s be clear on our norms here: a policy wonk is somebody with a big brain. Somebody who likes to disappear into a cubicle  (or maybe a cigar bar) and emerge brandishing a 100-page policy solution. Somebody whose idea of a good time is a long conversation about about traffic patterns.

This is Paul Ryan. When Congressional Republicans were busy arguing (on principle) against Obamacare and the Obama budget last year, Ryan was silent—until he popped up with a detailed counter-proposal. Now, he has produced the first serious proposal—from anyone with real power—for how to deal with our budget deficit, including entitlement reform. Without Ryan, Republicans would be the Party of No. Thanks to Ryan, as The Economist points out, not only are the Democrats robbed of that accusation; they must also come up with their own plan or risk destruction in 2012. All this because an egghead took the time to do real policy analysis—or rather, real policy creation.

What everyone admires is that Ryan has singlehandedly, courageously, changed the debate about the deficit and entitlement reform. (Nearly) everyone knew we had to deal with these issues, but nobody wanted to be the first one on whom the AARP would set its sights. Ryan, in effect, painted a bulls eye on himself, risking losing his job by standing up for what he thought was right, and forced America to deal with its looming crisis. This coming from any politician would have been commendable, perhaps even heroic.

But Ryan is not any politician; indeed, he may not even be a great politician. What he is good at is policy. And this is why things will sooner or later start to go sour for his PR from the Left—because policy wonks are supposed to have a few other characteristics, ones that Ryan does not share.

Conservatives haven’t produced a lot of policy wonks in recent years. As Yuval Levin recently pointed out in a brilliant piece on 21st-century conservatism, they’ve done very well laying the theoretical groundwork for good government. But they’ve been embarrassingly short on details in most areas. That was okay, though, because policy wonks are supposed to be liberals.

They’re also supposed to work in the bureaucracy, in universities, or in think tanks; places where their expertise can be directly applied to problems without the burden of answering to the idiots at the ballot box. The whole point of government-by-the-experts is sidestepping the voters when voters’ faculties of judgment will be inadequate.

And finally, policy wonks are supposed to implement policies that retain maximum control for the experts. In order to ensure the proper execution of brilliant schemes, the brilliant schemes need to be executed by brilliant people.

That’s three strikes for Ryan. This is what will sooner or later make him a hated heretic on the Left, and for that matter what makes him so unusual on the Right.

But it is also what makes him such a remarkable leader.

Ryan doesn’t work in the bureaucracy or in a think tank, where the brilliant minds are supposed to go. Instead, he stood for elected office, where he would be accountable to less brilliant minds than his own. On top of that, his ideas—including his budget—give dramatically increased control to the less brilliant minds in state governments and households.

One of the toughest tests for a brilliant leader is letting go of control. Followers need room to fail. And one of the toughest tests for a leader in a republic is exercising humility with regard to the masses—never, in fact, viewing them as the masses, but instead showing faith in people and institutions beyond himself.

And this is Paul Ryan. He does not share Progressives’ disdain for less brilliant minds. Nor does he share the distaste most educated conservatives seem to have for the rough-and-tumble of legislative politics. He respects the people he helps govern; enough to submit himself to their authority.

The accolades for courage are well earned. So is the general (high) opinion of his intelligence. But the most unique and priceless thing about Ryan is that he is a man who could, by the standards of the elites, do “better” for himself than elected office—and won’t.

He is a real public servant; the man who will not be an expert. And with his courage, youth, and early success, he may even lead smart young conservatives to aspire once again to elected office, where they are so desperately needed.

Brian Brown
Brian Brown loves building the environments, habits, and networks that make people thrive. He is the founder of Humane Pursuits, where he writes a featured column and edits the Give channel. He started his consulting company, Narrator, to help great mission-driven organizations modernize and grow. He lives with his wife Christina and son Edmund in Colorado Springs, where they mix cocktails, hunt for historic architecture, and see how many people they can squeeze into their house for happy hour.

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