George Washington may not seem like an obvious contender for the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award. The Al normally highlights someone whose contribution to improving the human condition was not previously widely known or properly acknowledged. George Washington is hardly unknown and his contributions are memorialized in the name of our nation’s capital, a state, cities strewn across the country, statues in other towns, the one dollar bill, and several universities. Washington’s image is carved into the side of a mountain. He is about as well known as anyone in the US.
But he is mostly known as the “father” of our country — the general who defeated the British and became the first president of our new nation. He is also increasingly known for his role as a slaveholder. While both these positive and negative accomplishments are important, his biggest contribution to our country is less commonly acknowledged. He didn’t just lead our country, he voluntarily walked away from power to allow someone else to be selected as leader.
The problem of succession has plagued every governmental system, company, religious movement, and family for all of human history. The transfer of power to the next leader has always been problematic. How can we get the current leader to leave before they cease being effective? How do we ensure that the next person will be capable? How do we make the switch without too much disruption or even violence?
Marxists and others convinced that advantage only compounds advantage over time so that inequality becomes severe and unchangeable have never paid close attention to how incredibly hard it is to sustain any endeavor over time. In almost every organization, the quality of leadership has a tendency to fade over time as the attributes required to obtain the position become detached from those required to sustain let alone expand its greatness.
Businesses tend to reach their zenith during or shortly after their founder’s leadership. Great families fade into oblivion in no more than a few generations. Inevitably, a future leader will be a drunk or a fool, squandering the advantages accumulated by their predecessors.
One of the main drivers of this organizational entropy is the inheritance of leadership. Kings typically remain in power until they bequeath that role to a child. To avoid fights over which child, most regimes embrace the principle of primogeniture, where power goes to the oldest son. There have been brief-lived alternative methods of succession, such as in the early Ottoman Empire when whichever of the Sultan’s sons could conspire to outwit and destroy his siblings would become the next Sultan upon the death of the prior one. This process may select for political acumen, but it proved too bloody and chaotic to sustain. Picking the oldest son may be orderly and relatively peaceful but it also unlikely to select the most meritorious.
With the founding of the American Republic, we explored another alternative to primogeniture — selection of leaders by popular election. If, to invert Clausewitz’s maxim, politics is war by other means, then the contest among candidates for election would resemble the violent struggles among the Sultan’s sons in tending to select those with greater political merit. It’s an ingenious and relatively peaceful way to select quality leaders except for one, central weakness.
What makes the person who currently occupies the position accept that there needs to be a new election and then to abide by its results? To say that this is required by the Constitution, fails to understand that legal requirements can be ignored or modified by whoever is in power, if they have enough power and desire to do so. Putin has changed term limits and election laws several times now. Mahmoud Abbas is now in the 18th year of his 4 year term as president of the Palestinian Authority. Having laws requiring elections and the transfer of power is far from a guarantee that power will be transferred as planned.
The most important contribution of George Washington to improving the human condition was in establishing the precedent that a virtuous leader should voluntarily relinquish power. To be sure, this precedent is not always honored. Shortly after Washington set his example, Napoleon was carted away to exile after failing to remain in power for life, saying “They wanted me to be another Washington.” And more recently Xi has violated the precedent set following Mao by seeking and receiving another term as leader of China.
Despite increasingly heated disputes in the United States over elections, it is worth noting that Washington’s example of voluntarily leaving office following elections remains universally practiced in this country. Perhaps by honoring Washington with The Al we can help ensure the continuation of the peaceful and meritorious transfer of power developed and preserved in the American political system.