Chinese bishops

Among the most difficult parts of leadership for ordinary people, even for distinguished ones, is to protect your access to things you don’t want to hear. Because your lieutenants and inside team know bad news will make you angry or upset, they will not pass it on unless you seek that most priceless information out proactively.

FDR used to set his people against each other to be sure this kind of thing got to him. One of the best bosses I ever had did it by hiring no two people alike, nobody like himself, and no-one who wasn’t smarter than he was in at least three of Gardner’s eight ways.

The Chinese autocrats have the idea that staffing the Catholic Church in China themselves would be a lot more comfortable for them than having an independent church telling people, and them, who knows what; of course the Vatican sees it differently even though the pope certainly faces this problem in his own administration.

The story echoes some very on-point historical precedents. Nathan told David exactly what he didn’t want to hear about Bathsheba, an early and classic example of what Aaron Wildavsky called “speaking truth to power.” To David’s credit, he listened instead of sending Nathan the way of Uriah. Henry II had the same idea the Chinese have, that putting his main guy, Thomas Becket, in charge of the church as well as the government would be much more comfortable and an implementation coup for all sorts of good initiatives. Unfortunately, Thomas realized that an independent (of the civil power) church was a valuable institution, gave back the chancellor’s ring, and got into a fatal spat with Henry over–you guessed it–appointment of bishops. The story is usually told emphasizing the importance of this independence for the souls of the people, and for the welfare of the church itself, as though church and state are engaged in a sort of zero-sum battle. We tend to forget that it’s invaluable to the civil power to have independent, courageous sources of moral and other (scientific and military, to choose examples completely at random, um hum) guidance. Our current administration, of course, is not entirely clear on this principle.

Killing messengers or writing their lines for them is always disastrous. If the Chinese don’t wake up about this, they will come to regret it.

I once heard Dick Neustadt muttering something negative in a seminar about the “speaking truth to power” motto for public policy schools, a motto which is, of course, very flattering to those of us who make a living in them. I asked him to elaborate, and he said “well…the idea that anyone has The Truth, let alone them! [meaning especially our wet-behind-the-ears though generally wonderful young alums].” Both Aaron and Dick are right up there in my personal pantheon of high-candlepower sources, so the real complexity of the idea of informed expert counsel to legitimate authority has stuck with me. What’s important is that authority hear a lot of ideas it doesn’t enjoy, not that all of those need to be correct.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

3 thoughts on “Chinese bishops”

  1. This is only one of several brilliant posts this morning — is it a Sabbath thing?
    This ties closely to the post above, of course — about power & learning — it deserves to be written in letters of gold!

  2. I'd say that it is important that lots of us don't, in fact, need policy. We're too busy building things. Oddly, and for various reasons, many of us (those of us who can handle a new language) small business types are considering moving. Scandanavia is looking very interesting to us squishy individualists, as we start contemplating turning 40.
    I'm portable, as is the service I provide. And I could care less about kids.

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