Lilliput or America – who has a better way to choose its leaders?

Across the gulf of three centuries, Jonathan Swift’s insights provide another perspective on America.  His observations, cloaked in metaphor, deserve attention.  The following is an excerpt from Gulliver’s Travels, Chapter 3: A Voyage to Lilliput — where Gulliver learns how the King’s officers and advisers are chosen. (source).

The Lilliputians, being of a civilization less advanced than our own, accept this bizarre selection method as normal.  This is their way, justified by tradition and that it has not utterly failed (yet).

What relevance could this passage have for us?  America’s Presidents select their team by rational methods unlike these foolish games employed by the Kings of Lilliput.   Still, an objective observer — unfamiliar with our society — would find it strange that logical criteria yields an Administration of attorneys and academics, neither with much experience in managing a vast enterprise like the US government (or managing anything at all).  These worthies are supplemented by other professionals:  friends, school-chums, and political technicans — the latter having rare skills, such as gathering crowds to hear a speech at shopping malls on Saturday mornings.



I was diverted with none so much as that of the Rope-Dancers, performed upon a slender white Thread, extended about two Foot and twelve Inches from the Ground. Upon which I shall desire liberty, with the Reader’s Patience, to enlarge a little. This Diversion is only practiced by those Persons who are Candidates for great Employments and high Favour, at Court. They are trained in this Art from their Youth, and are not always of noble Birth, or liberal Education.

When a great Office is vacant either by Death or disgrace (which often happens) five or six of those Candidates petition the Emperor to entertain his Majesty and the Court with a Dance on the Rope, and whoever jumps the highest without falling, succeeds in the Office. Very often the Chief Ministers themselves are commanded to show their Skill, and to convince the Emperor that they have not lost their Faculty. Flimnap, the Treasurer, is allowed to cut a Caper on the strait Rope, at least an Inch higher than any other Lord in the whole Empire. I have seen him do the Summerset several times together upon a Trencher fixed on the Rope, which is no thicker than a common packthread in England. My friend Reldresal, principal Secretary for private Affairs, is, in my Opinion, if I am not partial, the second after the Treasurer; the rest of the great Officers are much upon a par.

These Diversions are often attended with fatal Accidents, whereof great Numbers are on Record. I my self have seen two or three Candidates break a Limb. But the Danger is much greater when the Ministers themselves are commanded to shew their Dexterity; for by contending to excel themselves and their Fellows, they strain so far, that there is hardly one of them who has not received a Fall, and some of them two or three. I was assured that a Year or two before my Arrival, Flimnap would have infallibly broken his Neck, if one of the King’s Cushions, that accidentally lay on the Ground, had not weakened the Force of his Fall.

Let those who can hear his message.

For more information

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp relevance to this topic:

  1. About America – how can we reform it?
  2. About Military, political, and strategic theory

Posts on the FM site discussing solutions, ways to reform America:

  1. Diagnosing the Eagle, Chapter III – reclaiming the Constitution, 3 January 2008
  2. Obama might be the shaman that America needs, 17 July 2008
  3. Obama describes the first step to America’s renewal, 8 August 2008
  4. Let’s look at America in the mirror, the first step to reform, 14 August 2008
  5. Fixing America: elections, revolt, or passivity?, 16 August 2008
  6. Fixing American: taking responsibility is the first step, 17 August 2008
  7. Fixing America: solutions — elections, revolt, passivity, 18 August 2008
  8. What happens next? Advice for the new President, part one., 17 October 2008
  9. What to do? Advice for the new President, part two., 18 October 2008



4 thoughts on “Lilliput or America – who has a better way to choose its leaders?”

  1. Very insightful. There are many areas where one’s ability to do “A” is used to decide if you should be given the opportunity to do “B”. The president and cabinet are one example.

    In discussing why investment banking destroyed itself, Micheal Lewis pointed out that the ability to get into and out of Princeton at 26 in no way qualifies one to financially evaluate businesses: “The End“, Michael Lewis, 11 November 2008.

    How many immigrants start and run laundromats or other businesses that offer real value? How many corporate executives have ever started a business or added value? How many directors or board members have ever worked in a business for that matter?

    “Behold, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed.”
    ~ Axel Oxenstiern (1583–1634), Chancellor of Sweden

  2. Let us hope, since the rope has been raised so high, that the new king will at least add a few extra cushions.

  3. This metaphor might also extend to, not just to “how the King’s officers and advisers are chosen”, but how the American President and Presidential candidate’s running mates (Sarah Palin!) are chosen as well.

  4. Vanity Fair: Arnold Schwarzenegger ran for Governor as a joke

    Move evidence that we need only look in the mirror to see the problem with America

    California and Bust“, Michael Lewis, Vanity Fair, November 2011

    If there had not been a popular movement to remove sitting governor Gray Davis and the chance to run for governor without having to endure a party primary, he { never would have bothered. “The recall happens and people are asking me, ‘What are you going to do?’ ” he says, dodging vagrants and joggers along the beach bike path. “I thought about it but decided I wasn’t going to do it.

    I told Maria I wasn’t running. I told everyone I wasn’t running. I wasn’t running.” Then, in the middle of the recall madness, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines opened. As the movie’s leading machine, he was expected to appear on The Tonight Show to promote it. En route he experienced a familiar impulse-the impulse to do something out of the ordinary. “I just thought, This will freak everyone out,” he says. “It’ll be so funny. I’ll announce that I am running. I told Leno I was running. And two months later I was governor.”

    He looks over at me, pedaling as fast as I can to keep up with him, and laughs. “What the fuck is that?” … “All these people are asking me, ‘What’s your plan? Who’s on your staff?’ I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t have a staff. I wasn’t running until I went on Jay Leno.”

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