Is it possible that a madman or egomaniac (perhaps combined with an ignoramus) become president of the United States? The same question can be asked for any other country although it takes special importance in the United States given the importance of the country in the world and the extraordinary power of its president.

Liberal governments, that is, classical-liberal governments were ideally supposed to be madman-proof. Even a madman at the helm of the government would have little power to do good and thus to do bad. Friedrich Hayek expressed the gist of this idea in his famous article “Individualism: True and False” (reproduced notably in his Studies on the Abuse and Decline of Reason, Liberty Fund, 2010). He wrote:

[Adam] Smith’s chief concern was not so much with what man might occasionally achieve when he was at his best but that he should have as little opportunity as possible to do harm when he was at his worst. It would scarcely be too much to claim that the main merit of the individualism which he and his contemporaries advocated is that it is a system under which bad men can do least harm.

That very few people seem to grasp the importance of this idea, that everybody else wants his kind of superman or superwoman to come to power, a power that needs to be preserved if not increased in preparation for that glorious day, is a tragic mystery of our times.