Philosopher Kings Versus Philosopher Presidents

LONDON – When I recently met Irish President Michael Higgins – sharing a platform for a speech in which he connected his newly launched “ethics initiative” to a book I co-wrote with my son, How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life – I was struck by his devotion to thought. Indeed, engaging with ideas is a passion for Ireland’s poet-president – one that more heads of states should take up.

Last May, Higgins told economics students at the University of Chicago that they were studying a deformed discipline, torn from its ethical and philosophical roots. “The recent economic and financial upheavals,” he declared, “have thrown a glaring light on the shortcomings of the intellectual tools provided by mainstream economics and its key assumptions regarding the sustainability of self-regulating markets,” especially “largely unregulated global financial markets.” He then proposed a “critical examination of some of the core assumptions that underpin economics as it is currently taught in university departments across the world.”

What other head of state would be able to pinpoint the deficiencies of economics so accurately, buttressing his arguments with quotations not just from Adam Smith, but also from Max Weber, Thorstein Veblen, and Jürgen Habermas?

Higgins’ experience as an academic and his status as an acclaimed poet undoubtedly give him an advantage over other heads of state, enabling him to hold his own with top thinkers in a way that few others can. More important, however, is his recognition that a political leader should also be a leader of thought and culture for his or her country – and the world. Such intellectual leadership should be a major function of all titular (non-executive) heads of state, an important way for them to “earn their keep.”