It’s Not Your Job to Know What You Want: A Jobsian Lesson for Government?

Matt Bai of the New York Times wishes Washington could learn some lessons from Steve Jobs.

In his obituary of Mr. Jobs on The Times’s Web site, John Markoff quoted him as explaining his aversion to market research this way: “It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.” In other words, while Mr. Jobs tried to understand the problems that technology could solve for his buyer, he wasn’t going to rely on the buyer to demand specific solutions, just so he could avoid ever having to take a risk. This is what’s commonly known as leading.

Bai goes on to lament that modern politics are too inflexible to adapt to change in the way Jobs forced technology to adapt. But I want to take Bai’s analogy far further than he probably intends.

Let’s say we really want politics and government to learn from Apple and Steve Jobs. Let’s then take the above quote and amend it slightly to, “It’s not the voters’ job to know what they want.”

Apple is often chided by many of the more hack-prone members of the technorati for having a “closed” system; there’s no upgrading the hardware or tweaking the software of an iPhone, for example. It’s exactly as Apple intended it. Indeed, Apple’s whole point is to say to the consumer, ‘You are in no way expected to understand how this works. Just use it and enjoy it.’

Is there an analogy here for politics? Let me take this all the way down the line for the sake of bloggy brevity: Should government be more of a closed system? Should not voters simply elect the representatives and leaders who reflect their values and who they trust to manage the almost-unmanageable machinery of government, and leave all the comprehension to those office holders? Might then government and politics be more flexible, more adaptable, and more efficient if every iota of its machinations were not broadcast and dissected for the under-informed electorate to (mis)evaluate?

I am not endorsing this approach, but it’s a worthy thought experiment. Could we still have an accountable and uncorrupt government and political system if the electorate is mainly in the dark — as a favor to them? Is there something simply leaning in this direction that does make sense and is less reminiscent of, well, 1984?

After all, if Apple’s approach is distasteful, the market will take care of them right quick, and folks can choose another option. Not so easy with government, I suppose, but as long as the principles of republican representative democracy remain in tact, cannot this radical idea be beholden to similar “market-based” (read: electoral) forces?

I’m not sure. Indeed, there may be nothing to this. But I’m going to keep thinking on it.

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