One of the criticisms against Barack Obama is that he lacks adequate experience to be President. Obama defends himself against such attacks by contending that it is not experience that matters, but judgment.
This criticism is largely based on the fact that he has only been involved in national politics for a short while. It is also partly based on his age. Being 41 years old myself, I am quite happy to hear the forties being described in terms of being young.
Some of my more conservative friends might expect me to now go into a lengthy defense of Obama. However, I will not do that. While I do think he is better than most other candidates, I have a rather negative view of politicians in general. Hence, I’ll focus on the matter of experience and judgment.
Experience can be quite valuable. There is, as is often said, no real substitute for experience and this applies to almost everything. For example, while reading about the martial arts and watching videos about it can teach a great deal, this cannot compare to actual experience. That is, practice and training. The same can be said of politics-the more experience a person has in political matters, the more she is likely to know and it is more likely that her skill levels will be higher.
However, experience alone is not enough. A person can have a great deal of experience, yet lack the ability to benefit much or at all from his experience. This is shown by the fact that many people make the same mistakes over and over. They have plenty of experience, but this experience has not particularly benefited them. A good example is Donald Rumsfeld. He has extensive experience but, as history has shown, did not appear to benefit greatly from this experience-at least not in his years as Secretary of Defense.
Experience, then, is just like education: having it does not guarantee competence.
Turning now to judgment, it is clear that judgment is a good thing. The ability to make good decisions based on the available evidence is an extremely useful trait and one that would serve a person very well. Unlike experience, having good judgment is always useful. Of course, this is (obviously) by definition. Having judgment that is bad would, naturally enough, not be good.
Judgment is no doubt partially based on natural abilities. Everyone knows people who have shown good judgment from when they were kids. Everyone knows many more people who have had poor judgment since they were kids. People do also improve (or grow worse) in their judgment. Interestingly, experience can often enhance (or degrade) judgment. For example, I have found that my experiences in running, teaching and life in general have aided my judgment. Part of this is that I have more information to work with when making decisions. Part of it is that a mental ability, like a muscle, tends to improve with use. Experience can also harm judgment. Sometimes people have experiences that cloud their judgment. For example, a person who has many bad experiences will often find her judgment skewed because of these negative experiences-they can make bad choices because they overlook the positive and focus on the negative. In general, though, experience typically improves a person’s existing judgment.
That said, there are some positive aspects to having less experience in some cases-especially politics. It is generally believed that people become more cynical and corrupt the longer they are involved in politics. The historical evidence seems to show that this belief is correct. Thus, someone who has less experience in politics might very well be a better choice (other relevant factors being considered) than someone with more political experience. This is especially appealing because the current administration contains many experienced people, yet has proven quite corrupt. As another example, Ms. Clinton is regarded by many as competent, yet corrupt. So, a politician with less corrupting experience might be a better choice. Some people have told me that this is why they prefer Mr. Obama over Ms. Clinton.
Another positive aspect to having less experience is that while experience can be useful, it can also lead people to become set in their ways. Such people tend to try to do things the same old way. If these old ways work, all is well. If they do not and fresh thinking is needed, then experience can turn into a handicap. Ideally, a person would be able to make use of experience as part of coming up with new ideas-but this is a rare combination. When those with experience have been creating more and more problems by trying the same old things, this indicates that a person with less experience and better judgment could be a good choice.
Of course, the obvious problem is that it can be hard to assess a person’s judgment if they have a limited track record. The person might have made good choices, but if they made only a few and in a limited area, then these choices might be due to luck or due to competence in those limited areas. While good judgment can be applied broadly, it cannot always be applied universally. But, at this point, even some good judgment would be a significant improvement over the present situation.