Sunday, May 17, 2015

Politicians as People

Politicians are also people, and the question of what sort of people they are is largely separate from the question of what policies they advocate. That struck me recently after I happened to interact casually with two professional politicians, both at a fairly high level. One of them was, loosely speaking, on my side. One was, loosely speaking, on the other side.

The politician I agreed with was a nice enough person, but did not feel like someone it would be fun to spend time arguing with. The reverse was true of the politician I disagreed with. The reason was not that I can't argue with people on my side—I can and frequently do. It was something about the feel of their personalities.

By that standard, my favorite modern politician would probably be Newt Gingrich. I've never met him, but at one point I somehow got on a mailing list for cassette tapes of his talks—by the technology you can guess how long ago it must have been. Pretty obviously, he was bright, opinionated, original, a little crazy. The sort of person I enjoy arguing with.  The overall feel reminded me a little of my friend and ex-colleague the late Gordon Tullock. I am pretty sure that if, by some accident, Gingrich and I were seated next to each other on a long plane flight, neither of us would be bored.


At 4:05 PM, May 17, 2015, Blogger Attempting to be a Skeptical Thinker said...

I forget the story now after all these years, but a SciFi short story or book I read a long time ago included as a feature a political system where leadership was randomly selected via computer from the pool of individuals meeting some criteria, I think it was college degrees. I have wondered many times since then if that would not actually be a preferable system to one where our leaders self-select, and on what I often fear is a basis that many would abhor if they were to understand the true reasons behind the self-selection. I have long held the personal opinion that the desire for power over others should hold as the chief disqualifier from it.

Pick whatever criteria makes sense such as education, business experience, professions such as medicine, whatever you want. You would only be asked to serve one term, one time, for your entire life in just one role. As a rule, this would also have to displace any permanent bureaucracy as well. We couldn't have just new figureheads every so often.

I can think of a number of useful consequences right off hand:
Government functions would have to be greatly simplified in order for frequent turnover to the uninitiated.
It would nearly impossible to establish rent seeking empires as the required relationships would be disrupted so quickly and there is little incentive on the part of the officeholder for malfeasance as money isn't needed for campaigning.
"Public Service" would be just that. Not a life long job career, something you do for a short, fixed period and get out of to get back to your real life.
Greater reliance on the private sphere for most services.

Of course there would be some possibly negative ones as well:
Difficult to hold institutional knowledge.
Greater possibilities of amateur mistakes.

Interesting thought experiment though.

At 4:40 PM, May 17, 2015, Blogger David Friedman said...

Periclean Athens used essentially that system. Magistrates were chosen at random from adult male citizens, served for a year.

At 7:07 PM, May 17, 2015, Blogger Ze'ev Felsen said...

Interestingly enough, kibbutzim used a similar system for most jobs for some period of time. I do not know if the kibbutz secretary (essentially mayor) was simply assigned, but being in charge of various offices was. So the guy who swept the dining room last month might be in charge of the laundry this month. It failed pretty abysmally in most cases, as far as I know.

At 9:08 PM, May 17, 2015, Blogger Bill Friedman said...

The danger, I'd think, would be that un-elected career bureaucrats would end up growing through some loophole, despite being explicitly forbidden, and that they'd end up running everything while the officials-elected-by-lot were relegated to ceremonial functions, as eventually happened in Periclean Athens.

At 9:58 PM, May 17, 2015, OpenID whswhs said...

The accounts of Athenian institutions I've read say that nearly all offices were filled by lot, but the commander of the armed forces was elected. Apparently they thought that war demanded special expertise that not every citizen count be expected to have.

At 1:25 AM, May 18, 2015, Blogger Ricardo Cruz said...

"Government functions would have to be greatly simplified in order for frequent turnover to the uninitiated."

Not sure you need that.

I was part of a student association called BEST. It is a "sister" organization of Erasmus and organizes domestic events and courses for foreign students. There was a lot of rotation, but every new "generation" was very competent. First of all, you cannot have everybody replaced at the same time. Through the weekly meetings and through mandatory self-administered courses, seniors would pass along what they learned, and teach how to effectively use mailing lists, communicate, organize, etc. Usually, you would need to be made senior before you could have any position on the board. There was a lot of partying too, but I cannot stress how impressed I was with the all functioning of that student body. I think what you propose could work on that basis.

At 1:28 AM, May 18, 2015, Blogger Ricardo Cruz said...

@Bill Friedman writes, "as eventually happened in Periclean Athens."

I thought the decline of Athens was military defeat. Was there a government melt down as well, as seemed to be the case in Rome? (I am genuinely interested)

At 5:09 AM, May 18, 2015, Blogger jimbino said...

William F Buckley said he'd rather be ruled by the first 100 persons listed in the Boston phone book.

At 7:43 AM, May 18, 2015, Blogger Tibor said...

Speaking of different political systems, I was quite surprised when I learned about the details of the Swiss one. I knew they have a high degree of federalism, probably unmatched anywhere (especially if one considers that the Cantons are really small, which accents the benefits of federalism much more than in a country with huge states with millions of people like the US or like Germany, where however federalism is much weaker - almost all taxes are levied at the federal level anyway). I also knew about all the referenda through which the Swiss can directly legislate new laws or abolish those they don't like (including constitutional laws, but there they need a double majority of most cantons and most votes in total).

But what makes the system really strange in the eye of someone used to more or less regular change of right and left wing governments (or center-right and center-left) is their concordance system. The Swiss have a federal council of 7 members which is the executive body of the government and which contains members of all the major parties. In a sense one could say they have a great coalition government, but they've had that for decades. The members of the council are seldom voted out (it only happened 3 times or so I think) and they are supposed to reach a compromise and (this is the strange part) defend the result even if it goes against party lines or personal opinions. The rationale is that if they cannot come up with anything pretty much everyone agrees with, the opposition can spam referenda to effectively block legislature.

Another thing is that the members of the council and the MPs are unpaid, the politicians need either to have enough money to support themselves without work or have a regular dayjob. The reason for that is that then there are no truly professional politicians around and they don't lose the touch with reality. Their meetings also take place less often than in other countries, so they still have time for a regular job.

I think the most important thing behind the success of Switzerland is the strong federalism and resulting competition between cantons. But seeing how one government usually comes up with a lot of new legislature only to be abolished by the next which comes up with its own (although taxes do not tend to be reduced) thus making the people and businesses adapt to new laws so often, I can see how the more stable Swiss system can be advantageous. The "no professional politicians" seems kinda nice too, but I am not sure how influential it actually is in practice and to what extent it is just basically a symbolic thing.

I've never been to Switzerland for more than a week though (and even that only as quite a small child), so I cannot really judge from more than the statistics and what I read about it.

At 7:40 AM, May 19, 2015, Blogger Ricardo Cruz said...

Tibor, very interesting. With regard to politiceans having no sallaries, that was the case as well in the 1st Portuguese Republic (of 1910). But the constitution was rapidly ammended hehe.


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