The welfare state wasn’t designed to be run by status-obsessed assholes
I’m late to the discussion of politicians’ unique psychological defects, but this entry from Will Wilkinson caught my eye:
The incentives of the political process create a kind of filter that selects for individuals extraordinarily fixated on power and status and extraordinarily motivated to keep it. If this is right (anyone know of personality studies of politicans?), then the problem with standard public choice is that it gives too much credit to politicians by assuming they’re like everyone else and therefore it fails to capture just how exceptionally prone politicians are to narcissism, motivated cognition, self-deception, and brazen lying.
Wilkinson takes this as more evidence of the folly of big government, and I’m inclined to agree. In fact, I’d add a further point: at the high-water mark of mid-century liberalism, the composition of our political class was dramatically different than its current incarnation, something that has real consequences for how government is supposed to operate. Aristocrats-turned-politicians like Jay Rockefeller and Ted Kennedy are oddities now, but in the 1940s and ’50s, the upper echelons of both the civil service and the political branches were frequently dominated by people who had acquired wealth and stature independent of their political careers. Quasi-oligarchic liberal managerialism has its own problems – the Kennedy clan’s nepotism and history of bad personal choices speaks for itself – but a salutary consequence of this arrangement was that many influential policy-makers were significantly less interested in using politics for personal gain. FDR is the classic example of this tendency – whatever you may think of the man’s policies, his career seems to have been motivated by a genuine sense of noblesse oblige.
If I was to design a welfare state from the ground-up, one way to combat corruption and status-seeking would be to recruit politicians and senior administrators from a pool of wealthy aristocrats and/or experts who had already distinguished themselves in other fields. Presumably, these candidates would be at least somewhat insulated from the lure of political ambition because they a) had already achieved a high of degree social recognition and b) benefited from a privileged upbringing that instilled a real commitment to public service. History bears this out – to borrow from David Frum, I don’t think it’s an accident that the original impetus for a meritocratic civil service came from the elite.
Now, however, politics has become a career for the status-obsessed, and the perverse consequences of this burgeoning industry are increasingly clear. The liberal tradition of FDR has been replaced by something more professional, more efficient, and ultimately more vulnerable to special interests. Republicans are hardly better – having spent the past three decades convincing themselves that anyone drawn to public service is inherently evil, it’s not surprising that creeps are disproportionately represented in conservative politics.
None of which is to say that we should return to a political oligarchy, which has its own set of problems. But it’s worth considering that as originally conceived, the welfare state was designed to be run by a disinterested political class that literally doesn’t exist anymore. The levers of power have since been handed over to a new generation of professional politicians, which doesn’t exactly bode well for the cause of good government.