The welfare state wasn’t designed to be run by status-obsessed assholes


Will writes from Washington, D.C. (well, Arlington, Virginia). You can reach him at willblogcorrespondence at gmail dot com.

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14 Responses

  1. Dan Miller says:

    I touched on this in comments at the Fly Bottle, but I think it’s a mistake to limit this analysis to top politicians; top corporate execs and financiers are probably prone to similar issues (who keeps working after the first $50 million?). Even if politicians are on average worse people than we’d find in the general populace, it’s not necessarily an argument for libertarianism.

    On the other hand, it might be a case for random selection of Congresspeople. Something like jury duty, but for a longer period of time–you’d be notified a year in advance, so you could start studying up, then serve a year or two in Washington, then go home. Not sure this would be a good idea, but worth thinking about anyway.Report

  2. greginak says:

    Will’s assumption that politicians are not like everybody else is questionable. It may be nice to think that Duke Cunningham is a unique crook but there are plenty like him in private life. Michelle Bachman, as stark raving nutzoid as she is, actually represents a lot of Americans. I’m not particularity convinced politicians are fairly typical as scary as that is.

    In any case if that is the kind of person the system leads to then we are f**cked which is a possibility. but people of all political stripes like to suppose taht incentives just come out of nowhere or are independent of the peoples wishes. We the people have created and cheered on a lot of crappy incentives. Republicans aren’t f’ing insane because nobody votes for them. they have their base and while it is a minority it is a not insubstantial subset of the populace.

    To add on to Dan, rapacious greed, narcissism and complete lack of concern for anything but themselves is pretty damn American now. A lot of us may not like that, but there it is.Report

    • Dan Miller in reply to greginak says:

      I think insanity is a separate issue. What Will is talking about is the tendency of all politicians to turn into Carcetti (if you’ve seen the Wire, and if you haven’t, why are you wasting your time here? Go!).Report

  3. mike farmer says:

    Peter Senge and other systems thinkers would likely point to sytemic problems which attract certain personality types then reward their worst defects of character — also, the system likely ruins people of good character.

    The answer I propose is limited government which prevents politicians from being in a position to trade for power and prestige. Once government employment is a service position, it won’t be so prestigious — then government employment, hopefully, attracts those who understand service and quietly do the job they are paid to do.Report

  4. Nob Akimoto says:

    I don’t think the obsession with status is anything limited with politicians. In fact the experience of say living with modern corporate executives seem to bear out the same sort of personality flaws and compulsions as what Wilkinson attributes to politicians. You could replace “politician” with “corporate executive” and “government” with “multinational corporation” and probably get the same result. There’s a deeper cultural issue here of privileging status and consumption over service in general.Report

  5. Dr. Kenneth Noisewater says:

    Large concentrations of power, both corporate and government, attract the most ambitious and glib of sociopaths. I’m afraid that we won’t rid ourselves of this problem until people stop wanting things that require huge economies of scale — a generous welfare state, global hegemony, and big plasma TVs to watch it all unfold.Report

  6. Will says:

    Dan Miller and greginak –

    Corporate chieftains may suffer from the same failings as politicians, but they don’t run anything as consequential as the United States government.

    Also, I find Wilkinson’s idea that politics attracts a unique brand of ambitious, status-obsessed people pretty plausible.Report

  7. Creon Critic says:

    Isn’t vulnerability to special interests just another way of saying democracy, warts and all? So there’s the Norman Rockwell, Freedom of Speech, but there are also junkets to Hawaii. How does one accommodate the right to petition the government without also admitting the well heeled will likely get, at minimum, more access?

    I agree, politicians grandstand, their motivations are not always pure, etc., etc. But I’d suggest politicians are only one piece of the jigsaw puzzle; politicians are hemmed in by other actors (and each other). You mentioned the bureaucracy/civil service, but not as players in the project of welfare state management as well – both bureaucracy vs politicians and bureaucracy vs bureaucracy. The media are another vital piece of the puzzle. Some people might say, politicians, civil service, the media, you’re digging the hole deeper! – certainly not making one suspicious of big government feel any more comfortable; we’re talking about “narcissism, motivated cognition, self-deception, and brazen lying” here.

    I’d point to the work of Amartya Sen on democratic societies with a free press successfully avoiding famines; the warnings of the press and the responsiveness of the politicians means positive outcomes. Sen carries this point on to other potential social disasters. In the case of the welfare state, instead of famine the dangers are barbell-like inequality, a permanent underclass, poverty that vitiates human dignity all resulting in instability, if not violence. The welfare state is kept on course only in part by status-obsessed politicians, as all those other actors make valuable contributions to governance. Thus you don’t need superhuman politicians to run the welfare state – participants in politics (including aristocrats) carry baggage, and I’d be extra cautious around those who claim the mantle of being part of “a disinterested political class”, I wonder if such a thing ever existed.

    Supposing one doesn’t buy Sen and that whole pluralism school of thought, is America uniquely beset by egomaniacal politicians? Every other developed country’s politicians have different incentives? Or those other developed nations have particularly poorly managed welfare states? I guess I’m asking how these claims stack up internationally.Report

    • Will in reply to Creon Critic says:

      I’m familiar with Sen’s work, but famines aren’t a good test case for determining government functionality on a day to day basis. Think of it this way: a famine is such a uniquely disastrous event that politicians are immediately put under immense pressure to respond effectively. When we’re not faced with an emergency, however, the public is generally uninterested in the political process.

      But yes, democratic politics will always be vulnerable to rent-seeking and corruption. The question is how to limit this vulnerability.Report

  8. Kirk says:

    Shorter Will: Politicians are corrupt, so let the poor starve. After all, since we stopped letting WASP elites run the country, it’s too much of a bother anymore.Report

  9. Art Deco says:

    Perhaps we might consider the following options to address these concerns:

    1. Place the minimum age of eligibility to stand as a candidate at 40. People who go into electoral politics would have had to spend fifteen years or more establishing themselves in a different occupation to which they might return;

    2. Mandatory rotation in office: make it a rule that no individual can hold a particular office for more than eight years in any bloc of twelve;

    3. Restrictions on the candidature of particular occupations: elect legislators in multi-candidate districts, and require that no more than one member of said slate may be an attorney, public employee, public contractor, or a person who has formerly occupied such a position within the previous x years. Fewer Barney Franks, please.

    4. Reduce the number of offices for which competitive elections are held, to inhibit the continuation of incumbistani politics via musical chairs.

    5. Transfer the responsibility for fundraising from candidate’s committees to the political party apparat.

    6. Decentralize: replace programmatic grants to state and local government with unrestricted subventions distributed according to formula; transfer discretion and responsibility accordingly.

    7. Establish a public ethic on redistributive state intervention, that it be limited to a modest and stable number of programs. Rely on philanthropic agencies to fill in blanks. End to the degree you can the continual manufacture of patron-client relationships between politicians, lobbies, and public agencies.

    Ideally, our politicians will be old men undertaking an activity in their retirement, and not motivated in the direction of continually expanding the number and kind of politically-determined incomes.Report

  10. Barry says:

    Art Deco, how about simply prohibiting corruption in office, with a powerful objective group which can enforce that? Shouldn’t be any harder than the list of ponies you’re wishing for.

    Mike Farmer: “The answer I propose is limited government which prevents politicians from being in a position to trade for power and prestige. Once government employment is a service position, it won’t be so prestigious — then government employment, hopefully, attracts those who understand service and quietly do the job they are paid to do.”

    First, this is another piece of ‘if the world was totally different….’; second, my casual recollection is that people will work hard for even casual rewards of power and privilege.Report

    • Art Deco in reply to Barry says:

      Bribery and extortion are already unlawful. You can enforce the law more rigorously, though I suspect that a problem you encounter with white-collar crime is that (through statute or prosecutorial virtuosity) vigorous enforcement can degenerate into the criminalization of ordinary business.

      My purpose was to suggest various ways you could alter the ‘screens’ so that the composition of the political class would be different. These measures would per satisfactorily implementable. They are ‘unrealistic’ in the sense that they are incongruent with contemporary vested interests and is ‘outside the box’. They are not ‘unrealistic’ in the sense that it violates forces of collective behavior that can be discerned sociologically. (Something like rent-control-which-does-not-lead-to-widespread-decay-in-the-built-environment would be ‘unrealistic’ in the latter sense). I am not all that interested in playing the angles when I comment in a forum like this.Report